Among the wines of Alsace, Muscat is probably the least known — and the most surprising. Its relative obscurity is explained by the fact that there’s just so little of it.
Of the total vineyard area in Alsace, Muscat accounts for just 362 hectares (900 acres), or a little more than 2% of all plantings. Compare this with Riesling (3,376 hectares, 8,300 acres or 22% of planting) and you get the picture. There’s just not enough of this wonderful wine to go ’round.
Why such tiny quantities? Mainly because Muscat is famously difficult to grow. I sometimes think if grapes were people, Riesling might be a nicely brought-up young man, mature beyond his years, a touch preppy, a sure hit with mothers-in-law. Muscat, by contrast, would be the temperamental teenager — every parent’s nightmare. She’s susceptible to the slightest rebuff, always ready to flounce out in a huff. In a word: complicated.
Muscat grapes finicky, but payoff is worth it
Marie Zusslin of organic and biodynamic Domaine Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr, agrees that the grape is thoroughly “capricieux” (capricious). She underlines how difficult it is to work with at every stage, right through the growing cycle and into the cellar. “You can’t let Muscat out of your sight for a moment if you want to be sure to preserve its structure and its delicate aromas,” she commented in an email.
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And the surprise element? Muscat in Alsace is always made as a dry or off-dry wine. This sets it apart from Muscat from other parts of France and elsewhere in Europe, where it is most often made sweet, and sometimes additionally fortified with alcohol. Crisp, dry, distinctly grapey — it’s the only wine that actually tastes like a juicy mouthful of fresh grapes — and delicately aromatic, Muscat is the classic Alsatian aperitif. At the world-famous Auberge de l’Ill in Illhauesern, where pre-dinner drinks are served on long, lazy summer evenings in the garden fringed with weeping willows that bend low to the river, sommelier Serge Dubs delights in offering un verre de Muscat as an appetite sharpener — très typique and more fun than the conventional alternatives, such as a glass of Champagne or Crémant d’Alsace.
Two distinct varieties of Muscat are cultivated in Alsace: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (often known locally as Muscat d’Alsace) and Muscat Ottonel. Received wisdom, shared by Jancis Robinson in the magisterial Wine Grapes, is that Petits Grains, a small-berried variety (as indicated by the name), is the superior grape, finer and more delicate and with high acidity, which gives it good backbone. Ottonel is softer, with all the blockbusting Muscat aromas, but it’s generally considered less elegant.
Traditionally, Muscat produced in Alsace was a blend of the two: Petits Grains for acidity and structure and Ottonel for seductive, ripe-fruit aromas, explains Thierry Meyer, former wine commentator on Alsace for the French wine guide Bettane & Desseauve.
Still, today you will find winemakers who are of the opinion that a blend is best, probably one that majors on the supposedly finer Petits Grains at the expense of the purportedly clumsier Ottonel. Marc Hugel of the eponymous domaine in Riquewihr is firmly in the blending camp and considers Muscat made purely from Ottonel to be “an aberration.” Zind-Humbrecht, for its part, is leaning ever more heavily in the direction of Petits Grains for its celebrated Muscat (also a blend). On the other hand, Domaine Zusslin in Orschwihr, Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg and Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim make beautiful Muscat from 100% Ottonel. But whichever of the two grapes winemakers use and in whatever proportion, all agree that choice of terroir, careful winemaking and plenty of TLC throughout the cycle are key.
However, because you won’t find any mention of the relative proportions of the two varieties on the label, this is not something to fret about. Concentrate, rather, on tracking down what you can (try www.winesearcher.com for suppliers) and savor this fruity, fragrant summer drink to the full.
Summer is time for Muscat
If Muscat’s credentials as the perfect seasonal aperitif are well established, it also stars in combination with light summery cuisine. The preferred local match is with asparagus, but — in Alsace at least — the season is now closed and the markets are full of beautiful early vegetables (baby carrots or zucchini, fingerling potatoes, fava beans and sugar snaps). Try Muscat with a platter of these with linguine in a lightly creamy emulsion based on the jus from the barely- cooked vegetables, or with a salad of summer leaves topped with soft fresh goat’s cheese.
Catherine Faller at Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg advises partnering Muscat with her celebrated snail soup, richly flavored with parsley, chervil and garlic. “The wine picks up le petit côté végétal (the slightly vegetal hints) of snails in their herby broth,” she explains. A favorite match of mine is Muscat with a dish of lightly gingered prawns in a sauce of lemongrass-infused coconut milk, whose delicate flavors echo the floral-spicy nature of the wine. For a final summer showstopper, try an Alsace Muscat with a soft-centered Pavlova meringue topped with passion fruit and strawberries and a lick of honey.
Top photo: Three favorite Muscats, from Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zusslin and Hugel et Fils. Credit: Sue Style
When you consider the wines of Alsace, it’s probably fine fragrant whites that come to mind. That’s understandable. The Alsace winegrower has six white grape varieties — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner — to play with. Most growers make wine from all six, with multiple cuvées of each. But there’s a seventh grape variety permitted in this slender wine-growing region on France’s eastern side, and it’s red: Pinot Noir.
Given Alsace’s white wine proclivities, it’s hardly any wonder that Alsatian Pinot Noir of old — pale, thinnish, often somewhat unripe — felt a bit like a red wine that was a white at heart. The fact that it was almost always bottled in the tall, slim, Rhine-style flûte (obligatory for white wine, though not for red) only served to reinforce this impression.
But change is afoot, and the classic red grape of Burgundy, once the Cinderella of the Alsace family, is beginning — albeit tentatively — to come into its own. Though fine, world-class Pinot Noir remains rare here, there are nonetheless a few producers (Albert Mann, René Muré, Lucien Albrecht, Hugel) who are taking this famously fickle grape in new and — for Alsace — unaccustomed directions, and making wines that can hold their heads high in any company.
“We’re beginning to see some good Pinot Noir in Alsace,” comments Maurice Barthelmé of Albert Mann, probably the domaine that’s done most to raise the bar locally for this grape variety. And great ones? “Il y en a – mais pas beaucoup!” (“There are some – but not many!”) he acknowledges with a grin. He can afford to be cheerful; Albert Mann Pinot Noir is acknowledged to be among the greats in Alsace.
So what has changed to persuade some Alsace growers that it’s worth trying to make proper Pinot, rather than rosé-style wines? Several things, starting with the climate. “Global warming has helped us,” confirms Barthelmé. Bringing grapes to the requisite degree of ripeness is no longer an issue in this relatively northerly vineyard.
The second development is that Pinot Noir increasingly takes pride of place in top sites, including in Grand Cru vineyards, even though it’s not one of the officially permitted varieties. Lucas Rieffel in Mittelbergheim in the Bas-Rhin (northern Alsace), who took the plunge seven years ago and planted a few rows of Pinot in a prime site in the celebrated Zotzenberg vineyard above the village, observes: “When you plant Pinot Noir in a Grand Cru vineyard, you lose something – you take a risk.” Why so? Because the only grape varieties that qualify for Grand Cru status are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. Pinot Noir planted in these premium sites automatically forfeits the price-premium associated with Grand Cru.
Another big change is on the clone front. Thierry Meyer, who tastes and selects Alsace wines for the Bettane & Desseauve Grand Guide des Vins de France, one of France’s most prestigious wine guides, explains that after World War II, when the region set about rebuilding its devastated vineyards, there was “une course aux rendements” (a rush for big yields). Overcropping is one of the enemies of Pinot Noir, which only gives of its best when yields are reined in. The big yield, big bunch clones that were planted in the rebuilding phase are gradually ceding ground to less vigorous clones with smaller bunches.
So if you’re looking for a cool-climate Pinot Noir, consider what Alsace has to offer. These Pinots have a range of delightful raspberry, strawberry and cherry flavors. Tannins are discreet and oak is carefully used. With no tradition of oak-ageing for its whites, Alsace is soft-pedaling wood for its red, making them the perfect partner for white meats like turkey, chicken or pork.
Apart from the well-established names cited above, there are others worth singling out. At an instructive Oenoalsace tasting-dinner at La Taverne Alsacienne near Colmar early this year, Meyer matched 16 different Alsace Pinot Noirs with chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’s game-rich winter menu. Several new names came into the frame, among them François Schmitt and Valentin Zusslin in Orschwihr, Agathe Bursin in Westhalten and Laurent Barth in Bennwihr in the Haut-Rhin. From the more northerly Bas-Rhin came Lucas Rieffel in Mittelbergheim, Clément Lissner in Wolxheim and Mélanie Pfister in Dahlenheim.
Some of these wines are exported to the U.K. and the U.S; check your local fine wine importer or winesearcher.com. Better still, plan an instructive trip to Alsace some time soon and taste them on the spot.
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Photos from top:
Pinot Noirs from Alsace.
Lucas Reiffel in his vineyard.
Credits: Sue Style
If Anderson Valley, the coastal region of Mendocino County about two hours north of San Francisco, hadn’t rightfully become famous for Pinot Noir, its aromatic white wines would likely receive more attention. The climate and geography are tailor-made for grape varietals traditionally associated with the Alsace region of France: Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Muscat.
Both areas share a cool climate, with an annual average temperature hovering at about 55 degrees. Edmeades Winery is largely credited as being the first to plant Gewurztraminer, among other varietals, in Anderson Valley in the mid 1960s, though the folks at Navarro Vineyards, Handley, Husch and Lazy Creek were not far behind.
Together they built the region’s reputation for successfully nurturing these types of wines, which appeal to a large number of people because of the absence of new oak. Instead, stainless-steel tanks or used barrels are used to ferment the grapes long enough for the sugars to lower and the wines to get dry, with less than 1.5 percent residual sugar.
Whether from the homeland or Mendocino County’s own Anderson Valley appellation, these under-the-radar whites are fairly priced and spectacularly fine with a variety of food or as an aperitif. As an added bonus, a tasting visit to the valley makes a great day trip from San Francisco. The following list of producers, located mostly along Highway 128 in and around the town of Philo, represent a mix of old and new, but they all make great aromatic whites.
A joint venture between husband and wife Douglas Ian Stewart and Ana Lucia Benitez, Breggo sold last year to Napa Cabernet specialist, Cliff Lede. Before that, “Food & Wine” magazine” named it best new winery at the 2008 American Wine Awards, and Robert Parker raved poetically about the winery’s Gewrrztraminer and Wiley Vineyard Pinot Gris, calling the latter the finest Pinot Gris he’d ever tasted in the New World.
11001 Highway 128, Boonville. (707) 895-9589, www.breggo.com
Up in the highlands above Philo, Esterlina’s nod to Alsace includes a dry Riesling and off-dry Riesling from its own 253-acre Cole Ranch (its own sub-appellation, among the world’s smallest). Both citrus-laden wines have plenty of wildflower, peach and vanilla flavors.
1200 Holmes Ranch Road, Philo. (707) 895-2920, www.esterlinavineyards.com
Milla Handley founded Handley Cellars in 1982, because she was impressed by Anderson Valley’s viticultural reputation for bright acidity, long hang-time and great flavors. Returning the favor, Handley’s Gewurztraminer has lusciously exotic fruit flavors, steely acidity and refreshing balance. In some years, Handley also sources Riesling from Esterlina’s Cole Ranch. The Pinot Gris is equally tropical in memorable ways. Adding to the mix, Handley makes a Pinot Blanc from the vaulted Hein Vineyard.
3151 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3876, www.handleycellars.com
Tony Husch first planted Gewurztraminer along Highway 128 in 1969, only the second modern vintner in the area to do so. Husch’s first Gewurztraminer was produced in 1971; winemaker Brad Holstine makes it now, a wine with aromas of lychee, mandarin and a bite of spice. In addition, Husch makes a Muscat Canelli, a fresh, tropically fruited dessert wine with 6 percent residual sugar, and a late-harvest Gewurz at 12 percent.
4400 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3216, www.huschvineyards.com
Lazy Creek Vineyards
Founded in 1973 by Johann and Theresia Kobler, Lazy Creek was over the years among the most sought-after names in Anderson Valley, not only for its exquisite, estate-grown, “old vine,” dry Gewurztraminer but also Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Josh and Mary Beth Chandler ran Lazy Creek for almost a decade, but two years ago the famed producer was bought by Don and Rhonda Carano of Healdsburg’s Ferrari-Carano.
4741 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3623,www.lazycreekvineyards.com
Wine drinkers really love Londer Pinot Noir, but Shirlee and Larry Londer are as skilled and beloved for their dry Gewurztraminer, a minerally, lychee, honeysuckle and rose wonder they’ve been making from the one acre of the varietal they planted back in the 1990s. Longtime go-to Pinot consultant Greg LaFollette made the wines with Larry until a few years ago. Rick Davis, formerly of Flowers and Tandem, helps out now.
14051 Highway 128, Boonville. (707) 895-9001,www.londervineyards.com
Inspired by Alsace since building their winery in 1974, Navarro founders Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn, along with winemaker Jim Klein and now daughter Sarah Cahn Bennett, have successfully been introducing Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat Blanc to curious wine lovers ever since. Their dry Gewurztraminer is a standard-bearer — Navarro figures it farms about 35,000 Gewurztraminer vines at this point — while the winery has won gold medals at the Riesling du Monde competition held annually in Alsace. Non-drinkers will appreciate the non-alcoholic grape juice Navarro also makes from Gewurztraminer grapes.
5601 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-3686, www.navarrowine.com
Toulouse has long been a source of pinot noir grapes to others (Baxter, MacPhail). Founder-winemaker Vern Boltz, a retired Oakland Fire Department captain, has more recently started making an impressive estate Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. The Riesling has tremendous fruit flavor, particularly pineapple and pear, with notes of grapefruit, lemon and lime. The Gewurztraminer also screams citrus and tropical fruit, but shares varietally correct shades of rose, honeysuckle and more. The Pinot Gris tends more to the lemongrass side of things. Pair any one of them with curry, chili peppers or anything with bite.
8001 Highway 128, Philo. (707) 895-2828,www.toulousevineyards.com
Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor.
Photo: Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer
Riesling spent years on the unfashionable grape list, but that’s over, thankfully, and the varietal has been experiencing a serious comeback. This light, fruity-tart 2011 Foris Riesling from Oregon’s Rogue Valley, with its flavors of bright citrus and green apple flavors and only 11% alcohol (!), is one of the many fine and inexpensive ones available. It’s a bit in the Alsace style, and like many Rieslings, it’s exceptionally food-friendly. It was the perfect choice with scallops and bok choy laced with lemon slices at a recent dinner. And it was another reminder that Oregon wine country is about a lot more than Pinot Noir.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Region: Rogue Valley, Oregon
Grape: 100% Riesling
Serve with: Ham, smoked salmon and trout with horseradish cream sauce, sautéed scallops
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Riesling’s revival in the U.S. owes much to sommelier and self-described “acid freak” Paul Grieco, co-owner of New York’s Terroir wine bars and Hearth restaurant. He initiated the Summer of Riesling movement back in 2008, when he decided the only white wines he’d pour by the glass in his wine bars and restaurant from June to September would be Riesling. Now the idea has gone national and a www.summerofriesling.com page lists hundreds of participants and events. There’s still time to join in, as these continue through Sept. 21.
It’s not surprising that Oregon has become a source of interesting Rieslings. The state’s cool climate and ancient volcanic soils give the wines a unique character. It was one of the first varietals planted, and in the 1980s, nearly 25% of the state’s vines were Riesling. Then Pinot Noir started grabbing everyone’s attention. Today, only about 50 wineries (of 450) produce Riesling.
The Foris winery goes back to 1971, when Ted Gerber and his first wife Meri bought vineyard land in remote Illinois Valley in southwest Oregon. In 1974 they planted Pinot Noir and Alsace varietals — Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and, of course, Riesling. At first they sold grapes, but in 1986, they founded their boutique winery, which now produces wines from about 180 acres divided among four vineyards in the Rogue Valley appellation. Like Alsace, their vineyards experience a wide diurnal shift — warm days, cool nights — that gives the wines roundness and crisp acidity.
This 2011 Foris Riesling has both, which is why it’s so delicious with food.
Try it and see.
Top photo composite: Label and bottle for the 2011 Foris Riesling. Credit: foriswine.com
You’re probably familiar with sauerkraut. But how about choucroute? Same difference. Well, almost. Choucroute is just the French name for it — so much sexier than sauerkraut, which sounds like a disgruntled German person.
The name choucroute (I’m wedded to its French nomenclature, living as I do in Alsace) indicates not only the raw material — smooth white cabbage finely shredded and salted — but also to the famous dish, a mountain of steaming cabbage which comes tottering under the weight of sundry sausages, smoked pork meats, potatoes and the occasional liver dumpling.
Choucroute is one of those classic, seasonal preserves that was traditionally put up in the fall to last the whole winter. To make it, a special variety of tightly packed white cabbage known as quintal d’Alsace is finely shredded and layered with coarse salt in large containers. The action of the salt on the sugars in the cabbage produces liberal quantities of lactic acid, which rise up and completely cover the cabbage, excluding the air and enabling the choucroute to be stored for several months without spoilage.
DIY or purchased choucroute
Though a few households in Alsace still make their own in special barrels or crocks stored in the cellar, most people nowadays buy it readymade — fermented, but still raw. I get it from my local butcher, who sells it in a little green bucket. It’s a neat idea, because at the same time he sells me a selection of his homemade knacks (think frankfurters), Montbéliards (smoked pork sausages), lard salé or fumé (salted or smoked bacon) and schiffala or collet (smoked pork shoulder or neck) to go with it.
I have to confess to a special relationship with choucroute. Some 20 years ago, when I was researching my book “A Taste of Alsace,” I went to visit chef Roger Fischer of the Restaurant Studerhof in the small village of Bettlach, and shared with him my particular interest in this most emblematic of Alsatian foods. He generously bestowed on me two recipes: one for a classic choucroute garnie, another for a fabulous quiche à la choucroute (see below).
Society for pickled cabbage
Soon I discovered that Monsieur Fischer was a founding member of the Confrérie de la Choucroute, a sort of society for the preservation of pickled cabbage. The French have Confréries or Brotherhoods for just about any food or drink featured in the Larousse Gastronomique, and a few that are not. These societies provide a wonderful opportunity for the members to commission and wear some splendid robes and swear undying loyalty to the food or drink in question.
Imagine my delight and honor when I later received an invitation to join the august ranks of the Confrérie de la Choucroute as a Choucroutier d’Honneur (honorary choucroutier). The date of the next intronisation (enthronement) was set, and along I went, together with other aspiring choucroutiers. We were greeted by members of the Confrérie, clad in floor-length emerald green robes and black three-cornered hats, each one wearing a magnificent chain of office with an ornate metal badge showing a steaming plate of choucroute surmounted by an Alsatian headdress.
The ceremony began, and one by one we filed up to the front. Chef Roger raised his polished wooden pole (which looked remarkably like a baseball bat) and touched each one of us on both shoulders, rather as the Queen does to aspiring knights (only she uses a sword). We all had to swear undying loyalty to the choucroute cause, promising to eat it at least once a year and to lose no opportunity to vaunt its considerable virtues.
Which is what I’m doing now, with this recipe from Roger Fischer of the Restaurant Studerhof. It’s great for using up any choucroute garnie leftovers — a reliable feature in Alsatian households, small portions being uncommon in this hospitable region of France.
Quiche à la Choucroute
- Roll out the pastry and line a 12 inch-diameter quiche pan.
- Fry the diced bacon and side pork gently in a heavy pan without extra fat till the fat runs.
- Lift bacon and pork out of pan and drain on paper towels.
- Mix together the eggs, milk, cream, salt and pepper to taste (go easy on the salt: the choucroute is heavily salted).
- Stir in the fried bacon and pork.
- Squeeze any excess moisture out of the choucroute and add choucroute to the eggs and bacon/pork.
- Heat the oven to 420 F.
- Pour the filling into the pastry case and bake the quiche for at least 45 minutes or until set, golden and lightly puffed.
- Serve warm.
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Photo: Quiche a la Choucroute. Credit: Nicole Fischer
Alsace, on the eastern edge of France, has plenty of robust, rib-sticking, flavor-packed dishes that are just right for winter days. Uncomplicated to prepare and good-natured in the cooking, they provide the perfect rescue remedy for the harassed holiday cook. Baeckeoffe, a one-pot meal that combines pork, beef, lamb and vegetables marinated in the region’s famously fragrant white wine, is one of the best.
The name of this traditional Alsatian specialty refers to both the bakery (baecke) and the oven (offe). In former times, ovens in private homes were an undreamed-of luxury — not to mention an unwelcome fire hazard. Small, simple dishes were cooked in a pan on the top of the stove, but larger items requiring all-round heat were prepped at home, then taken round to the village baker’s to be cooked in the wood-fired oven after the bread had its turn.
Origins of Baeckeoffe up for debate
The story most commonly related is that Baeckeoffe was a Monday morning wash-day dish, outsourced to the village baker so the housewife-cook could get on with the household chores. But this seems an unlikely story. (Monday lunch would surely be an occasion for recycling the remains of a Sunday lunch feast — leftover choucroute and bacon or ham for a choucroute quiche, for example.)
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Picture the scene, in a small, cozy, wood-paneled inn somewhere on the Route des Vins. The tables are decked with rich red-patterned tablecloths decorated with vine leaf motifs. On the sideboard is a collection of classic, decorated pottery terrines and Baeckeoffe dishes. Napkins are unfurled, orders are taken and a small jug of refreshing Sylvaner or Pinot Blanc is brought to sharpen the appetite and ease the pain of waiting.
In due course, the stout chef-patron, clad in his whites, emerges backward through the swinging doors, swirls around in a neat pirouette and sets the immense decorated pottery dish down on the table with a satisfying thud. Carefully he chips and pries away at the band of dough that seals the gap between lid and dish. The whole table leans forward in eager anticipation, the lid comes off and there’s a collective intake of breath as some of the finest flavors and fragrances of Alsace are released: pork, lamb, beef, root vegetables, juniper berries and Riesling, all marinated together for days and baked to a state of gentle perfection.
This is a perfect dish for the holidays, which you can time to your convenience. It benefits from 1 to 3 days’ marinating, and then it needs several hours left to its own devices in the oven. Choose a fatty cut of pork, like neck, which will stay nice and moist, and cut all the meat in quite large pieces so they don’t dry out in the long, slow cooking. Any Alsace Riesling will do as long as it’s a dry one and preferably not outrageously expensive — an entry-level wine from one of the grand domaines like Trimbach, Hugel or Beyer would be perfect. (Keep the expensive one for drinking with the meal.) The ideal container is a large, lidded ovenproof ceramic pot. When you’ve assembled the dish and put it in the oven, you can set out for a long walk to work up an appetite. On your return the kitchen will be filled with wondrous aromas of Alsace. Serve the Baeckeoffe with green salad and plenty of bread to mop up the (unthickened) juices. Any leftovers can be reheated.
Serves 6 hungry people
For the marinade:
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon juniper berries
6 bay leaves, crumbled
2 generous pinches mixed dried herbs
1 bottle dry Alsace Riesling (or other dry white wine)
For the Baeckoffe:
1 pound (500 grams) boneless neck pork
1 pound (500 grams) boneless shoulder of lamb
1 pound (500 grams) boneless stewing beef (skirt, for example)
3 to 4 pounds (1½ to 2 kilograms) firm, waxy potatoes, peeled and thickly sliced
2 large carrots, diced
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 leek, finely diced
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon butter, cut in small dice
1. Prepare the marinade by combining in a bowl the chopped garlic, carrot, onion, juniper berries, cloves, bay leaves, herbs and wine.
2. Cut the meat in fairly large pieces and put them in a bowl with the marinade.
3. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 12 hours and up to three days.
4. Tip the meat into a colander placed over a second bowl, drain the meat and reserve the marinade.
5. Lightly butter a large, deep ovenproof dish with a well-fitting lid. [Mine is oval, measuring 14 inches by 9 inches by 4 inches deep (36 centimeters by 23 centimeters by 10 centimeters deep) with a 24-cup (6-liter) capacity.]
6. Place a thick layer of potatoes in the bottom of the dish, then follow with successive layers of meat and the remaining vegetables (carrots, onions, garlic and leek), seasoning with salt and pepper as you go and finishing with a thick layer of potatoes.
7. Pour on the reserved marinade. It should come about three-quarters of the way up the meat and vegetables. If not, add a little water.
8. Scatter the diced butter on top of the potatoes and cover the dish with a double thickness of foil and the lid.
9. Bake in an oven at 300 F (150 C) for about two hours or until the meat is fork tender. (Fish out a piece and taste it to check, then prolong the cooking if necessary.)
10. Remove the lid from the Baeckeoffe and bake uncovered for another 30 minutes or so, or until the potatoes on top are nicely browned
Photo: Alsatian Baeckeoffe ready for serving. Credit: Sue Style
In the western, industrialized, urbanized world where everything is available all year round and we’ve almost lost our sense of the seasons, our own locally grown asparagus can be a rare and precious treat. Let’s vote with our shopping baskets, turn our backs on (and our noses up at) the imported, canned or frozen stuff, punch the air and rejoice that some things are still truly seasonal. There’s a time to eat this wonderful vegetable, and it’s now.
As to which is the best kind of asparagus, white or green, opinions are sharply divided. Loosely speaking, Anglo-Saxons favor the green, as do generally the Italians and the Spaniards. Around these parts – Alsace, the Black Forest, Switzerland – people are more into the white or the mauve-tipped varieties.
For years I labored under the misconception that white and green asparagus were two different plants. I learned the error of my ways after a visitto our local asparagus farmer, Monsieur Werner Girroy, who also does duty as the vice president and grand piqueur of Alsace’s Confrérie de l’Asperge (Asparagus Fraternity). It turns out, explains Monsieur Girroy, that white asparagus would be green if it ever got the chance to poke its nose up above the sandy soils in which it grows. Its ivory colour is due to the fact that it’s mounded over with earth (“blanched,” like potatoes) and never permitted to see the light of day.
Asparagus officinalis is one of the posher members of the lily family (its more plebeian relations are leeks, garlic and onions) and has been considered a delicacy since Roman times. Both Cato and Columella chronicle its cultivation, while Pliny the Elder noted the best and most impressive specimens might weigh in at 4 ounces or 100 grams each. During Europe’s Dark Ages, things went a bit quiet on the asparagus front, and the vegetable only came into its own again under Louis XIV, the Sun King, who had it grown in his hothouses at Versailles to lengthen its growing season.
The 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys was also partial to the spears: in 1667 he records buying a bundle of “sparrow-grass” in Fenchurch Street for one shilling and sixpence. Madame de Pompadour was a fan, appreciating it particularly for its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. Her favorite dish combined asparagus tips and eggs. Perhaps the latter were soft-boiled and the tips dipped into them, like soldiers in the breakfast boiled egg – arguably the best way to deal with asparagus. Colette, who warned that “the three great stumbling blocks in a girl’s education were homard à l‘americaine, a boiled egg and asparagus,” would surely have agreed.
When cooking asparagus, there’s just one rule: Keep it simple. A tall, straight-sided asparagus pan with a wire basket inside to hold the spears upright does the business if your favored method is to boil and/or steam them, though the pan has a hard job earning its keep the rest of the year. Nowadays I more often lay the spears in a roasting pan, anoint them with olive oil, sprinkle them parsimoniously with sea salt and give them a 10 to 15 minute roasting in a 220-degree C/425-degree F oven until just tender. Alternatively I give them the olive oil/sea salt treatment and cook them instead on a ridged grill pan or on the barbecue.
With my asparagus I like to serve a sunset-coloured sauce maltaise (hollandaise with orange juice) made in the blender, a method which, as Julia Child briskly observed in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” is “well within the capabilities of an 8-year-old child.” Beat three egg yolks at high speed in the blender with a pinch of salt and a tablespoon each of lemon juice and blood orange juice. Then heat 100 grams (4 ounces) of butter in a small pan till liquid (or in the microwave in a small microwave-safe pitcher). With the blender still on high speed, pour the butter in a steady stream through the hole in the blender lid. The sauce “should thicken perceptibly,” assures Julia. (If, nevertheless, you flunk the 8 year-old child test and it doesn’t thicken, go to plan B, vinaigrette.) When the sauce is thick, add another couple of tablespoons of orange juice and a smidgen of grated orange zest.
Serve the sauce with the asparagus and provide some finely sliced cooked and cured ham (Parma, Bayonne, Serrano).
Sue Style is the author of nine books, including “A Taste of Alsace and Alsace Gastronomique.” She writes on food, wine and travel from her base in southern Alsace close to Switzerland and Germany, and for her website www.suestyle.com
Photos from top:
Spring asparagus at a Padua market. Credit: Sue Style
Monsieur Werner Girroy, vice-president and grand piqueur of Alsace‘s Confrérie de l‘Asperge. Credit: Sue Style
Working in an Alsatian bakery at Christmastime is a great way to develop your forearm muscles, the ones required for whisking egg whites or cream. Ask chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, who founded the French Pastry School in Chicago and was featured in the 2010 documentary “Kings of Pastry.” When he began his pastry apprenticeship in Strasbourg at the age of 15, he did not have those muscles. One cold December day his boss told him it was time to begin testing some sponge cake recipes for the many yule logs the bakery would be producing during the holiday season. He ordered Jacquy to whip 20 eggs with 600 grams of sugar – a half batch.
The boss, whose name was Jean Clauss, was a cruel and difficult taskmaster, and he knew that 40 eggs would be too much for his young apprentice. “I whipped for two or three minutes and then I couldn’t go on,” Pfeiffer recounts. “I didn’t even have the muscles for that action. When I had to stop whisking I was sorely abused by Jean Clauss. But by the second year of my apprenticeship, I had built up my forearm muscles sufficiently for Jean Clauss to put me in charge of all of the Christmas yule log sponges. By then I could whip 40 batches of 40 eggs each in a row without any problem.”
A land of tradition
Alsatians, a disciplined lot, are big on tradition, and the bakers in this beautiful region bordering the Rhine in eastern France, where Jacquy comes from, know that this is good for business. They help keep those traditions alive every year by making several types of special Christmas pastries, like the yule logs Jacquy produced. Whether a baker specializes in bread or pâtisserie, come December he makes these much-anticipated specialties by the truckload, and villages up and down the region will be redolent with the spicy and buttery aromas of cookies and cakes in the oven.
Christmas in Alsace begins early in the month. On Dec. 6 children celebrate St. Nicolas Day — St. Nicolas being the patron saint of schoolchildren. He leaves presents in their shoes, and children look forward to the special pastries they’ll eat for breakfast. Called manela or manala, depending on what part of Alsace you come from, these are small brioches shaped like a little man (manela means “little man” in Alsatian) and decorated with raisins.
Christmas cookies, called bredele de Noël, are also a big deal. Jacquy’s father, who had a bakery in their small village of Marlenheim, about 12 miles from Strasbourg, made tons of them every year. From the time he was a little boy Jacquy would help in the bakeshop for hours on end, Edith Piaf blaring on the village loudspeakers in the background. Bredele come in many shapes and flavors; some are made with butter cookie doughs that are piped, some are sablé doughs that are rolled out and cut into shapes — stars and hearts, pretzels and rounds, crescent moons and candy canes and more; other more rustic batters, like coconut macarons, are spooned or piped onto the baking sheets. Among the most iconic Alsatian Christmas cookies are the zimtsterne, or cinnamon star, a spiced star-shaped almond-meal cookie glazed with royal icing; leckerli, a square spiced cookie dusted with powdered sugar; and the S-shaped, chocolate-dipped spritz cookies.
In September Jacquy’s dad would already be working on his Christmas gingerbread cookies, another centuries-old Alsatian Christmas tradition. There are two types of gingerbread, the cookies made from a stiff dough that can be made ahead, and a cake-like gingerbread made from a batter and baked in loaf pans like pain d‘épices. When making the cookies, he’d roll out the dough (made with sugar, flour, honey and spices) and cut shapes, then bake them in a low oven until hard; with so much sugar and honey in the dough, they’d burn if baked at too high a temperature. Then he’d glaze them with a sugar icing, wrap them and put them away. Within 10 days they’d soften up in their packaging, due to the fact that honey is a hydroscopic sugar, meaning that it absorbs humidity. At this point the gingerbread could be eaten, but it would keep well until the holidays and beyond. This type of pastry, known as a pain de voyage, or traveler’s bread, has been around since the Middle Ages. Since they don’t get stale or spoil, travelers going on long journeys by coach could take them along for sustenance.
An Alsatian Christmas bread called berawecka, another pain de voyage, is a rich and dense fruitcake made with a great deal of dried fruit, macerated in alcohol, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and held together with a very small amount of bread dough. Sliced thin, it’s served with coffee or tea, and it’s a favorite with hikers and skiers, who carry it in their rucksacks for quick energy. Pierre Zimmermann, an Alsatian baker from the village of Schnersheim, calls the berawecka Alsace’s own energy bar.
Alsatian bakers also make hundreds of stollens during the holiday season. The dough is rich, a sort of cross between a brioche, a kugelhopf and a panettone. Filled with nuts and dried fruit, the stollen is shaped to look like the baby Jesus swaddled in cloth. There’s enough acidity in the dough to allow the bread to keep for up to three months.
A celebrated Buche de Noel
Practically every Alsatian family will treat themselves to a decorated cake at Christmas, which is why Pfeiffer was so busy developing his forearm muscles at Jean Clauss’ boulangerie/pâtisserie. The bûche de Noël is probably the most popular Christmas cake. It’s a sponge roulade filled with mousseline – a mixture of pastry cream and buttercream. Bakers make them in many flavors — plain and almond, hazelnut and pistachio, praline, chocolate and even coconut.
Holiday traditions in France continue through the New Year and on to Epiphany, the 6thof January, and Alsace is no exception. On that day families eat a pastry called galette des rois, or king’s cake. It’s a puff pastry filled with almond cream, and in it the baker hides a little porcelain (or plastic) figure called a fève (because it was traditionally a bean). Whoever gets the slice of cake with the fève gets to be king (or queen) for the night. In Alsatian families tensions can run high when the cake is being cut, as parents in this part of France are strict and it’s a big deal when a kid gets the chance to boss them around. “In our family we were so competitive that my mom made us get under the table when she cut the galette des rois,” says Jacquy, “just in case the knife hit the fève and one of us noticed.”
Zimtsterne (Star-shaped Cinnamon Cookies)
Zimtsterne are thick, chewy cinnamon-flavored almond cookies coated with royal icing. The dough is a simple mixture of almond flour, sugar, cinnamon and egg white rolled out between pieces of parchment, coated with royal icing and cut into star shapes. It’s a sticky dough, but if you roll it thick and dip your cookie cutter in water as instructed, you’ll be able to work with it. At the French Pastry School all ingredients are scaled in metric weights; this, Jacquy Pfeiffer insists, is the most precise way to bake. Try it and you’ll find that not only is it more accurate, it simplifies baking.
- Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, mix all the ingredients together delicately until they come together into a firm dough. It should be firm enough to be rolled easily with a rolling pin, but it will be tacky. If the dough is too soft, adjust by adding a little almond flour, and if the dough is too hard, adjust by adding a little egg white. The dough can be rolled right away or left to rest for 2 hours in the refrigerator. This will allow the almond flour to absorb and retain moisture, resulting in a moister cookie.
- Divide the dough into 3 batches. Place a piece of parchment or a silicone mat on your work surface and sprinkle lightly with almond flour (to facilitate lifting off the cut out cookies). Place a batch of dough on top and gently press down. Place another sheet of parchment paper over the dough and roll the dough to a thickness of just under ½ inch (1 cm). Remove the top piece of parchment.
- Make the royal icing by mixing the 3 ingredients with a rubber spatula until the mixture looks like toothpaste; if you under-mix it, the icing will look glossy and will not hold up; if you over-mix it, the extra air will make it porous and dry, and it will not be shiny. Using a metal offset spatula, spread a 1/16-inch layer of royal icing on the dough.
- Using a cookie cutter, cut star shaped cookies and place them on a greased cookie sheet or a cookie sheet lined with greased parchment or a Silpat silicone mat. Try to cut the cookies right next to each other so that you will not have too much waste. Dip the cutter into a bowl of warm water to facilitate cutting and prevent the dough from sticking to the cookie cutter. You may need to ease the dough out of the cookie cutters by sliding the tip of a paring knife between the cookie cutter edge and the dough. Cut the leftover dough into shapes (such as smaller stars or diamonds) and place on a separate baking sheet (they will bake faster than the larger stars). Another option is to rework the dough once by adding some almond flour and re-rolling it.
- Place the baking sheets with the cut out cookies in the freezer for 30 minutes. This will do two things: it will cause condensation on the icing, which will result in shinier cookies; and it will freeze the center of the dough, resulting in moist, chewy cookies with crusty edges.
- Bake at 375F for 10 to 15 minutes, until the royal icing is light golden brown. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Store the cookies in an airtight container. They will stay moist in the center for weeks.
Yield: about 3 pounds cookies (the number depends on the size of your cookie cutter; a large star cutter yields approximately 4 dozen cookies)
Note: Almond powder is the same product as almond flour — whole untoasted almonds that blend to a powder in a food processor. Should you run out of almond powder, you can always make your own.
Photos: Top, buche de Noel. Credit: Studio Pygmalion
Top Right: Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer. Credit: Paul Strabbing
Bottom Right: Pfeiffer’s wrapped gingerbread. Credit: Jeff Bohler, Studio Pygmalion