Strasbourg & Franche-Comté

Strasbourg & Franche-Comté

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742707181
Photographer
Alan Benson

With its waterways, bridges, vast gothic cathedral, cobbled streets and breathtaking medieval architecture, the historic centre of strasbourg is only four hours by car from Paris, but feels like a galaxy away.

When I realise how often the city has passed between Germany and France throughout centuries of turbulent history, Strasbourg’s distinct look and feel really make sense. There’s a big emphasis on pork, casseroles, fish stews, and distinctive pastries such as the kugelhopf, a yeast-raised cake with raisins and almonds. So many cultures have left their own mark throughout France, and I love that you can see this so clearly in the food.

Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region, famed for its Riesling wines, while the most-loved dishes seem to involve choucroute, or sauerkraut.

One of the city’s most iconic restaurants is Maison Kammerzell, overlooking the centuries-old cathedral. Here, chef Guy-Pierre Baumann’s team make over 400 kilos of choucroute every week, to their own unique recipe, much of it used in their signature dish, choucroute aux trois poissons: sauerkraut with three fish. Pairing choucroute with fish, rather than meat, was a controversial idea, but their daring combination is now famous the world over. The chefs teach me its secrets before I devour a huge plate of it in the resplendent vaulted-ceilinged dining room. The whole building drips with atmosphere and history, and no wonder: it dates all the way back to 1427.

Another staple is the Alsace version of pain d’épices, which literally translates as ‘spice bread’. I listen, fascinated, as legendary baker Mireille Oster makes hers and explains how this sweet, dense cake came here from China, via the ancient spice routes. I return her kindness by concocting for her a Vietnamese-inspired pigeon dish, stuffed with pain d’épices, then infused with whole spices from her amazing collection.

After Strasbourg, it’s time to explore the lush, green rural gorgeousness of the Franche-Comté region, right next to Switzerland. Free of the intensive development and tourism experienced by other parts of France, it definitely feels like the road less travelled. Even Parisians become misty-eyed when talk turns to the serenity and hidden-gem qualities of the Franche-Comté.

The area is famous for smoked sausages made from whey-fed pigs, such as saucisse de Morteau. Wild mushrooms, trout, cheeses and Jura wines are also rightly celebrated, but nothing comes close to the local Bresse chickens, considered the finest eating chooks in the world. I first encounter one, with its dark blue feet and a special metal tag to verify authenticity, at the Château de Germigney. Roasted to succulent perfection and smothered in a rich butter and reduced-stock sauce, it is seriously one of the best things I’ve eaten. Ever. It is so juicy and the flavour is indescribably good. The Jura chardonnay I drink with it is also hands-down one of the best wines I have ever tasted.

Curiously, as I wend my way into the small town of Les Rousses, with its lakeside setting, hills and bracing air, I’m taken back to Dalat, in Vietnam’s central mountains: the topography and atmosphere are strikingly similar. But Dalat, charming as it is, doesn’t produce a famous cheese. The Fort des Rousses, built by Napoleon, today is used to age over 100,000 wheels of Comté, a type of gruyère made from unpasteurised milk. I try to think of a cool way to cook with this lovely, nutty cheese, but locals insist the best dish is simply a classic fondue, spiked with Jura wine and scooped from a communal pot. Who am I to argue with native wisdom?

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