Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Carbo-pig-a-palooza: Potatoes, Pork and Vodka in Alsace

I've heard much about the infamous Christmas Markets celebrated all over the world, but I was excited to experience them for myself this year in one of the places where it all began. I have 3 friends who have been to the markets several times so I knew I was in good hands as we set out on our week-end trip.

Lisette and I took the easy 2 hour 20 minute train from Paris to Strasbourg and met up with Melissa and Brad who did the longer, but more scenic drive north to the border of Germany.  The Strasbourg market started in 1570, making it one of the oldest in France.  It was originally created to distribute presents to the children, and then eventually they thought to throw in a line about celebrating Christkindel, the Baby Jesus.  Nice after thought to buffer the commercialism to come.

Local merchants used the markets as an occasion to sell their handmade food and crafts, but now you'll see an errant angry Rock N Roll Santa and snow globe.

The markets are only open until 9pm, so Friday night, Lisette and I met the other 2 at a restaurant for my first onion - carb product, accompanied by a lovely dry Riesling.  The French Riesling is a nice dry white wine, where the Riesling's Germany produce are a sweeter taste that most people don't like as well.  Most of the wine glasses in Alsace also have this pretty green stem, making the contents inside pretty and tasty.

After eating, we wandered the streets of Strasbourg looking at all of the spectacular Christmas lights and decorations.  It really was like walking through a fantasy, make believe land that Disney created to celebrate Christmas, though I guess it was the other way around.  Walt or Mickey, whomever is older, must have taken a trip here and then went home to create picturesque sets and theme parks based on the color and charm of these towns.

With most of the town shut down by 10pm, we returned to the hotel where we were happy to see the bar still open.  After drinking wine, I was ready for my vodka fix.  Lately I have been having no luck getting my dirty martini, and this bar was no exception.  The bartender looked at me like I asked if he had peanut butter to mix with my vodka, but he rebounded nicely with a lemon twist.  It did take him close to 10 minutes to make it, but it was refreshing and citrusy, so I was happy.

The next day, we started with a solid breakfast at Kirn, which is like a mini-Whole Foods but no one is wearing Uggs or carrying a yoga mat.  One of the butchers was taunting me and my need for a Thanksgiving sandwich as he was preparing a turkey with stuffing, and the rest of the counters had amazing displays of cheese, salads and of course wieners, but more on that later.

We went out to explore the markets, which are little log cabin looking booths set up all over the tiny town that is encricled by water.  I needed to come up with another word for cute, because I must have said 72 times, "Oh my gosh, that's sooooo cute."

People couldn't have been nicer, but that may have had something to do with the tradition of drinking vin chaud, or warm wine with spices, throughout the day to stay warm.  You pay a 1 euro deposit for a cup, or a mug in some parts, and then they fill you up with red or white spiced wine, which was pretty much Christmas in a cup.
The little chalets sold everything from candles to jewelry to homemade honey, cheese, chocolates, and of course Christmas accoutrement.  I've never been the person to stop into a Christmas store to look at ornaments, but I was drinking the Christmas Koolaid here, and again, everything was soooooo cute.  So I now have "the cutest" set of 3 snowmen and a matching wooden, white washed Christmas tree, that I'm sure one of the Alsatian elves made in their workshop around the corner.

The cathedral in the center of town is truly spectacular, and not just because it makes a good landmark if you're lost or in need of more vin chaud.  It might just be the most beautiful cathedral I've seen to date.  Its first iteration was built in 1015 and there were fires and rebuilding projects, and for 4 centuries, it was the tallest building in the modern world.

This elaborate astronomical clock was built by a team in 1842 and legend has it that they wanted to blind the lead designer after construction was complete so he'd never create anything this beautiful again.  At 12:30 each day, the clock puts on a show, but unfortunately we missed it.  There was food to eat afterall.

I'm a big "when in Rome" type gal, so even though I don't even like sauerkraut, I had to strap in for a plate full of not 1, not 2, but 5 different pig products on top of sauerkraut.  Sounds daunting, huh?  Well yes, it was.  This was not cute.  This was slightly obscene, and maybe even pornographic, though I have to say the sauerkraut was really tasty.

I barely made a dent in my plate, but then I saw the woman next to me ordered the same thing and there wasn't one drop of pork to be seen on her plate when she was finished.  She was not an amateur.  Lisette had the pork knuckle, which was also intimidating, but extremely flavorful, no doubt due to a multi hour braising process.

Then there's the various forms of let's just call it a German pizza.  It could be on a toasted French bread with creme fraiche.  That's right, I said creme fraiche, and then there's lardon and cheese on top.  And you have to have it "gratineed" with grilled onions in the mix.  Or you can have a thinner crust with the same toppings.  Or no crust, but the same ingredients in a bucket on top of sauerkraut or potatoes.  No matter how you slice, you will enjoy it, and not be able to stop eating it, and once you do finally step away, you'll never be able to look at another pig or carb product again.
Traditional Alsacian garb and grub
The usual pork, cheese, onion, carb suspects

We all drove about an hour north to Colmar Saturday afternoon and did more of the same - pig, carb, vin chaud, Christmas cuteness, while ooing and ahhing at the fabulous scenery set amongst the canals of Colmar.  You can see how the markets are different by day and night, but both spectacular.

On Saturday night, I needed a drink to cut through the strong tastes and mulled wine, so naturally, you all know what I went in for.  The waiter was very nice, but said there was no olive juice so I attempted just a regular martini with vodka.  What I got is still a bit of a mystery, but good enough that I had 2.  When the check came, I looked and my vodka was listed on there, as well as a separate line item for "Martini."  When I asked the nice waiter what that was he basically said it's Martini Rossi, who makes a vermouth, though this particular drink did not taste like just vodka and vermouth.  He explained to me that my order is not something anyone orders in France.  Who knew the mark I'd be leaving on France is how to make a martini.  My quest continues.

Sunday we started in the markets of Colmar and ended back in Strasbourg where 3 of us were grabbing a train back to Paris at the end of the day.  We all picked up more treasures, pork products, crepes, and then I had to throw in a "Bretzel" at the original pretzel shop in Colmar where you can get cheese, chorizo, or any of the aforementioned ingredients.

And now I can safely say I'm carbed and totally pigged out on the Alsacian Christmas Markets...until next year.  Here's the article I wrote for the Girl's Guide to Paris talking about the experience, and another one giving my own walking tour of some of the Christmas Lights in Paris.


  1. Frank QuagliarielloNovember 29, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    Thanks for the post. It allows us working folk to live through you.


  2. After not eating all day, I rolled into Alsace around 3 or 4 and EVERY restaurant was between lunch and dinner, NO FOOD!

    The irony, I feel like I gain 4lbs every time I check in on this blog!

  3. So wonderfully festive! So jealous!!