Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Foodie Tour of Alsace - Munster Valley

The foodie tourism continues this week with a visit to the Munster Valley, in the Alsace region of France. This region is famous for wine - primarily Riesling and Gewurztraminer - which makes sense, given that Alsace is on the German border. In fact, the dialect spoken there is a variant of German, rather than French. The wines, however, in my opinion are far superior to their German counterparts. We stopped by the Schoenheitz Winery, who claim that their wines are different because their grapes are grown at the highest in altitude of any in the region, and sampled several excellent wines.

You may have guessed that the other famous local product from the Munster Valley is Munster cheese. Let's get one thing straight - the "munster" that we grow up on in the U.S. is not the same thing as an AOC munster from Alsace. Where ours is tasteless and rubbery, with food coloring giving it that typical red rind, real munster cheese is one of the stinkiest, strongest-tasting cheeses around. It has a smell that knocks you over. Real munster is made on a small farm from unpasteurized milk, and it is washed three times a week with a cloth that previously washed an older munster, thus passing down from generation to generation the bacteria that make the cheese so delicious. We stayed in a farmhouse that we highly recommend, Chez Chantal et Dany, and visited their dairy in the morning.

Dany told us of the many woes of the modern cheese farmer in France, mainly that European regulations are strangling traditional cheese production and encouraging cheese to become industrialized. If you know anything about cheese, you know that when it comes from a factory, the taste can't begin to compare with cheese from a small producer. And to see the work and love and tradition that goes into making these cheeses, it felt tragic to hear Dany talk about how his children would most likely not be able to continue his work. So I encourage everyone to visit these places and support the small farmers - maybe France is too far away, but this is a problem everywhere now.

Anyway, we did a little tour of the lovely small villages in the area, full of colorful, old half-timbered houses, and lots of French countryside atmosphere. Randomly, the artist who designed the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Bartholdi, came from Colmar, one of the towns we visited, so there was a mini-Statue of Liberty outside the town. I think our favorite town was Riquewihr, but for food you can't beat Strasbourg (also home of the European Parliament). We had an amazing meal at La Cloche a Fromage, home of the biggest cheese cloche (the big glass bell they put over cheese) in the world - they are actually in the Guiness Book! Walking in the door, the smell of cheese hits you in the face, and they have a cheese expert there who ages the cheeses herself and picks the ones that are at the height of their maturity for you to try. The only one on the plate we couldn't stomach was the Epoisse, which was too strong even for me.

We also tried a local "winstub", a traditional Alsatian restaurant, and though they made me a terrific dish of munster melted on potatoes and onions, we had to suffer through everyone around us ordering the local specialty - tete de veau (calf's head). They don't bring it whole, but the brain is clearly visible on the plate, which is not very appetizing to be sitting next to! Well, it was a "cultural experience"...

So, now that I have had my fill of wine and cheese, I head off to India tomorrow, where the cuisine (and everything else) should be drastically different. I'll keep you posted...

No comments:

Adventure map for 2009...