After the worst sleep in the crappiest hotel so far on our tour, we awoke in the Alsatian town of Strasbourg.
Escaping the confines of our cramped quarters, we headed out for coffee and to see what Strasbourg had to offer. Dominating the skyline is Notre Dame Cathedral with its absolutely gigantic steeple and ornate façade, it is the town’s main attraction. The interior reveals amazing stained glass, a huge celestial clock and a massive organ, hanging like a three dimensional painting, from one side of the main hall. Every evening starting at 10 pm an extravagant light show, set to music, is projected on the front of the cathedral.
Continuing on, we worked our way to the most picturesque part of town, Petite France, where the fairy tale like houses are cramped together along crooked, cobbled streets and flower boxes overflow with their bounty.
Walking out of that picture perfect neighbourhood, we headed toward the walled in hospital district, not because we needed medical attention but because we had heard that there was a very old wine cave hidden in the basement of one of the original buildings. Indeed there is a very special cave that has been in use since 1395 and in its heyday would supply wine for the staff and patients that lived within the hospital walls.
The wine was used for religious ceremonies, general consumption and for medicinal purposes. Above the cellar was a huge food storage and pharmacy that made the hospital quite self sufficient. Some of the original old barrels still remain in the cave today and are used to age wine that is chosen from the best wine growers in the Alsace region.
The wine is aged in the ancient barrels, bottled on the spot and is awarded a label identifying it as being from this special cave.
The cave was newly renovated in 1994, and today, it is the home of a specific wine museum featuring more than 40 ancient barrels (the largest of them can hold up to 26080 hectolitres of wine), a wine press dating from the beginning of the 17th century and a barrel that is still filled with wine from the year 1472.
This extraordinary wine, also one of the oldest wines in the world, was served only four times – the first tasting was held for the Swiss delegation in 1576, the second was inspired by the renovation of the city hospital in 1716, the third by the liberators of Strasbourg led by General Lecrerc in 1944 and last the ministry of the economy during a renovation and celebration of the cave in 1994.
In the last tasting notes, it was mentioned that the wine was very amber in colour, with a fine complexity. It showed notes of vanilla, honey, wax, camphor, fine herbs, hazelnuts and fruit liqueur, “ce vin présente du volume, il finit par une belle longueur”, and only after 584 years of aging. On our way out of the cave we stopped at the little wine store and picked up a 2009 Pinot Gris that we would save for later during our trip.
That evening we were lucky enough to attend a concert featuring the ancient church organ in the cathedral. It took three people to play the organ, one to actually play the piece and two others to push and pull levers to change sounds as the piece was played. The sound was sublime and I imagined people hundreds of years ago enjoying this same instrument being played.
After the concert we had a late dinner of our favorite, potato roesti. This time it was much more lavishly done with porcini mushrooms and speck, then gratinéed with cream and a puck of goat’s cheese. Leaving the restaurant, I said to Nat that we should visit the bar below our hotel window that kept us up until closing the previous night because if you can’t beat them, you might as well drink with them.
Entering the bar, we were greeted by the very tattooed and cheerful owners, Gilles and Leaticia.
Their bar is very eclectically decorated with stuffed animals in humorous positions, snake skins and animal prints.
The music that night was a mix of rock a billy and old school roots music and the crowd was a mixture of hipsters and young characters of Strasbourg. Never the less, we felt welcome, bellied up to the bar and ordered a couple of pints of local beer, Meteor wheat. They slipped down easily (organ music makes me thirsty) so for our next round we changed it up, I went with a Meteor Pils and Nat had a local favorite called a Picon. A Picon is regional orange bitters mixed with pilsner, a lemon simple syrup is added if you find it too bitter, the end result was a beer that tasted very similar to Southern Comfort. Leaticia, seeing that we were interested in locally produced and consumed drink, happily described, in her thick accent, some other special drinks including one made with artichoke bitters (Cynar) and pilsner. “Oh, and don’t forget the schnapps!” she said. My mind immediately turned to the eighties craze of peach schnapps, with shooters of the overly sweet American adaptation, that was the source of many a young person’s hangover. Without hesitation Laeticia produced two small glasses of clear schnapps, one called “fleur de bière” made by fermenting the hops used in making beer and the other called “mare de Gewürtz”, fermented grape must from making Gewürztraminer wine. Basically, this is rocket fuel made with leftovers or garbage, as one friend described it. The taste is not completely objectionable, something like a grappa, but by the end of the glass you don’t care anyway. Unfortunately for me Nat could not finish hers and I had found my stride so I consumed both. We were then joined at the bar by a lovely young couple who we shared a laugh with while trading stories. Last call came and I blurted out “one more schnapps.” This time it came in a larger glass, which seemed to double the effects or maybe there was double the amount. Quite schnapped, we spilled out onto the street and continued our conversation with our new friends, directly below our hotel window.
The next day started off pretty slow, to say the least, as we quietly made our way for coffee and a couple bottles of water. Heads in a haze we wandered the town checking out more churches, beautiful architecture, shops, and doing some serious people watching. Late afternoon came and we retreated to the hotel once again to try and nap and prepare ourselves for the upcoming night. The night before Leaticia had told us we should come back the following evening for dinner. Although La Mandragore (mandrake) serves only booze, they have an arrangement with a local caterer who takes phone orders and then delivers his food by bicycle. She guaranteed us his food was fantastic and it sounded perfect for the blog, so we promised we would return. Eight o’clock soon came and we tried to gather ourselves up for our first beer of the day.
Returning to the watering hole we were greeted like initiated regulars and took our place at the end of the bar. As promised, Gilles produced a small chalkboard with the day’s menu written on it. Nat chose a sandwich of roasted ham on the bone with Gruyere and vegetables confit in olive oil. My choice was easy, hand chopped steak tartare made with Coutancie beef and served with fresh frites. Coutancie is France’s answer to Kobe beef, raised on seasonal grasses, fed beer, given massages and entertained with classical music, these bovine don’t know the meaning of stress. Two hair of the dog later, a cool red delivery bike showed up and our supper was delivered right to our bar stool.
The tartare filled most of a hamburger container and was garnished with some confit vegetables and a couple of tortilla chips.
As promised the fried potatoes were fresh and piping hot. Nat’s sandwich was well wrapped because it was overflowing with all its warm ingredients in a super fresh crusty bun.
The tartare was well seasoned with salt and pepper and also had a small amount of ginger, lemongrass and shallot mixed into the minced but not pureed beef.
The beef was incredibly tender, flavorful and rich, obviously from a well marbled cut of meat like the Coutancie cow. Our barmaid gave a recommendation for a beer that would go well with the tartare, Saison Dupont, a Belgian beer that was dry and worked beautifully with the spice and richness of the beef. Nat’s sandwich was also splendid with carrots, beans and zucchini cooked perfectly in a rich olive oil. The ham was some of the best we have tasted in a long time, tender, succulent and full of flavour, countered by a deliciously melting piece of Gruyere and soy grilled cabbage. This was no ordinary sandwich, in fact this was definitely no ordinary food delivery. We ate our dinner out of our take away containers at our place at the bar with many people leaning over and asking if it was good.
“Delicious” we both replied, “Highly recommended!”
I have often remarked to my friends that Canada just doesn’t have the forward thinking to do this kind of thing and we should! I mean, how many times have you been drinking at your local bar and wished you could have hand cut steak tartare or a juicy ham sandwich made from a real roast ham delivered to your bar stool?
- 3 medium baked potatoes, cold
- 3 pieces bacon, diced
- 2 cups wild mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
- 1/2 medium onion, sliced thin
- 1/2 cup crème fraîche
- 1/4 cup goat cheese or one small round cut in two (any cheese will do)
- fresh chives for garnish
- Peel the potatoes and grate on the largest hole, into a bowl.
- In a frying pan sauté bacon until light brown and remove with a slotted spoon.
- In the bacon fat, fry mushrooms quickly in a single layer over med/high heat until golden, remove to a warm plate.
- Add a little olive oil to the pan and sauté the onions until just golden, remove to plate.
- Add the bacon to the potato and combine.
- Form the roesti into 2 or 3 (depending on the size) loose patties.
- In a hot frying pan with 1Tbsp butter and a teaspoon or so of olive oil add a roesti.
- Sauté the roesti pressing and forming it with your spatula into shape (it will come together as you cook it).
- When it is golden brown, invert it onto a plate and return it to the pan with more butter and oil to brown the other side. When brown, remove it to a shallow individual baking dish.
- Continue with the other roesti in the same manner.
- Top each with wild mushrooms and onions.
- Spread a dollop of crème fraîche over the mushrooms and add goat cheese on top to finish.
- Place under the broiler until the cheese turns golden and everything is bubbly and hot.
- Sprinkle with chives and serve in their hot dishes.