If Spain is my true love in terms of wine now, then Alsace is a very close second. I lived there when I was a student and, although it was probably the most surreal year of my life for lots of reasons (not least my parents getting divorced and selling the house but not telling me till I came home for Christmas…possibly not the best stocking filler ever), I fell in love with the landscape (mountains + higgledy-piggledy villages + vineyards), the food (pork + onions + cumin+ caraway all bathed in Riesling) and the climate (snowy winters + hot summers).
It’s a shock at first: the slate of the northwest and terracotta red roofs of the south are replaced by multiple-mansarded roofs (so seven or eight layers of windows/attics) and Germanic half-timbered houses, the accent is impenetrable and there is nothing subtle about (most of) the food but, within months, I adored it. And, although I had no idea about wine or food at 19, I now realise that I was in one of the best regions in France, and one I would probably never have encountered without the pure accident of picking it for that year. So when Stella was discussing possible tastings for her next wine club, and Alsace came up, I was already working out where to buy the Munster…
The food from this region matches the climate. I made the mistake of going over one summer and insisting to my then boyfriend that we absolutely try baeckeoffe, which is served in a boiling-hot earthenware pot but, by the time we got to the restaurant, it was 90°C and the flammekueche looked a lot more attractive. I still insisted though; I was younger then. But for a wine-tasting the food needed to be portable and not in anyway stew-like, so I went for the flavours of salt, smoke and slight bitterness, perfect accompaniments for the off-dryness and sweetness of the wines.
First there was smoked trout on Dan Lepard rye crackers, with a dill crème frâiche. However hard you think baking might be, these crackers are piece of piss simple and a lot cheaper than ones you might find in a fancy cardboard box. Perfect for an apéritif with Crémant d’Alsace. Then there were slivers of two Alsace-wine friendly cheeses, an aged Comté which, incidentally, I got very fat on when I was in France that year, and an extra-aged Coolea. These were perfect with a Riesling; the salty dryness offset by the off-dry wine. Oh and Munster, an unmissable cheese to drink with an off-dry Gewurztraminer, particularly when served with a sprinkling of caraway seeds.
We also had mushroom paté crostini, because Pinot Gris loves mushrooms and this classic Alsacian onion tart, known as Zewelwai which sounds complicated, tastes incredible, but is, like the crackers, immensely simple and frugal. I first discovered it when I was sticking to the contents of my store cupboard and it goes with most of the wines, particularly the Muscat and Pinot Blanc.
Finally, Alsacian sweet wines like Gewurztraminer are made for two extremes: first, the saltiness and aroma of a blue cheese like Roquefort and, second the tropical flavours of coconut and mango. So we finished off with both cheese and fresh mango on brown sugar meringues with coconut crème fraîche. And, no, not on the same plate.
The wines, all listed below, aren’t that easy to find though, of course, The Wine Society is, as ever the best and cheapest place to find the ones that you can buy in the UK. I highly recommend working your way through the lot.
Rye crackers (adapted from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet)
Makes a lot but they keep well in an airtight tin
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
unsalted butter, 50g
sugar, 2 tsp
baking powder, 1 tsp
finely ground sea salt, 2 tsp
500g rye flour, plus a bit extra for flouring a surface
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan-assisted/gas 6 and flour or line a couple of flat baking trays or sheets.
2. Cut the butter into small pieces.
3. Mix the sugar, baking powder, salt and flour in a large mixing bowl.
4. Rub the butter into the flour until it disappears.
5. Add the milk and stir together to create a sticky dough.
6. Flour a surface and, tearing off a small lump of the dough, roll it out very thinly then cut out small circles with a biscuit cutter or, failing that, a glass or cup.
7. Place the circles onto the baking sheets and bake until just starting to colour (I found this took about 7-12 minutes; each tray was different.) Cool on a wire rack.
8. Serve topped with small pieces of smoked trout fillet and some crème fraîche mixed with chopped fresh dill and lemon zest.
Zewelwai (adapted from Delicious magazine)
(I’ve made this twice, with both home-made pastry and shop-bought and the difference was marginal so I’d recommend using ready-made. Also, I can never quite get the amount of filling right so I usually have some leftover; it is delicious on toast and grilled, like Alsacian rarebit.)
Makes a 23cm tart
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
nutmeg, ½ tsp, freshly grated if possible
double cream or crème fraîche, 400ml
finely ground sea salt and black pepper
shortcrust pastry, 250g
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan-assisted/gas 6 and put a flat baking sheet or tray in the oven to heat up.
2. Lightly butter a 23cm, 3-4cm deep flan tin/dish (either loose-bottomed or not; both work).
3. Roll out the pastry thinly, then line the tin with it. Prick the bottom with the tines (love that word) of a fork then chill for about 20 minutes.
4. Peel, top and tail and thinly slice the onions.
5. Melt the butter in a large, shallow lidded pan, add the onions and a pinch of salt then cover and leave over a gentle heat to cook for about 10 minutes.
6. Remove the lid of the pan and leave the onions to cook for another 20 minutes or so until really soft and colouring slightly. Season and leave to cool.
7. When the pastry has chilled for 20 minutes, remove it from the fridge, cover the pastry with a sheet of baking parchment or foil and some kind of weight, such as baking beans (I use uncooked rice) then bake on the hot baking sheet for about 15-20 minutes until just coloured around the edges.
8. Remove the paper and rice from the pastry then bake for another 5 minutes or so until it is golden. Lower the oven temperature to 190°C/170°C fan-assisted/gas 5.
9. Whilst the pastry is baking beat the eggs with the nutmeg and cream, season then stir in the cooled onions.
10. Finally, pour the mixture into the pastry, smoothing it out with the back of a spoon and bake until set and golden (another 25-30 minutes or so). Serve hot or cold.
The wines (I have added links and prices where available)
Crémant d’Alsace, Baron de Hoen, Cave de Beblenheim
Pinot Blanc, Paul Blanck, 2010
Muscat Reserve, Trimbach, 2011 (The Wine Society, £11.50)
Pinot Gris Reserve, Rolly Gassmann 2008 (The Wine Society, £20)
Gewurztraminer Medaille, Heinberger, Cave de Beblenheim, 2011
Riesling, Kastelberg Grand Cru, Remi Gresser, 2007
Pinot Noir, Hugel & Fils, 2010 (The Wine Society, £10.50)
Gewurtztraminer Vendange Tardive, Hugel & Fils, 2005, (The Wine Society, £33)