Alsace may be a long, narrow corridor along France’s eastern frontier, but it’s also one of the most beautiful regions in the country and, despite incessant streams of tourists, Alsatians remain among the most open and welcoming of people. Perhaps, having suffered so much on the front lines of an eternally coveted borderland, captured and recaptured over the centuries, Alsatians have armed themselves with an unconquerable joie de vivre.

They claim, laughingly, that the inhabitants of the rest of the country are “Frenchmen of the interior”, insouciant and chattering. Obviously they exaggerate a little, but the harshness of the eastern climate and the solidarity it demands, as well as the quality of the region’s wines and gastronomy, have created unshakeable bonds among Alsatians that are also a boon for tourists.

The gastronomic trail between Mulhouse and Strasbourg is so rich that it’s worth taking several days to travel its few hundred kilometers. The addresses here are just a small sampler— a completely subjective selection that, except for Strasbourg, gives precedence to smaller towns and villages.

The reputation of some artisans here far exceeds their own area, while others are lesser known if not quite secret addresses. All along the way, the unique architecture of Alsace is a pure pleasure—half-timbered houses, their facades painted in a rainbow of colors, spic and span and flowering. And more good news: The region’s iconic storks, les cigognes, which had disappeared for decades, have returned—their presence in the collective imagination is inseparable from the Alsatian landscape.

Cheese and Gourmandise

Bernard Antony calls himself an “éleveur de fromages”, or cheese breeder. The delightful Antony began as an itinerant merchant of groceries and hosiery, until a meeting some 25 years ago with the famous fromager Pierre Androuët inspired a sudden change of profession. Since then, the mischievous gentleman has been the cheese industry’s best ambassador, supplying multi-starred chefs across the country. His village, Vieux-Ferrette, seems in the middle of nowhere, out in the wild and hilly Sundgau, but it’s worth the effort. If you visit Antony’s shop at noontime, you can lunch on a wide assortment of perfectly aged cheeses. Wine and cheese pairing classes are also offered. Luckily, the succession is assured: Bernard’s son, Jean- François, is following in his father’s footsteps. (See “Couture Cheese“.) Sundgaüer Käs-Keller, 5 rue de la Montagne, Vieux- Ferrette. 03.89.40.42.22. website

Foie gras, especially goose foie gras, is an ancient and well-established tradition in Alsace. Monsieur and Madame Sipp, at La Chaumière d’Alsace–Foie Gras Sipp, in Moosch, northeast of Mulhouse, began by making it for friends, and with their growing success, started selling it, too. They offer it plain, just salted and peppered, or pasteurized, mi-cuit, or raw, along with goose confit and smoked magret. Visitors can buy their products to go, or sample them on the spot—a tiny restaurant upstairs, and a few garden tables in summer, allow clients to enjoy a meal of excellent house-made products accompanied by a good bottle of wine. La Chaumière d’Alsace, Moosch. 03.89.82.31.51. website

If time allows, travelers can avoid the main highway and opt for the spectacular little switchback route on the rounded mountain called the Ballon de Guebwiller to get to the Domaine du Bollenberg, in Westhalten. Bollenberg is the fief of the Meyer family, the seven children of Eugène and Madeleine Meyer, who bought the vineyards of Le Clos Sainte-Apolline in 1945. Along with the winery, the Domaine also includes a distillery making Alsatian eaux-de-vie and liqueurs (see “Eau-de-Vie“); the 45-room Hôtel du Bollenberg; and the Auberge Au Vieux Pressoir, a very traditional restaurant with a menu rich in local specialties.

And then there are the gourmandises of Blaise Meyer, a master confiturier and a former pupil of Anchier-Tanrade, a famous artisan who had a shop in Paris until the late 1970s. Blaise is a colorful character, a former sailor who traveled the world and found his current profession back home late in life. He makes desserts for the restaurant, and he also concocts sweet treats for the boutique, including some 50 kinds of preserves, jellies and candies, cooked in small batches in copper pots—not just pear, plum and apricot, but also dandelion, nettle, onion, gewurztraminer grapes, chocolate praline and more. They’re instantly addictive, and clients inevitably order more. Domaine du Bollenberg, Westhalten. 03.89.49.60.04. website

Surrounded by vineyards said to be the first planted in Alsace, by 4th-century Romans, Eguisheim also has several other claims to fame, including its charming round contour, with cobbled streets in concentric circles around its octagonal 13th-century château; and its native son, Bruno d’Eguisheim, who became the 11th-century Pope Leo IX. And then there’s the Pâtisserie Marx, with its delicious cakes and especially its authentic Alsatian bretzel, big fat pretzels crunchy on the outside and soft within. Made the traditional way—flour, water, yeast, salt and butter, soaked in brine before baking so they don’t burn—they’re sold hot out of the oven. They’re best savored with a local beer, a Sans Culotte for example, a delicious bière blonde whose label shows a Revolutionary-era Alsatienne raising her skirt to display her derrière. 39 Grand Rue, Eguisheim. 03.89.41.32.56.

Westward toward the Vosges mountains in Munster, Henri Dischinger is an artisanal charcutier who still smokes his hams with local brushwood and branches of juniper laden with berries in winter. Boned and pressed, the hams age for three months and preserve a thin layer of fat under the rind. All his products, from his bacon to his gendarmes—flat sausages dried and sold in pairs—are excellent. 2 Grand Rue, Munster. 03.89.77.36.92.

Grapes and berries

Kaysersberg marks the start of the holy of holies of the famous Alsatian Route des Vins. For a long time wine connoisseurs disdained Alsace whites, but the quality has so vastly improved that some now figure among the world’s best wines, particularly those from these wineries, all located close to one another.

Do not on any account miss the Domaine Weinbach. Les Dames Faller (the Faller ladies), as they are known—mother Colette and daughters Catherine and Laurence—welcome you in an ancient Capuchin monastery whose origins date to the 9th century. You can taste a wide range of their wines, most of them grand crus, from their splendid and varied terroirs—Schlossberg, Furstentum, Mambourg, Altenburg and Le Clos des Capucins. As for the Vendange Tardive (late harvest) wines and those made from a Sélection de Grains Nobles (late-harvest grapes with noble rot, similar to the German Trockenbeerenauslese), their richness is legendary. Here they are biodynamically produced, with respect for the soils, limited yields and grapes picked at the peak of ripeness—everything comes together to produce great gastronomic wines, wines of emotion and pleasure. Clos des Capucins, 25 route du Vin, Kaysersberg (between Kaysersberg and Kientzheim). 03.89.47.13.21. website

Anyone visiting Kaysersberg must try at least one of the establishments of Olivier Nasti, MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) and enfant terrible of the Alsatian restaurant world. With his brother Emmanuel, Nasti took over the 100-year-old hotel-restaurant Le Chambard ten years ago, transforming it into a high-design hotel with a very contemporary restaurant and a more traditional bistrot-style winstub (see “The New Auberge“). Across the way he opened Flamme & Co, where he reinvented the classic tarte flambée, and nearby he launched the Kouglof bakery, where he sells sweet and savory kougelhopfs with surprising flavors. Nasti may be impossible to avoid in Kaysersberg, but so much the better, because it’s all excellent. Le Chambard, 9/13 rue du Général de Gaulle, 03.89.47.10.17. websiteFlamme & Co, 4 rue du Général de Gaulle, 03.89.47.16.16. websiteKouglof, 50 rue du Général de Gaulle, 03.89.78.22.73.

 

Riquewihr is an ancient, fortified medieval cité largely spared by the two world wars. Vines grow right up to the edge of town, and produce some of the finest wines in Alsace. Two favorite wineries here: Domaine Hugel & Fils, right downtown, and Domaine Paul Blanck & Fils, a bit farther out in Kientzheim, on the Kaysersberg road. The Hugel family is known for having won official recognition for the Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles categories in Alsace. Its caves are very popular with visitors. The Paul Blanck domaine cultivates its vines very carefully and pays as much attention to wines meant to be drunk young as to their grands crus. Hugel, 3 rue de la Première Armée, Riquewihr, 03.89.47.92.15. websiteBlanck, 32 Grand Rue, Kientzheim, 03.89.78.23.56. website

 

At Marcel Windholz, a distillery in Ribeauvillé, Michel Windholz carries on his grandfather’s work. Eau-de-vie is the result of the distillation of fermented or macerated fruits or berries, and the quality of the fruit is of primary importance, since the whole fruit—skin, seeds, pits and all—goes into the mix. Michel Windholz is a magician at distillation, and the quality of his eaux-de-vie is remarkable—it never changes, even after the bottle has been opened. More than 30 flavors are available. 31 ave du Général de Gaulle, Ribeauvillé, 03.89.73.66.64. website

The liquid portion of our gastronomic tour ends at the Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim, a half-timbered town with parts of its 14th/15th-century fortified walls still standing and a famous linden tree that dates to 1300. The Deiss winery belongs to a family that has led the trend toward biodynamic wines for several generations. Three types of wine are produced: wines meant to be drunk young; wines for aging, including late harvest wines and Sélection de Grains Nobles; and wines that highlight the terroir rather than the grape varietal. Differences of opinion on the subject of terroir wines have divided Deiss’s colleagues—here you can judge them for yourself. 15 route du Vin, Bergheim, 03.89.73.63.37. website

Sybaritic stop

The prosperous little town of Obernai, guarded by 12th-century ramparts, is a wine capital, and also the home of the Kronenbourg breweries. The chocolatier-pâtissier Gross was founded here by Simon Gross in 1873 and is now run by fourth-generation Michel Gross. Everything is delicious, especially the linzer tarte and the gâteaux de voyage66 rue du Général Gouraud, Obernai, 03.88.95.51.13. website

Obernai also boasts the hotel Le Parc, a great stopover. After hotel school in Lausanne and a debut in Asian luxury hotels, Maxime Wucher, the son of owners Monique and Marc Wucher, took over the hotel’s direction this year. But his parents are still very much involved—they’ve devoted their entire lives to the hotel. Marie Kuntz, Marc’s grandmother, opened a modest boarding house-restaurant in 1954; since then it has grown into a luxurious and extremely comfortable hotel. The drawback is that it’s so comfortable you’re tempted to spend all your time without ever leaving the premises. There’s the pool in the park, or another enormous one in the sumptuous Asian Spa—with a hammam (steam bath), sauna, whirlpool and a whole range of massages, the choice gets difficult. There’s a choice of restaurants, too: La Stub offers an enticing lunch menu of cuisine de terroir in homage to grand-mère Marie; La Table features more sophisticated cuisine and an impressive wine list; and finishing the evening with a Cuban cigar and a glass of aged rum in the Habana Lounge isn’t bad, although some might prefer the bowling alley or the pool bar. Some rooms are decorated in Alsatian style, others are more contemporary, but nothing is impersonal here—the ambiance is both chic and warm, as are the owners. 169 route d’Ottrott, Obernai, 03.88.95.50.08. website

In Strasbourg, it’s l’embarras du choix— so just settle in and enjoy your feast. But don’t miss four unbeatable addresses. First, the celebrated winstub Chez Yvonne. Opened in 1873 and bought by the famous Yvonne in 1956, it has welcomed celebrities and politicians from around the world, whose photos cover the stairway walls. Owned since 2001 by the Valmigère family, it’s now better than ever, serving simple, excellent regional cuisine. The clientele is largely local, and it’s open daily until midnight. 10 rue du Sanglier, Strasbourg 03.88.32.84.15. website

A few steps away, at Au Vieux Gourmet, fromager and affineur Cyrille Lortho offers a magnificent cheese selection, and doesn’t hesitate to recommend trying it with a “surprising companion”—beer. For example, bière blonde with Reblochon or Saint-Nectaire, bière brune with Roquefort, bière blanche with goat cheese. 3 rue des Orfèvres, Strasbourg, 03.88.32.71.20. website

Near the cathedral are the two Christian boutiques and salons de thé. Pâtissier, chocolatier and glacier (ice cream maker), the gifted Christophe Meyer concocts chocolates from secret recipes and real fresh fruit ice cream that could lead you to damnation, while his wife Isabelle does the cooking for light meals in the tea salon. 12 rue de l’Outre, 03.88.32.04.41; 10 rue Mercière, 03.88.22.12.70. Strasbourg. website

Artzner has been making foie gras since the early 19th century. Besides new recipes very much in the modern style, the foie en terrine, which is served with a spoon and made only for the December holiday season, is a great favorite, as are the millefeuilles— thin slices of duck breast layered with foie gras. 7 rue de la Mésange, Strasbourg, 03.88.32.05.00. website

 

Finally, in Vendenheim, a village on the edge of Strasbourg, Riedinger-Balzer belongs to a family of butchers who make their own charcuterie. Saucisses and saucissons, knackwursts, cervelas, liver sausage, terrines of filet mignon, game terrines—you’ll want to taste them all. 5 rue du Général Leclerc, Vendenheim, 03.88.69.40.08. website

Right across the street, La Ferme Bleue is a very pretty house with three quiet guest rooms, surrounded by a garden with a pool—a charming finale to a fine promenade. 14 rue du Général Leclerc, Vendenheim, 03.88.69.53.39. website

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of France Today; updated in November 2011

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