Alsace: Where the Flavors Of France and Germany Blend

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A generous slice of kuglehopf with breakfast, a platter of carpes frites at lunch, and choucroute garnie for the evening meal.

Welcome to Alsace, where the tables reflect a colorful, diverse history. Tucked in the eastern corner of France, the region has been passed back and forth between France and Germany for many generations.

It's a winning combination: France's famous passion for food and natural ability to create artful dishes from fresh ingredients mixed with the German's love of heartiness and abundance. It's no wonder Alsace is known for its outstanding cuisine.

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A lush and varied region, it is blessed with numerous rivers and lakes, a moderate climate, and rich soil.

Bordered by Germany and Switzerland, framed by the Vosges Mountains on the west and the Rhine River on the east, Alsace has been occupied by Germany numerous times - as recently as World War II.

The people of Alsace have remained especially loyal to France, although German influence is certainly evident in the region's guttural dialect, half-timbered buildings, and a healthy portion of its cuisine.

Kugelhopf (derived from the German word kugel - a ball) is a raisin- and almond-studded semi-sweet cake, baked in a high-crown bundt pan, and traditionally served for Sunday breakfast. These pans, which come in many sizes, are displayed in stores throughout Alsace. They make wonderful souvenirs and are utilitarian as well, an Alsatian kitchen staple.

Carpes frites, on the other hand, reflect a French touch in the kitchen. It is simply a platter of fish, lightly breaded in a cornmeal coating and piled high on the plate along with the French version of French fries.

Alsatians have managed to take even the humble cabbage and elevate it to a dish fit for kings. Their famous choucroute garnie is distinguished from simple sauerkraut by the use of wine when preparing it and by the richness and variety of the garnishes, which can include sausages and a variety of smoked or unsmoked meat.

Meals often end with tarts made from the local, beautifully named mirabelles (plums or tiny blueberries), which temporarily stain one's lips and teeth.

Many towns in Alsace celebrate their love of food as well as the abundance of the region with festivals throughout the year. Festivals in spring and summer celebrate the cheese of the region, and many others devoted to choucroute take place in autumn.

Of course, there is more to life than eating in Alsace. The area is a narrow, 100-mile strip, physically beautiful and varied. Wooded mountains are punctuated with lakes and enjoyed by campers, hikers, and cross-country skiers.

Strasbourg is Alsace's largest city. Its main core, both in ancient times and today, is an island formed in the Ill River and linked to the city by 20 bridges.

Major museums are near the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame. La Petite France is a picturesque area bisected by canals, with half-timbered houses clustered along narrow streets and a profusion of flowers in window boxes, hanging from bridges, and sidewalk planters.

The Alsatians have preserved and documented another aspect of their region in their Ecomuse at Ungersheim. This open-air museum has recreated a small Alsatian village by transferring, piece by piece, historic peasant houses that were slated for demolition.

The museum has grown since it opened in 1984, and now contains more than 50 buildings. Each was selected because it was typical of a specific period or part of Alsace, or because it served a specific purpose in the community.

One building houses a classroom divided in half to show what a school was like when Alsace was French and how it looked during a period of German occupation. The museum also has a stork preserve to encourage the reproduction of these magnificent birds.

Alsace, with its French and German heritage, is unique in all of France. One can see this mix of cultures on its streets, hear it in the language, and savor it at the dining table.

Kugelhopf

1 packet dry yeast

1 cup sugar

1 1/2-cups milk

4 1/2 cups flour

I cup butter, softened

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup raisins, soaked in 1/2- cup warm water

3/4-cup slivered almonds

Put yeast, I tablespoon sugar, and 1/2 cup warmed milk in a large bowl. Stir gently and allow yeast to activate about 5 minutes. Mix in 2 1/2-cups flour to form a stiff dough. Cover with a cloth, and put in warm place until doubled in size.

In mixer, cream remaining sugar and butter. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each. Slowly beat in remaining milk. Beat in remining flour and salt.

Mix with electric beater for about 3 minutes. Remove from mixing bowl and combine the first batter to this and knead by hand, 8 to I0 minutes. Place in a buttered bowl, cover with a cloth, allow to double in size in a warm place, (approximately 1 hour). Punch dough down, and knead in raisins and liquid, then almonds

Butter a 9-inch bundt pan and dust with flour. Add dough. Cover, let rise until doubled. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 60 minutes or until golden. If top browns too soon, cover with foil.

Let stand I0 minutes before unmolding.

Allow to cool before slicing.

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