Slender, fragile Alsace stands isolated, a region cut off from the rest of France by the Vosges Mountains and separated from Germany by the Rhine River.
Because of its position and desirability, it has historically existed as a rich prize; the last century alone, for example, has seen the region change nationality four times.
Now Alsace is French, and at peace. Many older folk here, however, still speak German, others the guttural Alsatian patois.
The unique character of the region is reflected in its distinctive cuisine. For here Gallic reverence toward the serious business of eating is tempered by a certain Germanic gusto and joviality which is heartwarming. Quintessentially French specialties such as escargots (snails cooked in savory garlic butter), frog's legs, and coq au vin are firm favorites.
But so are heavy-set (and heavy sitting) stews cooked in pot-bellied earthenware such as Backofe, a one-pot meal traditionally left in the town baker's oven overnight to slow-cook Wagnerian portions of lamb, beef, mutton, and potatoes.
And if sauerkraut in Germany can be a rather tedious and ubiquitous accompaniment so is Choucroute Alsacienne. This dish, a huge platter of homemade sauerkraut garnished with smoked pork chops, grilled Strasbourg sausages, knackwurst, salted beef, pig's knuckle, and black pudding, translates into a feast.
Savoury Alsatian Tarte a l'Oignon is equally at home alongside the distinctive regional cake known as Kugelhopf.
Individual Kugelhopfs are sold in patisseries throughout the region, like those found in the old part of Colmar, where they can be consumed on the spot. And, of course, they are made at home, baked in the well-worn family fluted earthenware mold that gives the cake its name.
Such distinctive Kugelhopf molds are available from some shops specializing in French kitchenware. Otherwise, try improvising with a jelly mold, cake tin, or tube pan, but do watch cooking time, as this will vary. Kugelhopf (Raisin and Almond Cake) 2/3 cup milk 1 ounce dried yeast 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour Salt 2 eggs 3 tablespoons superfine sugar 3/4 cup butter 1 cup raisins plumped in warm water About 1 dozen whole blanched almonds Powdered sugar to dust
Warm milk gently. Add yeast and butter to milk and mix well. Sieve flour into a large mixing bowl and add salt, eggs, and sugar. Combine them together and slowly add warmed milk, butter, and yeast.
Knead well for about 20 minutes until mixture no longer sticks to sides of bowl. The dough should be moist, but not wet. Cover bowl with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour.
Knead again, then add and work in raisins. Butter an 8-inch Kugelhopf mold well and decorate inside with almonds. Pile dough into mold. Again, leave in a warm place until dough has risen to the top, about another hour.
Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F. for about an hour. If it browns too quickly, cover it with a sheet of greaseproof paper or foil.
Push a knife into dough and if it comes out clean, the Kugelhopf is ready. Turn out of mold, dust with confectioners' sugar, and serve warm or cold.