Go on a cake hunt in Strasbourg! – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If you get lucky enough to visit Strasbourg the capital city of Alsace make sure to put your toothbrush in your toilet bag: there are so many ways to be led into temptation that your teeth will surely need it to avoid cavities! Alsatian gastronomy is a rich and inventive one with a strong Germanic influence found in salty dishes such as sauerkraut, flammekeuche (a salty tart made with sliced bacon, onions and double cream) or baeckeoffe (a meat stew slowly cooked with white wine and spices). But where cooks from Strasbourg are at their best probably is baking: there are a few skilled pastry chefs and confectioners whose savoir-faire and creativity allows us to taste wonderful cakes, chocolates and countless sweets. It would be a pity not to pay a visit to their shops and tearooms.
Right in the middle of the historical district of Strasbourg called “Petite France”, with its canals lined by typical half-timbered houses, “Pains d’Epices” is the gingerbread kingdom. Since 1933 three generations of women passed on to one another secret recipes to make one of the best gingerbread ever. Made with wheat and rye flours, forest honey, butter and a exclusive blend of seven spices, cinnamon, clove, mace, ginger, cardamom, aniseed and pepper the original recipe is still the same. Nowadays Mireille Oster the present owner often travels the world to bring back home new savours and exotic produce to create new flavour blends. Using top quality ingredients she reinvents the world of gingerbread adding dates, goji berries, prunes, chestnuts, dried bananas, Morello cherries… Her shop is like a sweet box where you won’t know where to turn your gaze: a profusion of cakes and sweets will make your mouth water. Mireille will help you to make your choice between the different gingerbreads that bear poetic names, Angel Bread, Seven Spices, Sun Bread, Verdi, China Night… And why not try the “Engelbrot” an unusual sweet/savoury gingerbread that will perfectly pair up with foie gras.
With its outside terrace and its unique view over the cathedral, “Christian” is the place to go to eat great chocolates. There you will find an amazing range of chocolate bars made with single-origin cacao. As a winemaker selects one grape variety harvested in a specific vineyard to make his wine thus enhancing its qualities, Christian Meyer selected fairy traded and all natural premium chocolates to concoct sweets and cakes that draw all the chocolates lovers in town. One of his latest creations funnily named “Potato” is made with truffle, almond paste and candied cherries. A subtle and mouth watering association of flavours! Sitting at a table on the terrace overlooked by the lace-like façade of the cathedral or in the cosy 2nd floor tearoom it’s time to enjoy a portion of “tarte au fromage blanc” another Alsatian speciality that can be seen as the cheesecake ancestor in a smoother version or to taste one of Christian’s creation: the surprising raspberry and basil ice-cream, another bestseller of the house.
The kouglof is a symbol of the Alsatian cuisine and way of life. This raisin and almond cake, not to be mistaken for a brioche or a panettone is baked in a terracotta-fluted mould giving it its unique shape. Most Alsatian families have their own recipe passed on from mother to daughter for generations. No need to say that almost every bakery in town sells kouglof and no need to say that they are far from being equal. A good kouglof must be moist, not too sweet and rich in raisin. Thierry Mulhaupt bakes one of the best one in town. This multi award wining confectioner and chocolatier makes delicious sweet or salted kouglofs. If you would like to see the biggest one in Strasbourg go to “Woerlé” a bakery founded in 1919,where they make a 7,5 kg (16,5 pounds) kouglof, big enough to fulfil 40 people!
“Le Coeur d’Alsace” was open only two years ago but already is a reference in the land of sweetness. Don’t expect an elaborate decoration in this rather minimalist shop where the stars obviously are the nougats and gingerbreads. On the big counter and on the wall-to-wall shelves oversize loafs of these all honey delights titillate the nose with unexpected and trendy flavors: Nutella, Malibu-coco, rum and raisin, cranberry… But be aware that gingerbread and nougat are heavy and that they are sold by the weight making the bill pretty heavy too!
“Streussel” is another Alsatian speciality that can hardly be found outside of Alsace and this is still a mystery to me: why should Alsatians be the only ones to enjoy this fruity treat? Once again it could be compared with a British recipe but although it looks like a crumble is not quiet the same. It basically is a tart made with a short pastry filled with fruits covered with a crumble so that the fruits are between two layers of two different pastries. Alsatians will rather use local fruits such as blueberries, Mirabelle or damson plums… At “Naegel” you can get an apple and cinnamon streusel you could kill for! Try to get a table in their tiny tearoom and enjoy a piece of Streussel with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and seize the moment!
Alsace is a land of plenty and orchards generously give tons of fruits. It’s only natural that with so many local fruits Alsatians make so many jams. At “La Chambre aux Confitures”, the Jam Room, there are no less than 100 different jams exclusively made with fruits and sugar: no artificial flavours, no flavour enhancers, no conservatives or food colouring agents, only fruits picked at perfect maturity and the right amount of sugar to magnify their flavours. Quince, pear, fig, rhubarb, strawberry, green tomato, blackberry, cherry, red and black currant, apricot, cranberry, mulberry, rosehip… it’s an endless list. Quietly lined on the shelves of this elegant shop, the multicoloured little pots are waiting for you to make your choice among single fruit jams, blended fruits jams such as banana, rhubarb and passion fruit, pear and ginger, quince, vanilla and lemon, rhubarb and elder, blackcurrant and violet, black cherry and mint, melon and hazelnut, raspberry and Champagne…. They also make fruity preparations called confits to pair up with salted dishes. Thus to accompany cheeses you can choose a Mirabelle plum and cumin confit or a pear, quince, grape and spices confit and even a Vin Jaune confit … These recipes have been created with the help of Laurent Dubois who was awarded “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” for cheeses, meaning “One of the Best Craftsmen of France”. This unique and prestigious competition is held only every four years and demands several years of training to its competitors. And very few are chosen! Laurent Dubois’s expertise ensures quality and savour if you choose one of his confit.
If you can find them all year round now in Strasbourg, the “Bredele” are traditional biscuits originally made for Christmas time. There are dozens different kinds of Bredele since every family and every baker has at least ten to twelve recipes. France number one Christmas Market is in Strasbourg and if you happen to be there during this festive time you will see heaps of those crunchy biscuits on sell on the market stands and in the bakeries. They can only be found during Advent and are delicious with a hot chocolate or a glass of mulled wine.
Feeling like a cordonbleu? If so you can attend a cooking course with Sebastien Gillmann and learn how to bake delicious cakes. This talented chocolatier and confectioner is a chocolate lover who will make you share his passion and help you get the knack for cooking tasty sweets. His courses are quickly booked and you’ll need to see to it in advance to join in. And even if you don’t feel like baking, pay a visit to his tearoom, stylishly Art Deco furnished to enjoy one of his delicious creations: macaroons, sophisticated chocolates cakes, fruit puff pastries, fluffy mousses…
Strasbourg being only one hour and a half by plane from London and two hours and twenty minutes by train from Paris, all these sweets are just within your reach. Beside its cultural and historical interests Strasbourg could easily tempt you by its incredible range of cakes and sweets. So forget everything about diets and allow yourself this treat!
For more information:
Strasbourg Tourism Office: www.otstrasbourg.fr
“Pain d’Epices” by Christine Oster: 14, rue des Dentelles www.mireille-oster.com
“Christian”: 10, rue Merciere www.christian.fr
“Woerlé”:10, rue de la Division Leclerc www.boulangeriewoerle.com
“Naegel”: 9, rue des Orfevres www.maison-naegel.com
“La Chambre aux Confitures”: 17, rue des Orfevres www.lachambreauxconfitures.com
Sébastien Gillmann: 20, Quai des Bateliers www.sebastien-gillmann.fr
“Le Coeur d’Alsace”: 8, rue des Serruriers
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny