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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Choucroute Garnie. Famous Dishes of France’s Alsace Region.

Behind the French Menu. 
Bryan Newman
Choucroute Garnie.

Choucroute Garnie for eight, ready for serving.
Photograph courtesy of
Visit the Alsace, the French région bordering Germany to the North and Switzerland to the East and you will be in a culinary wonderland overseen by great chefs. You will find menus with well-known dishes that come from every corner of France, new creations that will remain in your consciousness for years, and also the traditional dishes of the Alsace, with Choucroute Garnie being the most well-known.  While Choucroute Garnie began as a dish served at family celebrations in the winter, now it is on restaurant menus all year round.

A single serving of choucroute.
Photograph courtesy of goodiesfirst.
The sausages and meats that are at the heart of a Choucroute Garnie include two or more pork based sausages including the region’s own Saucisse de Strasbourg and probably  a boudin noir, a French black pudding sausage. 
 The meats and sausages for Choucroute Garnie for two.
 Photograph courtesy of Michael Dietsch.
The meats will be pork shoulder, smoked pork shanks, and other pork cuts. Goose, also an Alsatian favorite, may occasionally replace some of the pork or be added to it. The sausages and meats will have been cooked slowly in the oven; each component is added one on top of the other, each in accordance with the cooking time required.

The main garnish  for Choucroute  Garnie is the Alsace’s famous, juniper berry flavored, pickled cabbage called, unsurprisingly, choucroute. Choucroute is also an important garnish in many other traditional Alsatian dishes. While the meats and sausages have been cooking in the oven, the choucroute, the dish’s essential companion, will have been cooking on the top of the stone being flavored with a meat stock,  gravy from the meats in the oven, goose fat and herbs.  Just before serving the choucroute  it will have an additional flavoring added when one of the région’s own great white wines is added; usually a  Riesling AOC.

Riesling from the Alsace.
Photograph courtesy of Megan Mallen

Choucroute Garnie à l’Alsacienne
Then comes the presentation. For the seated diners a well presented platter of Choucroute Garnie can be awesome. A platter that I saw prepared and presented to a table of twelve was absolutely incredible; I think it would have sufficed for a table of twenty four,  it required two servers just to carry and display the platter.   Choucroute Garnie is a dish for a crowd, preferably order Choucroute Garnie when you are at least six diners, the more the merrier.  Order an aperitif while waiting, but do not even think of ordering an hors d’oeuvre or an entrée, the French starter, you will never finish a whole Choucroute  Garnie anyway. When the dish is ready, then, at the tinkle of a bell or with a clap of hands the server, and possibly the chef as well, will enter the dining-room bearing the platter of Choucroute  Garnie.  With the presentation of Choucroute Garnie so very important the dish will be carried around the table so all the diners may enjoy the display before it is served.

 A fast food version of Choucroute Garnie.
Photograph courtesy of Renée S. Suen
When ordering Choucroute Garnie try to do so in an Alsatian specialty restaurant; even better, get invited to a Sunday dinner or celebration in a private home. All the components should cook together for several hours, and for that you need someone who knows what he or she is doing; the presentation should also be a delight for the eyes. I am not a diehard Choucroute Garnie aficionado, but, when I do need my occasional Choucroute Garnie fix I stay with the original, with all the bells and whistles.
Home-made Choucroute Garnie.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Dietsch.
How tourism has changed the Alsatian menus.
With the advent of mass tourism,  the visitors with their varied tastes encouraged local restaurants to broaden their menus. Many visitors new about the reputation of Choucroute Garnie but some did not want  a dish with such a high fat content, and some did not want all the pork that is part of the original dish. The result will be will found in the restaurants  that have upgraded the name and the recipes of Choucroute Garnie.
Your menu may offer:
Choucroute Royale - Choucroute Garnie  prepared by using the Alsace’s sparkling crémant  wine instead of the usual Riesling,  it is added just before serving. Despite the use of  this truly excellent crémant, from my experience, it does not make a major change in the taste that all good Alsatian Rieslings provide. The Royale version of Choucroute Garnie would seem to me to be a dish originally created for the tourists with fattened wallets.
Choucroute au Fruits de Mer –  Choucroute served as an accompaniment to seafood. This and other similar dishes at least do not include Garnie in their title. Choucroute Garni needs meats that must be cooked for hours to create special flavors; fish cannot be cooked like that.  Choucroute au Fruits de Mer is what is; seafood accompanied by choucroute. The Alsace is far from the sea, but fresh seafood arrives daily and Alsatian chefs do wonderful things with sea fish and seafood.

Choucroute au Poisson – Like the dish above, here the Alsace’s signature choucroute accompanies  locally caught or locally farmed freshwater fish that will be chosen from among trout, bream, pike, carp, Wels catfish, tilapia, freshwater perch, eels, perch, pike-perch and more.  Usually this dish is made with a single fish; when the menu is not clear ask. The freshwater fish of the Alsace are excellent.

Choucroute de la Mer – Choucroute  served with imported salt-water fish; often this dish includes mussels and or clams.  

Choucroute de la Mer; here it is  made with Atlantic salmon.
Photograph courtesy of keeps.
The story of choucroute
 Choucroute, the pickled cabbage of the Alsace, like most pickled foods dates back to the days before refrigeration.  Throughout the Old World pickling vegetables for winter was one of the few ways to have a guaranteed supply of green vegetables in winter. Choucroute, the Alsace’s sauerkraut, its pickled cabbage,  is made with either the familiar white cabbage seen everywhere or preferably with Alsace’s own strain of giant white cabbages,  the Choux Quintal d'Alsace.

The giant white Quintal d'Alsace cabbages on sale.
These cabbages can reach seven kilos or more, though most of these giants go to market when they are only a pigmy sized four kilos!
Photograph courtesy of Ariela R.
Sauerkraut’s creation is associated with Germany, and the Alsace and its neighbor the Lorraine do have a long association with Germany.  The Alsace and the Lorraine were passed back and forth like a football between France and the various rulers of German States and then again with the United Germany.  Among the results were the addition of many German influenced dishes to the Alsatian menu, and the use of a German dialect called Allemand Alsacien or Elsässerditsch alongside French.  Despite these clear connections the local citizens will spend time explaining how their choucroute is far superior to German sauerkraut. They will explain that it is not only the added genièvre, juniper berries, which some German recipes also use; there is much more to choucroute than just pickling cabbage for eight weeks. Choucroute is part of the Alsatian psyche.
Other traditional dishes of the Alsace,
Traditional cuisine à l'Alsacienne includes many dishes without choucroute:  timbales, pies, foie gras, fattened goose and duck liver, carp dishes, tarte flambée,  the dish the locals call flammen kuechen, and  by others is often wrongly called Alsatian Pizza, excellent cakes, unique Alsatian honeys and much more.  Today, you will rarely find a restaurant that only serves traditional Alsatian dishes, and despite that caveat, traditional accents and dishes will appear on menus along with modern French cuisine; enjoy the interesting combinations.   There are many excellent chefs in the Alsace and they are not only found  in the most expensive restaurants.

A traditional tarte flambee, also called a flammen kuechen.
Photograph courtesy of cbcastro
The wines of the Alsace
The wines of the Alsace include some of the best white wines in France. Alsatian wines are also among the very few AOC wines known by the names of the grapes used. Apart from their dry and semi-dry white wines the Alsace also has some of France’s best sweet dessert wines. If white wines are not enough, try the local beer; nearly 50% of all the beers in France are produced in the Alsace. 
An Alsatian Gewurztraminer  white wine label.
Photograph courtesy of mhigelin.
The Alsatians brought the brasseries to other parts of France. 
Over many generations Alsatians moved to other parts of France  and some of were the owners and chefs of the originally  Alsatian brewery based restaurants called brasseries.  Today, a brasserie’s menu may have no connection to the Alsace while another, may give away its origins with specific Alsatian dishes on the menu.

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Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
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