After I finished my PhD, I did a postdoc in Strasbourg, during the years 1980-81. I grew up in England, and though I had travelled to India many times and lived in three countries – India, England, and Scotland – I looked forward to living in France and exploring the food and wine. Eating out in the UK was still very hit and miss. Things were starting to improve but in general the food was terrible. Exceptions were Indian restaurants, but there, while the food was good, ambience and presentation left much to be desired. However, I was sceptical.
Could the food in France really be THAT good?
When I moved to Strasbourg, I decided consciously to “become a Frenchwoman”. I had done French O Level and before leaving spent some weeks practicing in the University’s Language Lab. While I wasn’t yet fluent, my French was adequate for the basics of life. I always shopped in small local places, not the supermarchés, because in the neighborhood shops one was forced to use one’s French in talking to the sales staff. In a supermarché you could buy a whole load of stuff without speaking to anyone. Manners in Strasbourg were quite formal too. If you said “Merci” to the saleslady, the response was always “Je vous en prie”, and so you learned some basic politesse while shopping.
After living there only a few weeks, I was forced to admit the food was even better than I had imagined! It started with raw materials. Vegetables and fruit were available in a wider array than in the UK, and the local varieties seemed to me to be bred with flavor being the primary consideration, not shippability or merely appearance. I have never to this day eaten such fine black cherries, dark purple in color, perfectly round in shape, and of a sweetness beyond any other cherries I ever tried. I once bought a two-pound bag and ate the entire thing in one sitting. Sour cherries-griottes- were used in desserts and sorbets in the summer.
Wild cherries, “guignes”, were once called “gean” cherries in England but it would be hard to find them today.
Across the street from my creepy studio apartment on Grand’ Rue was a crèmerie-a cheese shop. Such a thing didn’t exist in England, and I would regularly buy cheese, butter, milk, and eggs there. The proprietor was happy to let me try samples and I learned a lot. The local cheeses were excellent!
Of course, the next thing was to try the local patisseries, restaurants, and even the sandwich cart near the lab, run by 2 very proper middle-aged ladies, sisters, one of whom as people used to say, “had the remains of great beauty”. The patisseries were a revelation. Again, far better than anything in England or indeed in the US. One pastry I remember was “nid d’abeilles (bees nest), flavored with honey. A lot of people in Strasbourg kept bees at their country cottages and by the main railway station there was a shop that sold beekeepers equipment. I came across it quite by accident while walking around that neighborhood and it was fascinating to look at the stock.
One of the French graduate students I knew kept bees, in “rûches” (beehives) and this opened a whole new aspect of life in Alsace and expanded vocabulary for me. Other pastries I enjoyed were tarte au citron, tarte au groseilles, decorated with meringue on which were elegantly arranged sprays of redcurrants, and petits pains au chocolat, with a tiny bar of bitter chocolate in the center, not overdone and too sweet as chocolate croissants invariably are in the US. In Place Kleber there were stalls selling merguez, the spicy sausage of Algeria, grilled and eaten enclosed in a baguette. Delicious and sadly, long gone! The sandwich cart was a good place to get a quick lunch and again the quality of the ham, cheese, and baguettes was very high.
I liked to try the restaurants du quartier. There were several choices. I usually went on my own but occasionally with the American postdocs, who were not knowledgeable about food. They came from small towns and thought pizza and hamburgers were the height of cuisine.
One of them, on being offered a glass of good Alsatian white wine at a dinner party replied, “I only drink it if it’s cold and carbonated”. She ONLY drank Coca Cola, root beer, or sodas…. quelle horreur!
I didn’t know much about wine, but I did know I was living in one of the great wine-growing regions of France and was ready to enjoy both the drink and food!
Another always ordered the wrong thing. His strategy was to select the most expensive thing on the menu-usually jambon en croute, ham in a pastry case, a local specialty-with the assumption that it must also be the tastiest item on the menu. When it arrived, he was disappointed-the canny waiter had sliced off the end of the jambon, dry as a bone, with a little piece of pastry, just for him. He wondered how I always managed to choose the best thing on the menu. Well, my French was fluent by this point, so I could chat with the waiters, but also, you needed to imagine visually what a dish might be like. Menus in those days did not necessarily offer detailed descriptions, and the American postdocs knew nothing outside their research specialties. None of them spoke French.
I enjoyed Alsatian cuisine. The beekeeping graduate student, an Alsacienne, described it as “bonne, mais pas fine”-good but not haute cuisine. One specialty was asparagus, since a great deal of it was grown in the area around Strasbourg. In the asparagus season, local restaurants served nothing else. I remember a group of us went out to dinner to try it. It was served on huge platters, delicately steamed, neither soggy nor overdone, and accompanied by three sauces in silver sauceboats. These were vinaigrette, mayonnaise, and hollandaise, and you dipped the asparagus stalks as you preferred. Waiters milled about filling the platters with more and more steamed asparagus as they emptied. I had never tasted anything so good! This was a regular spring ritual. Tarte flambée, a sort of pizza decorated with white cheese and the local bacon, was another delicious specialty.
Finally, there was Choucroute Garnie. This was usually made for several people to share and consisted of a huge dish of sauerkraut garnished with pork chops, sausage, duck, and other meats. I would have thought it a winter dish, since it was baked and served very hot in a huge china baking dish, but you could find it year-round in the local Alsatian style restaurants. People used to come in from the country round to eat it and I remember seeing these huge red-faced Alsatian gentlemen emerging after a lunch of choucroute garnie in the middle of August! These were the first really fat people I had ever seen. At this time, the English were still skinny and so were most Europeans. But not in Strasbourg.
There were so many of these overweight people that the gentlemen’s tailors had special manikins! The tailor shop in town, “KLOTZ”, had a really fancy one in the window, and it was quite extraordinary to look at.
It had a sinister knowing expression on its face, and I remember thinking, if the Autons had landed in Strasbourg and not Ealing Broadway, THIS is what they would have looked like!! …… Not until I moved to the US, did I see so many overweight people. I did not know it, but it was indeed “The Shape of Things to Come”.