The culinary traditions of Alsace
As Christmas approaches, a quiet excitement builds in the town and villages of Alsace as everyone starts to prepare their delicious Christmas treats – a tradition that has seen secret family recipes passed down from generation to generation. It is a time when irresistible smells combining the subtle combination of flour, butter, spices, dried fruits and citrus fruits begin to waft from bakeries and pastry shops around the region.
In Alsace, spices are an integral ingredient in the preparation of numerous savoury and sweet dishes. Whether they are used to flavour Christmas biscuits, add the taste that is so typical of local gingerbread, or provide a kick to mulled wine, they can enliven and do justice to any Christmas dish; some are even used to decorate houses, where they give off their warm and welcoming aroma. Spices such as aniseed, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, nutmeg and poppy seeds are a special part of any Alsatian Christmas menu, featuring in both savoury dishes and desserts: their flavour can be detected in typical Alsace specialities such as anisbredele, springerle, lebkuchen, choucroute, baeckeoffe, flammecküeche, spätzle and many other wonderful delicacies besides!
The first known trace of gingerbread-making in Europe dates back to Roman times. Originally gingerbread was baked in walnut or boxwood moulds in the shape of a man. Made from a basic mixture of honey and spices, this small, sweet and moist cake was particularly popular with children. From the end of the 16th century onwards, spices from the East began to be transported along the Rhine, resulting in the production of gingerbread in Alsace.
Dried fruit and citrus fruits
Dried fruit and citrus fruits add further zest to the aromas and flavours provided by spices, and are often a key ingredient in the preparation of Christmas biscuits; they are even used to decorate the Advent crown and Christmas tree.
Thin slices of orange or mandarin in a dish placed closed to a source of heat, and perhaps with the addition of a piece of cinnamon or a clove, create a pleasant atmospheric scent. Dried slices of orange also add an authentic touch to a Christmas tree or Advent crown.
Thin slices of dried apple or pear are also perfect for eating or decoration.
In addition, lemons are often used as an ingredient in biscuits.
Small segments of these crystallised fruits provide Alsace's Christmas cakes and biscuits with a character and flavour that is truly unique.
Dates, figs, walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds can also be enjoyed either on their own or as ingredients in Christmas biscuits.
Goose and foie gras
Goose and foie gras occupy a special place at any Christmas table in Alsace, where their delicious flavours, found in a variety of different products, add festive cheer to a celebratory Christmas meal.
Geese are part and parcel of Alsace's rural landscape, with around 40 producers continuing this gastronomic tradition.
In Alsace, the foie gras technique was introduced by the Romans in 58BC at the time of their conquest of the region by Julius Caesar. Pâté de foie gras was invented around 1780 by an Alsatian chef, Jean-Pierre Clause, the cook for the Maréchal de Contades, the governor of the region.
Foie gras remains a delicacy which locals keep for a special occasion. It can be served in a variety of ways: pan-fried with Gewurztraminer wine, in a terrine with Riesling, or baked inside a brioche.
Goose takes pride of place on the lunch or dinner table from St Martin's Day (11 November) up until Christmas. Stuffed with apples or chestnuts, then roasted on a bed of choucroute, it is often served with red cabbage. Goose neck is also a local delicacy, stuffed, of course, with foie gras.
In the Middle Ages, monks would ready themselves for the Christmas festivities by making a strong, malty beer. In France, this tradition has long since disappeared, and it was only in 1980, courtesy of Rina Müller, a leading light in the Alsace beer world, that it came back into fashion.
Bière de Noël is a convivial beer that is rounded and lively in taste, often spiced, amber in colour, and with an alcohol content of between 5-6%. Ideally served at a temperature of 10-12°C to enable it to fully express its delightful flavours, Christmas beer is the perfect accompaniment to small biscuits (except those flavoured with aniseed) as well as savoury dishes such as black or white pudding.
Bredele Christmas biscuits
A multitude of Christmas biscuits popular for both their myriad flavours and varied shapes (hearts, Christmas trees, diamonds, clover, moon and even stars) are produced in Alsace every year to satisfy the public's demanding tastebuds! Even before they are eaten, they provide a veritable feat for the eyes!
In Alsace, when a red glow illuminates the horizon at dusk it is said that this is the Christkindl (Christ Child) lighting the oven to bake the Bredele Christmas biscuits!
The most famous of these include "wihnachtsbredle", which vary depending on the ingredients used and the shape they are given; "butterbredele", made with butter and often glazed with lemon; "anisbredele", round in shape and flavoured with a hint of aniseed; "shwowebredele", prepared with almonds and glazed with egg yolk; "spritzbredele", small flat biscuits with a zest of lemon; "lebkuchen", small gingerbread cookies with a shiny glaze; the diamond-shaped "leckerli", also with a gingerbread taste; and "springerle", aniseed-flavoured biscuits which were one of the first to be made in Alsace.