1940s Archive

In Praise Of Alsace

Originally Published August 1947

Less than half a mile from the Place Kléber, which is the busy heart of what is once more Strasbourg and no longer Strassburg, there is a little island in the tranquil river Ill. Old and charming and very picturesque, with narrow streets and half-timbered houses, this island is called, affectionately and a little nostalgically, La Petite France.

“La Petite France,” as a matter of fact, would be an excellent name for the whole province of Alsace. Alsatians, among themselves, may speak a sort of Plattdeutsch patois, but they are as French at heart as any Parisians, and they will point out to you, at the drop of a hat, that even the “Marseillaise” was written in Strasbourg. Nevertheless, to an outsider their province seems a French dependency, a French colony, rather than part of France. From almost every village, in clear weather, you can see the pine-covered hills of Germany, like storm clouds, ominous and dark along the eastern horizon. And Alsace is basically a sort of border country, cut off from the rest of France by the high wooded barriers of the Vosges.

So, to an Alsatian, Frenchmen from Paris or Lyons or even Nancy are “des gens de l'Intérieur,” people from the Interior, brothers but strangers. Last summer, in a town near Colmar, I asked an old lady where her son had gone.

Eh ben,” she replied, “il est parti pour la France.” He had gone to France.

People who were born before 1870 in Alsace (and despite three wars, there are a good many of them) have had five alternating changes of nationalities—French to begin with, German from 1870 to 1919, French until 1940, German for five long bitter years, and once more French again.

In the past three decades, France has twice reconquered her “lost province”, in the same thirty years, gastronomically speaking, Alsace has conquered France. Alsatian wines, utterly unknown in Paris in 1920, are now outselling Chablis and Graves. Choucroute, a mild sauerkraut served with ham and frankfurter, has become as much of a midday or midnight staple in Paris as onion soup. Strasbourg has replaced Périgueux and Toulouse as the main source of foie gras. Strawberries, even in French provincial towns, are often served with kirsch. If you ask a waiter in Bordeaux for a Mirabelle, he knows what you want and gives it to you. There has not been much good Alsatian beer in circulation since 1939, but Rhine salmon and Vosges trout au bleu are served, when you can get them, as part and parcel of La Grande Cuisine Française.

Before the war, Alsace was an incomparable paradise for a poor and hungry traveler. For a dollar or thereabouts, you could get trout and pheasant and foie gras in any one of a hundred Alsatian restaurants. At Valentin Sorg's in Strasbourg, you ate about as well as anywhere in the world. And even in these difficult postwar days, good food is far easier to come by in Alsace than in any province of any of the belligerent countries, for Alsace is a wonderfully self-sufficient little land, producing more of almost everything (even sugar and tobacco and automobiles) than she needs. There is timber aplenty on the slopes of the Vosges, and the factory towns, like Mulhouse and Molsheim, are prosperous. For mile after fertile mile between Strasbourg and the Swiss border, the Rhine valley is one great orchard, and the land is rich and good. The children in the villages, even now, are fat and rosy-cheeked and obviously well fed. They should be—for the gastronomic resources of the Alsatian countryside are almost limitless. There are crayfish as well as trout in every one of the noisy little streams that hurry down out of the Vosges. There is no better country for hunting in western Europe, and you find pheasant and woodcock, snipe and venison and wild boar listed on ordinary restaurant menus just as if they were ordinary fare. At the little Hotel Beau-Site in Orbey, back of Colmar, in the early autumn of 1946, I was served one of the best meals of my life—hors d'oeuvres that covered two large tables, delicate truites au bleu, their flesh fine and firm under their indigo skins, a superb pheasant, admirable Muenster cheese, and, to top it all, a vast construction of ice cream, Chantilly, meringue, and almond paste, known as a vacherin.

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