A Love Letter to Strasbourg

As I make my way through France in exploring my French roots in Cere and Southwest France, I had an opportunity to visit another family member in a completely different part of France – the Northeast capital of Alsace. Traveling with a local native is by far the best way to see and experience a city.  I didn’t need to plan a single thing, just enjoyed the scene and excellent company with my cousin/tour guide.

Strasbourg is most notable as the “Christmas Capital”: it holds the spot as the oldest and largest Christmas market in Europe. Unfortunately, I missed the markets as I visited Strasbourg in January, but I was still able to feel the city’s wintery warmth and witness the festive lighting that dons the beautiful 15th century houses, medieval churches and city buildings.  Aside from the food and wine, I was completely blown away by city’s architecture.

Strasbourg is definitely an overlooked tourist destination in France (at least for Americans), as everyone flocks to Paris, southeastern Provence region and Mediterranean French Riveria including the celeb-sighting, champagne-popping St. Tropez.

Well, I’m in love with Strasbourg, and here’s why…

What to do:

Cave Historique de Hospices:  This was the coolest, just because it combines history, culture, and my favorite – wine. My cousin’s fiancé works as a surgeon at the hospital and after we went to visit her during her break, we just hopped underground where you also happen to have the world’s oldest wine cellar. Created in 1395, it served as a place to store wine for the church’s holy communion, as well as for patients, since it was believed that wine lessened both pain and other side-effects of illness.  I agree with that statement to this day.

You can walk around to view the entire cellar, where at the end you’ll find an iron gate with a handful of relatively smaller barrels, but with a more ancient shape and architecture. One of these barrels contains wine from 1472. What does this 543-year-old vintage taste like today?  Winemakers at the cellar boast that it has retained it’s original vanilla and woody notes, and an alcohol content of 9.4%.   It has been served only three times over the course of its history, last tapped in 1944 for the general who led the army division in liberating Strasbourg from German occupation. Most regional winemakers are granted to age their wine in their esteemed kegs. Also available are private tastings and tours, and bottle browsing and purchases were available in the adjacent store.  I picked up a bottle of 2010 pinot gris but I have not tried it yet so tasting notes forthcoming.

Stroll through Petite France: The 15th century ginger-bread style houses and quaint cobble stone streets made me feel like I was frolicking through these magical alleyways straight out of a storybook. I later found out that Petite France, located on the Grand Île main island, was classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city centre.

Climb to the top of the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral de Strasbourg: You’ll be amazed by the overlooking view from the top, but beware of all the hype around the astronomical clock. Yes, the intricate design, architecture and multi-layered visual construction is something to see, but all said and done, incredibly underwhelming and wouldn’t recommend standing around for the 12:30pm queue.

Where to eat:

Chez Popol:  The second you walk in the door of this tiny, 12-seated restaurant you are immediately embraced by a jovial, portly, wise-cracking man with a a mustache Brooklyn hipsters would die for – Monseuir Popol himself. The warm, inviting atmosphere is what really makes this place great, as if you are being entertained at a friend’s house. We dined for lunch where the salads were simply well dressed with fresh shaved cabbage and vegetables, a healthy portion of fresh swiss cheese and ham. Complemented with a bottle of wine, of course.

Restaurant L’Aigle (located right outside of Strasbourg):  Tarte flambée is the specialty food d’Alsace and easily enjoyable for any American: imagine a wood-oven baked thin crust pizza with little bits of bacon or ham, swiss cheese, onion and heavy cream. Mmmm.  Drink the Picon bier.  For those not familiar, Picon is a bitter made from fresh oranges and is traditionally added to the beer in Alsace, which gave the beer a little spicy, earthy orange tint of flavor.

Les Haras Brasserie:  This former 18th century horse stable was renovated by Alain Duacsse’s design team and the menu hails from three-star Michelin chef Marc Haeberlin.  Whatever you do, don’t ever pass on the foie gras (served with a warm baguette and fruit chutney).

Grab a tasty treat:

Maison Alsacienne de Biscuiterie:  Apparently the lines wrap round the block during Christmas here as the bakery prepares the finest Alsatian gingerbread, macarons, raisin-stuffed kougelhopf and butter cookies flavored with nuts and spices.

Pains Westermann:  Christine Ferber, an internationally known master patissière nicknamed the “Jam Fairy” who has worked with culinary luminaries including Alain Ducasse, has more jam flavors than you can possible imagine.  She has concocted it all from the basic home-made strawberry to the crazy unique creations such as Black Cherry with Pinot Noir, Apricot and Spiced Apple, Rosehip and Vanilla, Rhubarb with Acacia Honey and Rosemary, and Banana, Orange, and Chocolate <<(WHAAAAT!) She even has a Christmas jam (confiture de Noël) which is a mingled mix of dried fruits, almonds, and walnuts with spices such as cardamom and star anise.

I picked up a jar of the specialty Mûroise, which is a loganberry (combination of bramble/blackberry & raspberry).  I wish I had grabbed a few more, until I did some digging and found you can order them online here (YOU’RE WELCOME): http://www.borneconfections.com/christineferberjams.aspx.

 

That’s it, now go out and plan your next French vacation in Strasbourg!

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A list: 11 of my favorite French things in honor of Bastille Day

In honor of Bastille Day on July 14th, I give you a rundown of my favorite French things.  Take a thing or two and find a way to bring out your inner Frenchie on Monday.  How will you be celebrate French Independence Day?

11.  Escargots in garlic-herb butter

Americans need to be more open-minded to try these little tasty snails.

Photo credit: Saveur.com

Photo credit: Saveur.com

10.  Berets!

Just kidding, there’s no reason for anyone to wear these…ever. (especially hot guys).

Photo credit: TimeXUS

Photo credit: TimeXUS

9.  Foie gras

Flavors abound with preparations ranging from pan-fried to cold from a can.  At the end of the day, it still came from a delicious duck.

8.  The best along the Southwest coast of France

Refer here and book your next flight to glory.

7.  Armagnac

Courtesy of Uncle Edouard

6.  Jardin du Luxembourg

It’s a beauty.

5.  Daniel NYC

Where everything from this world-renowned Boulud establishment is exquisitely French and artfully prepared.

4.  Berthillon ice cream

It’s the best ice cream I’ve had so far in my life.

3.  Lots and lots of FROMAGE

Stinky, soft, cow, sheep.  Cheese: my favorite food group.

2.  French wine

Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, Provence.  The French kill it.

1.  Ma famille 🙂

Southwest France: Day trip to Biarritz and Saint Jean-de-Luz

If you’re visiting the south of France, you don’t want to miss any opportunity to explore the glamorous stretch of beaches along the Bay of Biscay in the west or the French Riviera in the southeast.  While in Cere visiting family, my parents and I took a day trip to the beaches gliding along the Atlantic from Biarritz to Saint Jean-de-Luz.  The drive was about two hours from Cere.

Biarritz can become a madhouse full of tourists and locals so much like any good beach in the middle of summer, you want to get there and claim your spot early.  While France is famous for its free-spirited topless beaches and promoting a bathing suit-free environment, Biarritz’s cooler Atlantic waters along the Grande Plage attracts a laid back crowd full of bodysuit surfers compared to the more skin-revealing glitz and glam scene you would witness along the Mediterranean.

After catching some rays and waves, my mom researched a perfect little cafe near the beach called Cafe Jean.  It received excellent reviews so we thought we’d try it out.  It took a few minutes to walk from the beach up a semi-large hill along the cute cobble stone streets.  Even though the restaurant didn’t overlook the ocean, you couldn’t argue with the decadence and superiority of the food,  the seriously reasonable prices and relative portion sizes.  Like any good french déjeuner, we started with a bottle of rosé, then dined on local Marennes-Oléron oysters, calamari in squid ink rice, duck confit and warm foie gras.  Whatever you do, don’t leave without stopping in the beautiful market right next door which is full of fresh and local produce, meats, cheeses, condiments and caviar.

A twenty-five minute drive south of Biarritz is Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a fishing port known for its architecture as much as its sandy beach, with narrow pedestrian streets packed with colorful shops and residences dating back to the 16 and 1700s.  The small town is also known for its royal wedding connection inside Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste where the marriage of Louis XIV to Maria Theresa of Spain took place, and sealed the alliance between France and Spain in 1660.

There’s plenty of shopping, beach and beauty to entice me for another visit next year.

Southwest France: Family, Food and Armagnac in Cere

Last week I returned from my vacation to France including three days with family in Cere, day trips to Biarritz, St-Jean-Luz and Bazas and two days solo mission in Paris, which will be split in a couple different posts.  I’ve been talking about this trip for a while.  In case you can’t infer from my blog name, I’m very proud of my french roots and was looking forward to visiting family in Southwest France along with some members I haven’t met or seen in close to fifteen years.  My grandmother (Meme) was born in Nancy, currently lives in Palm Springs and her sister (tante Renee) lives in a beautiful chateau in the small village of Cere.  Her husband comes from a family of aristocrats and the chateau is adorned with priceless antiques dating back hundreds of years, including framed letters and documents from Henry IV, Louis XIV and Louis XV.

Cere is a small village with a population of 400, so completely understandable if you haven’t heard of it.  To put it in geographical perspective, it’s about a fifteen minute drive from Mont-de-Marsan which is the capital of the Landes department in the Aquitaine region.  A mere couple hours from the Spain border, it’s easy to coordinate day trips to San Sebastian and the glitzy beach towns of Biarritz and St-Jean-Luz (post forthcoming on that.)  As you can imagine, there’s not too much to do in Cere but that’s exactly what made it perfect.

Last time I was there  with my family and cousins from the U.S.  Tante Renee has four children, and their children were around my age so all I can remember was running around outside, horseback riding, playing by the pool and hitting the beach.  Obviously there was a huge language barrier, but we were young and didn’t care; it certainly didn’t stop us from having an incredible time!  But I’m 28 now and I desperately wanted to return so I could appreciate my visit with relatives and indulge in much of the delectable french fare I didn’t remember too much when I was thirteen – fresh cheeses, fruit, pastries, chocolate, and every part of the duck you can imagine.    Not only was my grandmother and aunt there, but both of my parents flew in and met us, I was able to meet the one family member I haven’t met yet, Uncle Edouard, and reminisce with my other cousins.

Just because Cere is a small town does not mean I discourage you from visiting there or a nearby area because the region has SO much to offer in beauty, food, culture and history.  One thing on the top of my agenda when I go back to the area and I suggest for you if you visit Southwest France:  tour the Armagnac region in Gascony.  I never drink brown spirits but Edouard introduced me to this flavorful brandy digestif which is distinctive to the region and I fell in love.  He gave me a little sample to take home and I’m savoring it, thinking of my loving french family every time I take a sip.