By Patricia Wersinger
If you haven’t seen the Alsatian Christmas markets as they thrive each year all along the Wine Road of Alsace, or in the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg, you don’t know anything about Christmas. Locals claim that Christmas was born in this region tucked into the Rhine Valley near the Black Forest in the northeast region of France. And when the city’s streets and facades are aglow with lights and ornaments, you’re willing to believe it. Every year from November 29th to December 31st, 2 million travelers flood to the Christkindelmarik of Strasbourg for fun and entertainment, but mostly for magic.
Though French today, Alsace was German for a long part of its history. This is how the German tradition of the Christmas tree became part of the identity of Alsace long ago. For years in Alsace, pine trees were used in celebrations for the Winter Solstice. When Christmas began to be celebrated, red apples were attached to the branches. One year, the drought had been terrible and there were no apples, so red glass balls were used for the first time to replace the missing apples. After that, glass balls became the custom instead of apples. In the old days, there was no Christmas market in Alsace but a “Klausenmarik” or Saint Nicholas Market. Celebrations were aimed primarily at giving presents to children on the occasion of the celebration of St Nicholas.
Some of the things you’ll find at the Christkindelmarik are glass and wooden ornaments, Alsatian folk products and culinary traditions. What you must absolutely not miss is the renowned ”Bredele,” the quintessential Christmas cookies of Alsace. Some of my favorites are the “Leckerli,” little soft biscuits with pungent delicious spices or the “Kipferla,” small crescent shaped cakes in vanilla. The “Spritzbredele” with nuts are also impossible to resist as well as the “Anis Bredele,” crisp macaroons with Anise. There are many more varieties including various combinations of nuts and Schnapps. But beware: this local Schnapps is nothing like the sugary mint liqueur that is called Schnapps in the United States. This is 15% Eau de Vie alcohol distilled from fermenting Mirabelles (plums) or Framboises (Raspberries) that is extremely potent, burning and not sweet. Only for steely throats!
Another thing to taste at the markets is the “Baerewecke” a sort of local Fruit Cake made of dried fruits and nuts marinated in Schnapps. The taste is rich with the nuts, fruit and Schnapps. “Mannele” or little men made out of brioche and raisins are deliciously doughy and must not be missed. To keep your stomachs nicely settled in the cold, “Alsatian Pizzas”, baguettes covered with onions, bacon and sour cream, a variation on the traditional Flammerkueche can be purchased at different stands. Hot spicy wine is also available throughout the 12 different squares where the Market is located. You can return your empty cup afterwards and claim back the Euro left as a deposit. In this environmentally conscious city, mindless waste and trash is against the Christmas Spirit.
For dinner there is no other place than the Maison Des Tanneurs, a charming restaurant in the Petite France section. Built in 1572, it serves all the traditional dishes of Alsace such as Choucroute Royale with Pork or with Poissons (fish). Try also the “Fois Gras Belle Strasbourgeoise” (goose liver) or the Duck Terrine with hazelnuts. For dessert, order the Kougelhopf glacé a traditional Alsatian cake steeped in Marc de Gewurtztraminer, a potent dessert liqueur. The décor in the restaurant is typical of the region with shiny wooden panels, colorful tabletops and glowing copper ware on the walls. The service in the old school French style is precise and inconspicuous but warm. Many dignitaries such as the Reagans, French presidents Mitterand and Giscard D’Estaing, movie and pop stars have signed the guest book of this fine culinary institution. For more information in English, check the restaurant’s website at:
After a copious meal at La Maison Des Tanneurs, walk down the canals of Petite France for a spectacular view of ancient water dams, or wander the old Ramparts built in the 11th century. Of course in Strasbourg, a visit to the Cathedral, one of the most renowned Gothic architectural wonders of Europe, is a must. Don’t miss the 16th century Astronomical Clock. Stop afterwards in the Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame on Place du Chateau, where some of the finest medieval masterpieces of the Rhine region are on display. You will learn of the Serments of Strasbourg or the Sacramenta Argentariae of 842, a pledge of allegiance between the three sons of Charlemagne, Emperor of Europe, and a document written in High German, Medieval Latin and Old French. This is the oldest written record in French that still exists.
Strasbourg is well known for its fine “patisseries” (pastry shops) and chocolate stores. As you stroll around the Christmas Market take a glimpse too at the irresistible windows of the many fine pastry shops like Pâtisserie Noegel, on Rue des Orfêvres, Thierry Mulhaupt–Pâtisserie on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Poissons, or Christian on Place de la Cathedrale. There are also many “Salons de Thé” where you can stop and sit down to consume otherworldly treats such as Kohlarem on Place Kleber, or Chez Winter on Rue du 22 Novembre. Several of these baker-chefs of Strasbourg have won the Best Ouvrier de France award, the master chef award for “patisseries.” Take a simple bite into one of their creations and you will know why.
After a day or two, get out of the city and visit the stunning countryside, the winding Wine Road where you will see vineyards creeping up on steep slopes. With its half-timbered houses, every village looks like it came right out of a vintage fairy tale book. You will find a different Kristkindelmarik in every village where you can buy unique gifts and taste fabulous treats. Each village boasts its own twist on the traditional “bredele” so the tastings can be endless. In Muttersholz, the unique Kelsch fabric from Alsace is still made at Tissage Gander. Ralph Lauren tried to copy it but there is nothing like the real Kelsch of Alsace if you are a connoisseur of fine linens. For more information on Strasbourg and the Christmas Markets, check http://www.noel.strasbourg.eu. For general information about Strasbourg, visit http://www.otstrasbourg.fr. Rumor has spread that Strasbourg will import its Christmas Market to Brooklyn in 2014. Keep tuned for more since this is something you would not want to miss.