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Monday, March 31, 2014

The Flammkuchen Hütte: A little of Germany, a little of France

The Salad version of Flammkuchen

In Germany it’s called Flammkucken, or flame cake.  In France, Tarte Flambée, or pie baked in the flames.  Then there’s the Alsatian name, Flammekueche.  

The origins of this regional dish are lost in somebody’s nameless kitchen, in an area that’s bounced between Germany and France more times than a Chinese ping-pong ball.  If you can’t even decide what to call it, how can you tell where it came from?  But ours is not to worry our pretty little heads, but to find a good restaurant and stuff our bulging bellies.  Found just the place.  Flammkuchen Hütte, or Flame Cake Hut, in Mehlingen, Germany.

Easy to find.  Relaxed atmosphere.  Excellent food.  Gorgeous waitresses.  Wine, beer.  Good prices.   You need something more?  Are you out of your so-called mind?  Rather have milk and cookies before you say nighty-night? I thought not.

When you say Flammkucken, it’s almost like saying pie. Wild varieties, ranging from pizza-like toppings to fruit.  The big differences I’ve found between pizza and flammkuchen are the dough and the cheese.  The former has a relatively thick, yeasty dough and traditionally a very melty cheese, such as mozzarella.  Flammkuchen, on the other hand, has a paper thin, almost cracker-like crust, topped with a fresh, spreadable cheese, traditionally crème fraîche.
Which brings up the question:  What is crème fraîche ?  It’s a soured cream, but not as sour as the American version and with a thicker consistency.  Think of a white, spreadable, sour cream butter and you’ll almost have it.

I haven’t left you helplessly pondering.  In a former article, I even told you how to make your own flammkuchen:

One Friday evening, after a short drive, we joined some friends for a group gorge.  Great fun.  Hey, this is Germany, with beer and wine in great abundance.

Several other things about the Flammkuchen Hütte stand out.  The casually rustic décor and the varieties of the eponymous dishes.  I ordered the more traditional version, with chunks of bacon and a bit of onion.  My companions opt for everything from salmon to chili flecks, to salad, to current jelly.


The salads alone are worth the trip!

Traditional bacon and onion.

Chili flecks

With red current jelly.

The service is impeccable. Waitresses are full of smiles and flourishes that make you feel as if you’ve been here a dozen times.  Always nice to feel wanted.

The pies arrive on wooden platters, adding to the hunter’s cabin-like atmosphere.  This is definitely a place to drink beer or wine with a raucous crowd, intent on inebriation and gluttony.   In other words:  my usual friends.
But, the atmosphere, service, and company would all be superfluous if the food didn’t measure up.  No worries!  This is Flammkuchen as it should be:  Thin and crispy, bubbling toppings, straight from the flames.  You can cut it, or just break off bits and pieces.

I noticed, once the pies arrived, the conversation dwindled, as emphasis shifted to the time honored ritual of hand to mouth.  You’d think from the size of the pies, one order would feed two people.  Not so.  Not here.  Not ever.

Bookmark the Flamkuchen Hütte!  For an impromptu gathering with a group of friends, this one should be at the top of your list.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Bed of Procrustes - Don't read this book! It'll only upset you!

Who the hell is Procrustes and “Are you going to bore me with another book review?” 

Grow up and get wise!  Procrustes is a figure from Greek Mythology, or ancient religion, if you prefer.  Here’s the short version;

Procrustes was a man who made his visitors fit his bed to perfection by either stretching them or cutting their limbs.

A book about a weirdo?  Not exactly.  Nassim Taleb’s view of the modern world, as expressed in this book of aphorisms, is that humans are being modified to fit technology, reality being bent to fit economic models, diseases being invented to sell drugs, and the breadth of intelligence being limited to what can be tested in a classroom.

Taleb’s inventive and often humorously pithy remarks will wake you up, make you think, and make you laugh out loud.  Don't like to laugh?  Pick another book.

Sounds a bit too New Age, or maybe esoteric?  Check out this tidbit:

The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said.

Or how about this one:  If you want people to read a book, tell them it’s overrated.

Part psychology, part insightful, part surgeons knife slicing through marriage, economics, politics, and everyday life, you could read this book in an hour….but you won’t.  Your brain will catch on a phrase and stop your thoughts like a rowboat’s bow hitting a rocky shore.  Your mind will churn.  Often you’ll look around for someone to share these darts of logic, these reflective mirrors.  You’ll come across:  Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, deficits, truces, relationships; and nothing is more temporary than permanent ones.

The book gets laid aside. Your attitude swings this way and that.  You mentally review and ponder.  Hours or days later, you once again grab the book by the throat and your rowboat floats free of the shoals.

Nassim Taleb’s books are like that.  They challenge, but at the same time entertain.  Have preconceptions?  They’re sure to be twisted and blurred.  Think your persuasions won’t be carved with Taleb’s scalpel?  Think again.

But, try as you might, you can’t forget this book and the sometimes obtuse approach that unravels things you’ve previously thought about and things you’ve never considered.

The Bed of Procrustes.  Pick it up once and you’ll pick it up again and again.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Just Another Little Two Hour Lunch In the Alsace

I’m writing about Le Biblenhof , not because it’s special, which it is, but because it gives some idea of the perfection one can expect in the area of France known as The Alsace.  Wines galore, of course, but also dining at it’s best.  This special spot is located just 20 minutes east of Strasbourg, on Route des Vins d'Alsace, the Alsatian Wine Road.

But there's no real need to pick out a special, renowned restaurant, one that’s mentioned in all the guides, and spoken of in New York Times restaurant reviews.  In the Alsace, you can throw a dart at a map and hit a superb place for lunch or an evening of exuberant succulence.

Just to prove my point, about a year ago, a group of us darted here and there, looking at castles, sampling wine, and exploring.  Suddenly, a hunger came out of nowhere.  Only problem was, we hadn’t watched the clock and many French restaurants close for lunch around 2 p.m. and don’t open again until close to 6 p.m.

We drove through town after town.  Out of raw hunger and growing despair, we finally stopped at an unlikely spot in a small village.  From the outside, the place had all the allure of a Denny’s attached to a truck stop.  Inside, we were shocked to find semi-rowdy groups claiming most of the tables, sipping wine and downing some spectacular looking food.

As I often say, the French can teach anyone how to eat!  As a great friend of mine once said, when told by a physician “You need to change the way you eat.”

His reply, “We don’t eat, we dine!”  He could have been talking about the whole French nation.

I thought the Japanese were fanatics on freshness.  But, Nippon has nothing on France.  These folks don’t buy vegetables that aren’t stained with fresh dirt.  Cheeses don’t just vary by name and location, but also by use and age and an indelible sense of pairing.  And wine?  Every French person I’ve met can talk about a wine’s nuances with the very best oenologist.  They don’t eat, they dine!

Once again we found ourselves hungry in the Alsace.  Once again we picked a restaurant at random, but his one had the charm of a historic chateau.  Old stone walls lent a regal presence.  We would have gone inside anyway, just to satisfy our curiosity. But when we pulled into the parking lot at the restaurant and hotel Le Biblenhof, we fully expected a fine lunch.  We weren’t disappointed.

An Array of Tiny Breads

Even the sweet butter was special! fragrant and elegant as a warm ceviche.
Roasted Sea Bass on a bed of diced root vegetables.

Veal-stuffed Cannelloni over stewed wild mushrooms.

To finish, coffee and a bit of sweets.

I love it when the wait staff is properly trained, holding their dignity and even a little Gallic charm as they offer suggestions and take your order.  I tried out my aging French, while the waiter, in black trousers and white, starched shirt, took our order and tried out his brand new Anglais.   We began with glasses of Crémont, the Alsatian version of Champagne.  Along with that came a picture perfect array of tiny breads, with sweet butter.  Next, compliments of the chef, a small goblet of fish and vegetables, in a spectacular fish broth.  This was truly worth a stop and I’m certain it will be again.  Vive la France!

I could write on and on, but the photos tell the whole story.  Bottom line: Just pick a restaurant.  You won’t be disappointed either.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ribeauville: Another Jewel of the Alsace

Coming out of Rodern and still craving adventure, we trolled the country-side.  Still too early in the spring to put the top down on the Bimmer, but still fun on the narrow, winding roads that twist through the vineyards.  Vineyards.  With that simple word, most would picture a plot of land, maybe even a large plot.  But this is the Alsace.  Everything that’s not a road or a village is a vineyard.  Neat and cultivated rows of vines stretch like thin black ribbons, as far as you can see, across the flatland, and smoothly rolling with the low hills, until finally caressing the slopes of the mountains.

A road sign with an arrow reads:  Ribeauville.  Never been there.  Not yet. 

We leave the vineyards and roll into a town right out of the middle-ages.  For the avid sightseer, nothing beats the Alsace. All you need are some jingle in your pocket, and a sporty car.  Throw predetermined destination aside.  Just drive.  Be prepared to tap the brakes and park at the slightest provocation.

Keep a notebook and pen at hand, along with at least a pocket camera.  You’ll want to jot down the names of towns, the names of wines, general impressions.  Without a bit of a hint, memories melt.  The Alsace is a Disney-set on the grandest of scales.  Small villages.  Towns.  Cities.  All of them pop up with astonishing regularity. Each a jewel worthy of movie-star sunglasses, a casually swung scarf, and café-au-lait at a sidewalk café. Linger as if you belong and the tourists that pass are oh so passé.

In one small town, of which I will write more on another day, we stumbled into a remarkable chocolate shop.  Found out later, it was named one of the five best in France.  That’s the way life is when you allow yourself the time to meander aimlessly.  Expect the unexpected, such as:

A stork guards its nest, high on a steeple

Down below, an Aston Martin

Ribeauville was like that chocolate shop on a grander scale.  Half-timbered buildings.  Cobblestone streets.  Cafés whose tables and patrons spill out onto the old walking street.

The town, which is located 10 miles (16 km) north of Colmar and 47 miles (75 km) south of Strasbourg, kneels at the feet of the Vosges Mountains.  Heard of the Vosges?  More than a name, it’s the birthplace of the famous Rhine River. Across the border is the equally famous Black Forest.

Ribeauville’s history fades back to the 8th Century.  Here’s an interesting tidbit:  the local king/prince/BMOC was the protector of wandering minstrels.  They paid protection money, of course.  That went on until the late 17th Century, when the noble family died out.  So these day, street musicians are on their own, but seem unconcerned by the change.  We heard a middle-aged woman, standing in front of a candy shop (confiserie), croon a wonderful version of La Vie En Rose.  Tune into youtube while you browse the Ribeauville photos (below). The song will make your eyes and heart well up.

Lots to do in the ville.  Old churches: St Gregory and St Augustine.  Castles: St Ulrich, Girsburg, and Haut Ribeaupierre.  As with most castles, these dominate the heights overlooking the city and through the centuries were built, destroyed, and rebuilt.

Or, you can do what we did and simply wander the remarkable streets.  Find a bread shop (boulangerie), pastry shop (patisserie), or just a friendly café.  Sit.  Watch the world go by and marvel at your good fortune.