Alsatian Holiday Traditions filled with the good smells of foie gras and pastries
The kitchen is filled with the good smells of aniseed and cinnamon from the Kugelhopfs, while in the living room the Christmas tree is alight with candles. The place of honour on the Alsatian table is given to the goose, enthroned like a princess with her cabbage attendants. It is on St. Martin's day, November 11, that the systematic force-feeding of the geese begins.
Alsatian foie gras, the liver of force-fed geese, was invented by Jean-Pierre Clause, chef to Marshal Contades, the military governor of Strasbourg from 1762 until 1788. Since the Roman legions arrived in Alsace and began using geese to guard farms, no one has been able to resist foie gras, so meltingly soft and delicious that a single bite can make a grown man cry.
The table is covered in bredle, cookies scented with aniseed, almonds and cinnamon, each bearing a particular name, and cut out in the shape of a star or person. We must also mention the gingerbread made in walnut or boxwood moulds, and the hot chocolate which is sipped slowly in the kitchen near the big tiled stove, as one relaxes into a pleasant state of well-being.
René Spiess, a familiar and beloved figure from Riedisheim, was a baker for forty years before leaving his ovens to take up writing. During the holidays, with his wife Sophie, he likes to renew ancestral traditions by making Berauwecka (or Bierawecka), a traditional Christmas fruitcake from the Upper Rhine, filled with good flavours from the orchard and spices from the four corners of the earth.
Above the earthenware stove, a place of honour is given to a vase in which the branches of fruit trees, traditionally cut on December 4 (St. Barbara's day) will flower at Christmas.
Christmas Eve the story tellers bring old legends to life as they sip mulled wine. The house is filled with the fragrance of freshly cut pine boughs, evoking childhoods past, and with enticing smells from the kitchen. At Ribauville, fire-eaters enliven the town square, providing a glimpse into the entertainment of centuries of yore.
Before leaving for midnight mass, a log sprinkled with holy water must be placed into the fireplace, the ashes of which will protect the house from lightning throughout the coming year.
In the old days, cherry soup was served at the Christmas Eve meal following midnight mass, and in the country, all farm animals were entitled to an extra ration. But the real meal is on Christmas Day: foie gras, goose with chestnuts on a bed of red cabbage, followed by Màttkémmakas, a Munster cheese flavoured with cumin, and finally the Yule log cake, floating islands (meringues poached in custard), and fruit salads.
Foie Gras Pâté en Croûte with Christmas Beer
Antoine Westermann, Buerehiesel, Alsace
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