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Eating and Drinking in Alsace, France

The Alsatians wring more feeling out of stub than seems possible for one abrupt syllable that merely translates as “room”—in the domestic context of old Alsace, a combined living-dining room. For the Alsatian writer Gérard Oberlé, stub is synonymous with coziness, a cocoon of “physical, spiritual, and moral happiness” bundling “intimacy, volupté, comfort, trust, tranquillity, security, harmony.” When the stub leaves home to take up occupancy in a public eating place it becomes a winstub, or “wine room,” a strictly codified subspecies of bistro (or tavern, if you prefer) unique to this northeastern region of France. Winstube are often casually described as wine bars, but if that’s what you go expecting, you’ll be very surprised.

Like the bouchons of Lyons, the crêperies of Brittany, and even the cafés of Paris, winstube can be seen as an imperative: the eating and drinking culture in Alsace is so strong and specific it required and evolved its own format. In Strasbourg, the provincial capital, and the romantic medieval towns within a two-hour drive of it, the rules are clear. A restaurant with the trappings of a winstub but that serves roasted langoustines with vanilla butter is not a winstub. Just as, sorry, choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with a theoretically infinite possibility of pig parts) served in a place with valet parking and crystal chandeliers will never be a plat de winstub.

Alsace lies on the fertile plain between the Rhine and the Vosges Mountains, but the mighty Germanic quality of its cooking is traced to more than a shared border with that country. The fact that the Treaty of Westphalia awarded the area to Louis XIV in 1648 did nothing to stop Germany from annexing it during and following the Franco-Prussian War, from 1870 to 1919, and again during World War II. Alsatian cooking worships the pig and glorifies the cabbage, but as I discovered on a search for the most authentic winstube, there is more behind the picture on the poster: savory and fruit tarts, crazy stews involving ears and tails, salads tossing cheese and sausage, foie gras, quenelles, freshwater fish, escargots, and panfried potatoes (for which there is an absolute fetish). Yeast cakes and cookies (and cookies and cookies, especially at Christmas) do their best to satisfy a populace with a deep sweet tooth.

Wines from outside Alsace are tolerated in winstube, if not embraced. Two of the most popular grapes in the region, Riesling and Gewürztraminer, are closely identified with Germany; the third is Pinot Blanc. (Muscat, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, and Pinot Noir are also cultivated.) The wines are generally vinified dry, as elsewhere in France, and marketed by varietal. Visiting all the vineyards on the Route du Vin—which stretches for more than 105 miles along the eastern foothills of the Vosges, from Marlenheim, west of Strasbourg, to Thann, near Mulhouse—is a nice half-life’s work.

What do winstube look like?They are too familiar to Alsatians, too much a part of the social fabric, for them to be of much help (“A winstub looks, well...like a winstub!”). This means: paneling in warm honey tones. Kelsch, the traditional checked cottons of Alsace, on the tables and at the windows. A kachelofen, a woodstove faced with faïence tiles, for heat. A profusion of pottery: earthenware from Soufflenheim, stoneware from Betschdorf.

The setting is inseparable from the food in a winstub: c’est un tout.

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