Dec 21, 2013

Strasbourg, Capitale de Noël: Bertschwiller


Strasbourg proclaims itself the "Capitale de Noël." While it is unclear whether it is the Christmas capital of Alsace, of France, of Europe, or of the world, what is clear is that the title is well deserved at some level.

Pippa writes in her journal from that time, when she was just 6 and in first grade:

strasbor is mor decretid then paris and paris is mor decretid then san fransisco!  so
by the transotiv proprte of inecwolates, strasbor is more decretid than san fransisco!]

[Ed translation: "Strasbourg is even more decorated than Paris and Paris is more
decorated than San Francisco! So, by the Transitive Property of Inequalities,
Strasbourg is more decorated than San Francisco!" Ha, ha! Just threw that last
 bit in to see if you were paying attention. She's not that precocious. What she
actually writes is "by transitive logic..."]


There are markets everywhere, most of them selling Christmas decorations, treats, or things-one-gives-as-gifts-that-may-or-may-not-say "Strasbourg" in red glitter.  We give the girls 10 each for a shopping spree (ironically, we call this their Hanukah present...), and they choose a few ornaments and little ceramic houses as souvenirs of the town. As you can see from the photos, the houses do, indeed, look just like the town.  The main difference between these old colombage house (the wood-beam and plaster style) and the ones we saw in Normandy is that many of them in Strasbourg are colored.


The city has put up the best children's village I've ever seen at any festival, with craft projects that rotate from day to day and an assortment of two-person strategy games that are new to us, such as sortilege, assaut, moulin, and alquerque.


Naturally, this is the girls' favorite area of the whole city and festival. What I love most about it -- and find to be culturally fascinating -- is that not one of the art projects or games has anything to do with Christmas. You know with 100% certainty that if this were in the US, the children would be making ornaments or decorating gingerbread men and every item would be in the silhouette of candy canes, bells, reindeer, Santa Claus, gift boxes, Christmas trees, candles, snowflakes, snowmen and of course the P.C. obligatory menorah, Jewish star and Kwanzah candelabra.

Instead, the girls made silhouettes of dragons and unicorns. They made Mardi Gras masks. The face painting station went with unicorns, monsters, and fairies. There was print-making where they combined animal heads with different bodies. At a sewing station you could make up your own creatures. And G went to a station for older kids where she was instructed to make a stamp of a monster (she went multi-armed alien) using very use sharp tools.

There was hail and the tiniest bit of snow, hot chocolate, and a lot of Christmas spirit. And just a two-hour TGV ride back to paris. A wonderful winter weekend.


We have been warned that we would return home from our long weekend with a lot of Christmas tchochkes we don't need. With that in mind, we are pretty pleased when it turns out that all we come home with is (and, yes, of course this is "sung to the tune of the 12 Days of..."):

12(hundred) photos
11-inch wreath
10 art projects
9 glass tree balls
(8 of them unbroken)
7 other ornaments
6 German beers
5 cups of Alsace wine [a.k.a. 1 bottle]
4 wood shapes to paint
3 figurines
2 ceramic houses
and a partridge for our Christmas tree.

THE CHEESE: Bertschwiller

This artisanal, small-batch soft cheese is, confusingly, produced in the similarly-but-not-quite-identically-named Berrwiller and surroundings, only at the very edge of northeastern France on the German border, in the countryside about 100km from Strasbourg. At least that explains the not-very-French name, and perhaps why that it's nearly impossible to find this cheese in an encyclopedia, online, or in Parisian stores.


Bertschwiller is made from jersey cows, which provide a particularly fatty and flavorful milk. Legend has it that it was originally conceived by a cheesemaker from Berrwiller, Alsace and a lady cheesemaker from Burgundy. They took the bacteria introduced into a Munster and then used the methods to make an Epoisse, except that it is rubbed with Guérande sea salt, and the crust ends up white instead of orange. As with an Epoisse, the texture is somewhere between chalky and creamy when young, and much stronger and runnier when older. Either way, it's great spread on bread.

The flavor itself is seen as somewhere between the Munster and Epoisse. Since Munster is super strong and terrifically stinky and Epoisse is terrifically strong and super stinky, the end result is, of course, a superrifically strongky cheese. Yum. But don't eat it if you're about to kiss somebody.


As this is a difficult cheese to eat while walking around town -- especially on a wintery non-picnic kind of day, I have to content myself with a couple small samples from the Strasbourg Christmas market. Still, it's nice to get a taste of the local cheeses any way I can.


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