Alsace - not quite French, not quite German. Its location, separated from the rest of France by the Vosges Mountains to the west, and from Germany by the Rhine river to the east, has made this region unique and unlike any other. A single glance at the architecture of Strasbourg, Ammerschwihr, or Riquewihr, with their half timbered houses showing exposed wooden beams, or the varietals grown here - Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewurztraminer, or the foods on the menus of the quaint little restaurants - Baeckeoffe, Kugelhupf, Choucroute Garnie, and it becomes blatantly apparent.
Alsace has been fought over for hundreds of years, changing hands between Germany and France, over and over, so many times that the only identity it has is that of its own. During the wars families were split, brother literally fighting brother on opposite sides of the battlefield.
Now, in the post-war calm, Alsace remains with France, and continues to be one of the most beautiful and unspoiled travel destinations around. Visiting the vineyards, one can follow the route des vins by car or bicycle, tasting along the way, getting tipsy, before continuing the journey. But, if you really want to experience the region, staying in the towns and small villages is a must, tucking yourself into a quaint little inn and sampling the regional cuisine in a warm-toned dark-wood restaurant.
Of the many local recipes, one of the most famous, most delicious, and easiest to recreate menu items is the Flammekueche, or Alsatian flame cake. Historically, when the baker’s wood-fired ovens was fed and still ablaze in flames, far too hot to bake the loaves, a thin dough could cook quickly, acting as a heat test for the oven and a little snack while you wait for the embers to cool.
The ingredients are simple. The dough, a mix of flour, oil, water, and salt, usually without any yeast, is rolled cracker-thin. For toppings, it’s crème fraîche, or fromage blanc, or a mixture of the two, along with onions, and lardons (recipe below). There are always variations, but like everything else, I prefer the classic, and a recipe as Alsatian as the Flammekueche commands a wine with equally deep regional roots.
For thirteen generations, the Zusslin family has made their home in Alsace. It all began when their forefather, a young winemaker from Switzerland, made his way to the region in 1691 following the Thirty Years' War. As most stories go, he met a girl and settled down, in this case in Orschwihr, a petit village located between Colmar and Mulhouse where the domaine remains to this day.
Following WWII, 11th generation winemaker Valentin Zusslin lent his name to the winery, continuing the family’s winemaking tradition and legacy. A conversion to biodynamic farming in 1997 has since led to Demeter certification for biodynamics and Ecocert for organic agriculture. And now, 13th generation winemakers Marie & Jean-Paul Zusslin have taken over, producing top tier cremants, still whites, reds, and even orange wines, along with several grand-cru bottlings.
The 2014 Valentin Zusslin Sylvaner Bollenberg comes from vines planted in the 1970s. The grapes were hand-harvested and spontaneously fermented on native yeast before aging two year en foudre on their lees. On the nose, floral notes along with honey, ripe golden apple, beeswax, spice, and gentle tropical aromas entice the senses, while on the palate, the lush texture aided by a subtle 5.5 grams of residual sugar is balanced by zesty acidity, and a long finish of white flowers and longan linger. It is hard to imagine a better companion to the flammekueche as the smoky lardons and caramelized onions intermingle with the spice notes of the richly texture wine. Not only is it a great wine pairing, but a perfect representation of the history of this incomparable region and gourmandise traditions. Cheers!
25 ml Vegetable oil
50ml Warm water
Mix the flour with a pinch of salt, vegetable oil, and enough water just to bring the dough together, roughly 50ml. Knead, and form the dough into a ball before allowing it to rest at least 30 minutes.
Crème fraîche/fromage blanc or a combination of the two:
Season to taste with salt, pepper, and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. Spread a thin layer on the dough.
Lardons or diced bacon
Salt and pepper
Alsatian dry white wine
Heat the lardons on med low heat to render out the fat until they are lightly browned. Remove them from the pan and remove all but 2T of bacon fat. Add the onions, deglaze with the white wine, season lightly with salt and pepper, and gently cook them until softened and translucent.
Roll out the dough into a thin oval onto a parchment paper lined baking tray. Top with the crème fraîche mixture, followed by the lardons and onions and bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees until the Flammekueche is crispy on the bottom. Slice and eat with plenty of Alsatian white wine.