Another late November, before I had ever tasted a flammekueche, a friend and I took a day trip to Strasbourg from Paris. Was it because we were naïve or enthusiastic or wanting the least expensive train ticket that we took a train before 6:30am? I can no longer remember, but I do recall arriving in the eastern French city before 9am and realizing that not only was it threatening to rain, but also the city had not awoken yet. Perhaps people were at work already, but it seemed pretty quiet.
Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region, which borders Germany. Most relevant to our trip was that it touts itself as the capital of Christmas. In late November, it opens what it proclaims is the oldest Christmas market in France. I wonder what the Christmas market in 1570 was like. You would not have found an Asian American and a Trini girl wandering it. And in another 450 years, who will be shopping for their trinkets?
We bought a 1 euro city map from the tourist office in the train station. The city center is quite small. You can walk from the gare to the center in 12 minutes, and across the whole center in about half an hour.
We headed to the Petite France area, which had charming architecture flanking canals and cobblestone streets.
Do you see the French/English play on words at this café?
We saw a bridge with a green gnome painted on it, and I crouched down and posed to imitate him while my friend took a picture of me. A group of school kids and their teachers walked up to us, and one of the teachers asked if I could pose again with my friend taking a picture so they could include us in their art class film about the types of people in Strasbourg—residents, tourists. Clearly we were representing the tourists. She spoke in English, not too badly, until she realized we spoke French. My friend and I recreated the scene as requested. Afterward the kids clapped for us. I was tickled by the whole thing. Now we’re in some random Strasbourg art school film.
See how the teacher has caught sight of us? You can tell she’s thinking, “Jackpot!”
We walked through a Christmas market that had just opened for the day. It would be the first of many Christmas markets we visited. We browsed the marchés de Noël at place Broglie (the biggest one, called Christkindelsmärik), place de la Cathédrale, place Kléber, in front of the gare, and others.
We had a snack at a brasserie, and I was amazed at how much cheaper food was than in Paris.
The tall Christmas tree at place Kléber stood above a lit up village scene. According to a brochure, it was the tallest natural Christmas tree in Europe.
At the marché de Noël at place Broglie, I bought a bretzel (pretzel). In addition to bretzels, we saw a lot of pain d’épice (gingerbread) and St. Nicolas cookies (kind of weird to eat a bishop).
We walked to the cathedral. By this time it was raining and pretty miserable.
We met up with my friend’s acquaintance, a woman from Trinidad and Tobago who had been living in Strasbourg for ten years. We looked around a book fair at the l’Aubette shopping center in place Kléber. Strasbourg is the birthplace of printing, as it is where Gutenberg printed the first bible!
On our way to a café, a woman asked us if we wanted to take part in a cheese and flammekueche tasting. We thought we were going to do a quick tasting inside a food place near where we were standing, but the woman led us to a building and up to the second floor. What an unexpected experience. We didn’t even know where we were or what organization was organizing the tasting. We tried three different kinds of Muenster cheese, which is a specialty of Alsace and spelled munster in French, and two kinds of flammekueche. Surrounded by fellow tasters, we filled out surveys on each sample.
Let me explain about the flammekueche. I had been very curious about this fun-to-say food long before I moved to France. I used know a Russian in the States who had lived in Strasbourg for a few years. He talked about how a specialty of the region was flammekueche, a hot dish that resembled a pizza but without tomato sauce. The standard one was topped by crème fraiche or fromage blanc, onions, and lardons. This Russian friend, who came from Siberia, said a lot of things that made us go, “Huh?” He was really nice, and it was him that I called on via email to recommend a joint for some good flammekueche, also called tarte flambée.
With this adresse in hand, my friend and I settled into the cozy, dimly lit brasserie for dinner. I had an onion, mushroom, and lardon flammekueche called a Forestière. When the bill came, I was surprised that it cost only about 3 euros, because it was happy hour and therefore half price.
On our walk to the train station, we were treated to Strasbourg’s Christmas lights, which were so pretty at night. Every street had different kinds of lights. One had red and gold lights in the shapes of stars. Another had boxes with lit chandeliers inside.
Why not chandeliers outdoors, I say?