Finding a taste of family tradition far from home in Alsatian Sauerkraut

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By: Rachel Shenk

Rachel Shenk/Flavor 574

My mother’s family has the tradition of having sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. My husband’s family also grew up with sauerkraut. But in our immediate family, we have not started this tradition — mostly because our daughters are not fond of sauerkraut.

Several years ago, Jim and I took an extended break from business as usual to walk for two months in France. We strapped on backpacks and stretched our legs in seven different areas of the country to see what life is like in another culture among people like you and me.

The fact that we were walking meant that we lived life in the slow lane and saw many things that one does not see if traveling by car or train.

One of the areas we visited was the Alsace region of France, which is located in the northeast part of the country. This part of France is where we think some of our ancestors came from, so there was something reassuring in knowing that a long time ago they might have lived in these beautiful valleys below the Vosges mountains.

We chose our location by what gîtes (shelters) were available and found ourselves taking the train from Strasbourg to the small town of Barr. We stayed there overnight and asked our hostess if there might be anything to see before we headed to the next town. She nodded her head, “Pas vraiment.” (Not really.)

So we decided to walk through the town anyway on our way to the train and were astounded by the old half-timbered houses dating from the seventeenth century that were along main street. Through a cold drizzle we watched the town wake up and also found an information office where we bought a trail map for our upcoming walk.

We then took the train to Scherwiller, put on our packs and literally walked through the vineyards to Kintzheim on a damp morning. Our walk then took us up a steep trail to the top of the mountain, through pine forests and stony outcroppings.

We were amazed to walk through the remains of four castles, remnants of fortifications used in the past. One of the castles was still intact and we became quite cold touring it with the mountain wind and drizzle chilling us to the bone.

We continued on our way after a hot cup of tea and a piece of apple tart. It took us two days to follow that ridge. Then we slowly descended from the mountain through the vineyards and back down to the town of Ribeauvillé, where we strolled down another main street with half-timbered houses and life happening as usual.

After that hard work, we decided that night to eat at local restaurant. On the menu was the local specialty, Choucroute Alsacienne (Alsatian Sauerkraut). Here we were in an unknown place, and yet through ancestral connections and traditions, a familiar dish made its appearance.

The next day as we strolled through the outdoor market, we saw our last name on one of the vendors’ booths. And yet later, we found a place to e-mail family where we were not charged because of our last name.

From Alsace, France, to Goshen, Indiana, across the centuries and the ocean, family continues to represent specific ways of living.

Now I know why sauerkraut is a tradition in our families and I have also learned to make it and enjoy it using as basis a recipe found in an Alsatian cookbook. This New Year’s Day, both sides of our family were represented at the table to share the platter.

Choucroute Alsacienne
Serves 6.

Ingredients

  • 5 salt and pepper sausages, cut in 1½-inch slices
  • 12 slices of bacon, cut in 1-inch slices
  • 1 lb. of smoked ham, chopped
  • 2 jars of sauerkraut, drained and rinsed
  • 3 small onions, finely chopped
  • 3¼ cups riesling
  • Bouquet garni: 1 bay leaf, 3 sprigs of parsley, 1 sprig of thyme,1 head of garlic, separated and peeled, 3 whole cloves, 6 juniper berries and 5 coriander seeds.
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 12 Carola potatoes

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a dutch oven, pour a little olive oil. Add onions and cook until soft, ten to fifteen minutes.
  2. Then add sauerkraut, wine, bouquet garni, ham, sausage and bacon and cook in oven until meats are tender, about 1½ hours.
  3. While the sauerkraut is cooking, clean potatoes and cut into large pieces. About 35 minutes before serving, place potatoes in a pot of salted water and cook until tender, 10 to 20 minutes or so.
  4. Serve sauerkraut with potatoes on one large platter.

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