Tuesday 21 April 2015

The Grand Tour part 2 - Germany and France

Is this a pictorial metaphor or just a picture of weird Alsace sausages? You decide.

Halfway through the journey and things are getting desperate for Etien. His primary consideration now for any venue, be it restaurant, gothic cathedral or vineyard was: "Does it have free wifi?" Such are the trials of the adolescent life. Actually, most camp sites did have wifi, varying wildly in price from free to many Euro per hour.

My inability to find a receptive camp site near Basel meant a detour north in Germany and the Black Forest. Spoiler: it's not black and there's not much forest. There are picturesque hamlets and good roads (barely a clatter). Did I take any photos? No.

The British don't holiday in Germany, doubtless an atavistic aversion which we really should have discarded along with ration books, rickets and racism. I've been many times, a consequence of a best friend (Pete) inseminating a German woman and giving up everything English to go and live in Munich - with her, I should add. Germany is a country of big skies and beautiful, diverse landscapes. Like Britain turned up to 11 but with a much better infrastructure. Bigger mountains, more forest, larger lakes. Go. FFS.

I mean... look at it!
Three countries in as many days coupled with the fatigue of a heavy driving day - we drove through Switzerland in six hours. If you've done it, you'll know I mean through and not across - meant my foreign language mode was a mess. I speak little French and less German and Italian so words were plucked like low hanging fruit from every lexical branch. "Ich möchte faire une reservátion pour una notte, per favoré." Thankfully, as everyone in Northern Europe is a polyglot, they understood and went to with barely a snigger.

The van was working well by now. Patterns of life had been established. We remembered to turn off the gas before leaving. We knew how to stick up the silvered window screens in the evening. How to refill the fresh water and drain the grey. More importantly we knew not to use the van's toilet; there's always an alternative. An early morning scamper to the wash block is far better than sluicing out the 'cassette'.

Our third stopping site of choice - I should have known better, I should have guessed - came from a recommendation off the Caravan Club (UK) website. There's an 'official' CC place in Münsterthal, rated as very good, but the one we headed for was a few miles down the road and said to be 'exceptional'. 

Answers on a postcard please. Or email.
As we drove past the 'very good' site I tensed up. To this casual observer it looked like something normally run by the UNHCR. Belinda blanched. Etien asked if they had free wifi. Our camp was better. Much better. There was some shrubbery at least and the occasional tree. There was also a bakery that took orders for the morning. The Germans seem to insist on the freshest bread, daily. Mothers (it was mainly women) with bags of twenty rolls. I got there too late, about 8.30am and the cupboard was bare, apart from this gorgeous sweet, nutty thing. No idea of the name. Fabian (by text) thought it looked like a large intestine. The shower block was superb and they had a proper, sit down restaurant where ladies in full Oktoberfest dress administered to our needs. We didn't use it.

No. Instead, leaving Etien in the van, so onerous were his Facebook duties (it wasn't free but it was cheap enough), we took another spotless train to Freiburg. I'd been using the Michelin Route app which is full of recommended places to eat. I don't use it any more.

Frieburg is a smashing little town. It has a university which invariably ensures the lights don't dim at 9pm (unlike most caravan parks). I wanted something with local cooking so we headed for a well established hotel next to the cathedral. The trouble with established 'local cuisine' is it can often mean 'lazy cooking'. But also I don't want some Young Turk's fusion either. Sushi Flammekueche? Nein danke. I want traditional dishes presented with love. I didn't get it.

Traditional of what though? This is Alsace, an area that's been tossed between Germany and France several times over the past few centuries. The upside is it's beautiful, the downside: the food. Prepare yourself for a few pars of major whinge. 

I was disappointed by the food from the area. Frankly Alsace I think you can do better. You are France (now) after all. The general philosophy seems to be: how can we combine masses of cheese, pork and cream and then serve huge portions of it? Veg? What? Oh, bung some green salad or sauerkraut on the side. Quantity not quality. Such a change from the precision and passion of Italy. The picture below is an example. This is a fàmmeküeche, flàmmaküacha, flammekuechle, flammkuchen or tarte flambée. It's a staple, like pizza or a pasty. And that's the starter portion I was served in Strasbourg.

Sadly the hotel food was mediocre; completely lacking in confidence and ambition. I had a plate of bread and paté that would be easily usurped by service station fare. Service was lacking too. We'd both finished our starter before the wine arrived. And this was after much eyebrow raising, pointed smiling and pulling the stilted hand gestures of men modelling underwear in Grattons. "Look Jeff. Is that the chap with our trousers?" Mains: some kind of venison stew. Belinda had veal with Spaetzle - a noodle like dish. We left without ordering dessert. Always a bad sign.

In Strasbourg I booked dinner in l'Ancienne Douane, an 'established and much loved' restaurant with a terrance on a canal. Both views, service and food met the general pattern.

Fantastic site. Less fantastic food.
Belinda's 'ham hock'. A whole one of course. With... er... spuds that also feature pork.
Etien's steak-frite came with a flaccid field of beans and a side serving of SnapChat, WhatsApp and Facebook.
Yes, it was free.

My local delicacy. Half a pig - belly, cheek, various sausage, with spuds and a mountain of sauerkraut.
Parsley clearly counts as veg.
For some reason, this came with ketchup.

I think the worst dish was Belinda's starter. She wanted something light, seeing the passing plates. The menu listed 'crudités' and just to be sure it was translated in English as 'raw vegetables. What she got was four different types of sauerkraut, piled high. It made us laugh at least.

To make my point about excess look at the drink on the left. That's what passes as a 'cappuccino'. Whipped cream! You can't drink the coffee of course. You first have to eat the cream, by which time, the coffee's cold. Can you imagine the barista reaction?

We spent only one night in the Black Forest. Next stop was a camp on the German side of the Rhine  the border with France. A ten minute tram ride took us into the heart of Strasbourg and a different country. I think the place has a PR issue, what with it being a site of the European Parliament  but it's a gorgeous and ancient city, with an oddly Flemish feel, run through with canals, much like Brugges. The Gothic cathedral is astonishing.

One question though. When is Europe open? As tourists you doubtless have fallen foul to the extended lunch or the siesta. You pitch up wanting a pint of milk to discover the town in lock down for the afternoon. Fair enough. I'm all for a long lunch. But Strasbourg is a major, modern conurbation and even here there were large shops closed for a midday meal and then well into the afternoon. There seems to be no time when everything is accessible at once. Maybe we are a nation of shopkeepers?

Strasbourg Cathederal


See. Looks like Brugges.

I did have one good meal in Strasbourg: a warm salad of goats cheese, sat outside Café Broglie, a quintessential French bistro. I love how they transform a quick beer into a languorous lunch with just the flick of a well starched tablecloth, cruet and a basket of bread.

Before the salad arrived

Onwards and southwards. My mate Jacob, he of vinegar fame, had implored us to visit the walled village of Riquewihr. Pronounced Reek-uh-veer, with an initial rolled 'R', as Gallic as Gauloise and a shoulder shrug. I'm so glad we did. Riquewihr is stunning: a medieval town that looks largely as it did in the 16th century, set in vine striped, green volcanic hills. There was an almost empty campsite half a mile from the town centre, where the wifi roamed free. We had kept the best till last.

Volcanic? The view from the camp site. A hamlet close to Riquewihr.

True it is a tourist draw but this was April so there were no crowds. You're met at the approach road by an undistinguished Hotel d'Ville but once through the arch you are into what feels like a film set. But this is no Disney fluff, this is a working town that is very much a centre of wine production and sales. Hugel, a hugely respected company, is here for a start - with a tasting room. There are also artisan shops selling locally made cheeses, charcuterie and confectionary.

The High Street

Vins Fins Hugel. Salon de Dégustation.

Cheese shop
Munster cheeses
Blueberry, paprika and chestnut sausage. Bought by Etien.
Never been to a 'nougaterie' before.
Starters at D'Brendel Stub.
Vegetarians look away now.
Claire in the camp reception recommended D'Brendel Stub. Funny name, great place. Although the waiter seemed initially frosty ("Reservation?" He asked, while we stared at a completely empty restaurant, on a Monday night. In fairness it did fill out later)  this was our best meal of the holiday. It's open on a Monday but closed Tuesday and Wednesday. I don't know why. I asked the now thawed waiter to surprise me with a bottle of something local (to drink, you understand), to accompany our foie gras - served with a balsamic reduction, muscat jelly and pickled apple. 

After he'd checked his hair, he brought us a Domaine Weinbach Reisling. Alsatian wine has had something of a bad rap: sweet and insipid, like much mediocre German fare in the 70s. But this was epic: structured, balanced with butter and grapefruit (enough!). We hadn't yet gone mental with alcohol and the van had many cupboards crying out to be filled.

Horribly overexposed. Sorry. I was experimenting with manual mode on the camera.
The front room of Maison Domaine Weinbach

Next day I called the vineyard, hoping for a bargain, and was told to 'call in'. They were only 3km away. I expected customer parking, a vineyard 'experience' and perhaps a gift shop  Nope. This was very much on the balsamic model. We were met by Mme Collette Catherine, whose family owns the vineyard. The vines but not her family, go back to 890. Yup, just three digits. Madame (I believe the term is 'fragrant') sat us in a front room, just off the family lounge and produced some bottles of Grand Cru. Did we want a spittoon? No. Happy to swallow, like peasants. We made our choices and chatted, politely at first, she sat smiling with effortless poise. She had learned English while staying with an Indian family in Enfield. She knew our area. We talked of curries and her love then instilled of dhal and flat breads while small tractors drove past the French doors; their form distorting in the uneven wave of the glass lites. It was a moment. We left with 15 bottles: the riesling, gewurztraminer and the pinot gris. packed while we waited in their bottling facility.

On the return journey to the campsite, this being our last day, we stopped at a supermarket: the largest I've even seen; twice the size of Enfield's CostCo. The kind of place you go for bread, milk, bacon and a canoe... and a tractor. We did the English thing: the big Supermarché shop: wine, beer, cheese and beer. And wine.
I've never seen so much fromage. A double sided aisle and a separate fromagerie. We filled up. Belinda sadly choosing the washed rind, cows milk stuff that smells like something died in a warm, damp cupboard a long time ago. Even tripped bagged, this produced howls from Etien and me every time the fridge was opened. Taste is mainly in the nose remember so I can only imagine there are chemicals that she can't smell and we can. Boy, could we.

Beaucoup de fromage
This now needs an end par; a rounding off. Something pithy, drawing strands together; sagacious reflections; words warm, wise and witty about travels across Europe. Nah. Buggered if I can now. I'll sleep on it. Something that's actually quite hard to do in a camper van. I was exhausted when I got home.

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