Strasbourg, Bas-Rhin, 30/11/13
Let me tell you now, I worked hard for this pie. Hard as in leaving my cosy 1er arrondissement room on a cold, wet Friday evening to cycle through some very dodgy parts of east Paris, and piling onto a coach driven by a German with an eighties mullet and a moustache, who spoke neither French nor English. Settling into a seat, only to discover that a group of 30-odd schoolchildren was coming on the bus too, along with the world’s grumpiest teacher, who, surprise surprise, ended up sat next to me! Said woman proceeded to fish the biggest pillow you’ve ever seen out of her bag (I’m sure I’ve slept on smaller mattresses), arrange that, a large blanket, various scarves etc., space out, stretch out, and then complain to her friend across the aisle that she didn’t realise there would be so little space!
So, I attempted to sleep to ignore her, being woken when we stopped for petrol (slightly odd experience: for some reason you don’t expect the coach to need refuelling mid-journey) and then again a few hours later with the news that we were in Strasbourg. At 4.30am. Turns out the estimated journey time didn’t take into account the fact that no-one else would be on the road at that ungodly hour… Slightly tempted by the idea of staying on to Munich (that is, keeping warm on the coach rather than heading out into the chilly night air), I nonetheless braved it and headed off into this strange city. Where do you go at that time on a November morning? (Can it even legitimately be called morning? It definitely felt closer to the middle of the night!) To the train station: there’s a café, there’s a nice warm waiting room, there are other people there. Strasbourg was pretty beautiful in the dark, but weirdly quietly eerie, especially all of the silent, shuttered-up Christmas stalls, with their overly cheerful decorations and lights twinkling for no-one to see.
I didn’t just go to the train station to get out of the cold, my plan was also to take advantage of my early start to head straight on to Colmar. This involved getting on the most ridiculously small train I’ve ever seen (it wasn’t even an ‘engine and one carriage’, since both were combined into the one thing), so small that I nearly missed it because I couldn’t see it waiting at the platform. It did make it there, though, and so I arrived in Colmar, possibly the prettiest little Christmas town known to man (or at least in France). Every house could be a candidate for the front of a shortbread Christmas collection tin, and that’s before they turn on the lights and set up the Christmas market huts. There are canals, there are brightly-coloured timbered houses, there is a church with a green tiled roof. The market is also about a million times better than the one on the Champs-Elysées, with a tiny fraction of the tourist tat, the addition of some proper crafts and Christmas food and, certainly when I was there in the morning, before it got too crowded, a sort of friendly, jolly sort of atmosphere.
Getting back to Strasbourg, then, was a bit of a shock. I had seen the cathedral and the Christmas tree in the deserted darkness. Now they were thronged by a solid wall of people. But I didn’t grow up with the Manchester Christmas markets for nothing, and I’m no novice when it comes to slotting in to the odd ambling pace that everyone adopts (it’s a bit like being on a conveyor belt: you have to look as you’re moving, because there’s no way you’re stopping!), occasionally interspersed with a charge across half-a-dozen people to get to that particular pain d’épices stall. Because if there’s one thing they love in Alsace, it’s their pain d’épices…
I, on the other hand, did not buy any pain d’épices. At least, not yet… (I’m here for another day!) I got a slice of tart instead. A special tart, made with Mirabelle plums from Lorraine (the region, not the woman!), a German-style ‘streusel’ topping and with custard and almonds and a pastry base. It fell apart slightly being wedged into the box (I think the slice was actually wider than the box, and once again I had no spoon, so had to head back to my temporary Strasborgian base (it sounds better in French, with Strasbourgeois…) to devour it, whilst looking out onto the boats passing along the canal.
And devour it I did. Some might’ve said that its pastry base was soggy, but you know what? I like that! I like the fact that the plums were oozy and juicy and in big chunks, and that there were a few pieces of some smaller, tarter, red ones in there too to mix it up a bit. I liked the way bits of the topping had clumped together, and other bits were more crumbly, but the whole thing managed to stay pretty moist. I liked the extra tang and texture of the almonds. And of course, the custard just makes everything better. It may not have been quite as refined as other Parisian cakes that I’ve tried, but it certainly did the trick!
I have just one complaint about both Strasbourg and Colmar: no strudel in sight…