Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fiery Tarte Flambée in Alsace-Colmar France

Colmar’s old town reflects a time when half-timbered houses were all the rage and you could never have enough gables, balconies, or spires. Delightfully Alsatian in look and attitude, the town is a little more German than French, and so is the food: pretzels, sausage, cabbage, and tarte flambée, a satisfyingly crispy crust anointed with a rich cream and bacon topping. Colmar has both French and Germanic traits in its cooking, its architecture, and its festivals.
Tarte flambée with the classic white cheese, bacon, and onion topping

Full of Alsatian atmosphere, from its half-timbered houses to its medieval alleyways, the town is a vivid reminder not just of the proximity of the German border, but of the many disputes over its allegiance; it has been alternately part of France and Germany many times in its history. In the Middle Ages, Colmar was the region’s port, and farmers were still using the canals to deliver their produce to the central covered market right up until the 1950s. The farmers are long gone, and the area – now known as Petite Venise – features tourist boats, a tootling train, and quayside cafés, but still something of the old-world charm remains, as the canals gently weave among the tall, ornately carved 16th-century buildings.
Half-timbered houses sit alongside the canal in Petite Venise, Colmar

It was not until the 19th century that the Alsatians invented their famous tart – tarte flambée – and it was more by accident than intention. The canny farm women of the Kochersberg region used to roll out their left-over bread dough and pop it in among the wood-stoked flames to check the readiness of their oven for bread-baking. Its place in the oven flames explains its name, although some like to think it’s also because the edges are always singed black, or flamed. Pantry staples began to grace the rectangular, ultra-thin crust: a slather of homemade cream, some thinly sliced onions picked from the field, and chunks of home-cured bacon. In the fierce oven heat, it took a matter of minutes to cook – the ultimate fast food.
At first the lunch of choice for just a small clutch of farmers in the Lower Rhine, it soon became emblematic of all Alsace. Towns both high and low on the Rhine now serve up “flame tart,” or flammekueche. There’s even a Confrérie de la Veritable Tarte Flambée d’Alsace (Brotherhood of the Real Alsatian Flamed Tart) to ensure the quality of the crust dished up in Alsatian restaurants. They insist on a certain recipe, cooked in a wood-fired oven, but they are open to variations on ingredient ratios, and even sanction a sweet version with sliced apple. In keeping with all things Alsatian, a happy blend is finally what counts.
The Alsatian Wine Route
Colmar is the “capital of Alsatian wine” and part of the 106-mile (170-km) Route des Vins (Wine Route). Threading through vast vineyards dotted with cobblestone villages and castles, it’s easy to follow and a great way to explore the region. The route runs from Marlenheim to Thann, along the eastern foothills of the Vosges mountains, and there are more than 40 vineyards with wines to try along the way. Around 90 percent of Alsatian wine is white – Riesling, Sylvaner, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. If you’d like to do some wine tasting but don’t want to drive the wine trail, try cellars in Colmar that are open for tastings, such as Domaine Viticole de la Ville de Colmar (www., Domaine Robert Karcher et Fils (, or organic wine grower Martin Jund ( com), who also offers accommodations.
Best Places to Eat Tarte Flambée
La Maison Rouge inexpensive
A Colmar gem known for its warm welcome and well-priced food, La Maison Rouge has been serving up Alsatian favorites for more than 30 years. In keeping with its name, there’s a lot of red splashed around, from lamps and red-trimmed tablecloths to the blazing rouge walls of the cellar dining room. It’s whispered, however, that the name dates back to a less cheery time, when the executioners from the guillotine stayed here and the red was a reference to the blood on their hands. There’s nothing to fear these days, though, and the delicious food runs from bibalakas – a rib-sticking mix of fromage blanc (soft white cheese), chives, and garlic served with sautéed potatoes, cheese, and ham – to the house favorite of ham spit-roasted on the bone (jambon à l’os braisé à la broche). But locals flock here for the four kinds of tarte flambée, including one garnished with goat cheese and basil, and a deluxe Upper Rhine version made with Munster, a high-fat, full-cream-milk cheese. 9 rue des Ecoles, Colmar; open noon–2 PM and 6:30–10 PM Tue–Sat;
Also in Colmar
Aux Clefs de Colmar (+33 3 8923 9215; inexpensive) serves up traditional regional food, from pork knuckle baked with a Munstercheese crust to a host of flammekueche, or as they’re known here, “flams.” There’s a basic flam of bacon, onion, and fromage blanc, several cheese versions (with Emmental, Munster, and goat cheese), plus one with smoked salmon and another with mushrooms.
Also in France
La Strasbourgeoise (+33 1 4205 2002; moderate) in Paris sits appropriately opposite the Gare de l’Est, the station for trains to and from Alsace. In place since 1950, this is a little corner of Alsace in the French capital, from the choucroute piled high with pork to the traditional tarte flambée, a crispy thin crust painted with cream and specked with bacon and finely sliced onion. Wash it down with a mug of Alsatian beer or a pitcher of Riesling.
Around the World
Alsatian specialties litter the menu at Boston’s Brasserie Jo (; inexpensive), including tarte flambée. They serve the classic – with fresh white cheese, bacon, and onions – plus two new versions that might earn the disdain of traditionalists but please the locals, with spinach, Gruyère cheese, and garlic chips, or blue cheese and walnut.
A Day in Colmar
Colmar is one of the most captivating towns in Alsace, with intriguing medieval and Renaissance buildings, winding canals, and pretty gardens.
 Head for the huddle of pedestrianized streets of the old town. Wander past the Maison des Têtes (House of Heads), with its facade of 111 faces, to the wooden Pfister House, which has glorious Renaissance balconies. Then visit the Bartholdi Museum, the former home of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty.
 Start with the Unterlinden Museum, a former Dominican convent full of Alsatian treasures, including the striking Isenheim Altarpiece, created in around 1515 – a riot of grisly monsters and demons. There’s a fine batch of gargoyles, too, at the Gothic marvel on Place de la Cathédrale: St. Martin’s Collegiate Church.
 Walk down to the Quai de la Poissonnerie in Petite Venise. Cross the flower-draped bridges, and look down the canals along the rows of houses teetering drunkenly on the water’s edge. Stop in a waterside café to sample some tarte flambée.
Fly to either Basel-Mulhouse or Strasbourg airports; Colmar lies between the two, with good rail links. There are also fast trains three times a day from Paris.
L’Hôtel Beausejour (inexpensive) is a charming hotel in a restored early-20th-century building with family rooms. La Maison des Têtes (moderate), built in 1609, is chock-full of history and Alsatian appeal.
L’Hôtel Quatorze (expensive) is an ancient pharmacy turned into a designer hotel with hip paintings by Spanish artist Alfonso Vallès.

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