Food: This sweet, scented season: Joanna Blythman went along to Strasbourg's famous Christmas fair expecting to hate its kitsch cuteness. She was surprised
'Just wait until you see it, it really is something very special,' said one friend. Acquaintances told tales of what you could buy: marvellous trees, Christmas decorations, wooden toys . . . but I remained sceptical. It all sounded a bit kitsch and Germanic. Miniature Santas are cute, but you cannot feed a household on them. I mourned the temporary loss of my favourite local food market - in front of the Opera in Place Broglie - now usurped by these vendors of music boxes playing 'Silent Night'. All I wanted was roquefort, eggs and leeks.
But one visit to the Christmas market and I was won over. In part it is the setting, a beautiful square with strings of white fairy lights strung from starkly bare and knotty plane trees, illuminating the avenues of tightly huddled wooden huts and stalls.
I entered it from the end devoted to Christmas trees, where hardy-looking forestry men from the Vosges mountains, dressed in hats with integral ear-muffs and wielding axes, vie with each other to sell you a tree. There is the standard pine, but variations on glossy, bushy firs - shiny green, dusty blue and grey - are more in vogue. Dropped branches with cones are arranged in bundles and sold beside the bunches of holly and heavily berried mistletoe.
The marvellously aromatic, fresh mountain perfume the trees produce activates your senses for the smell that dominates the whole market: the scent of mulled wine. You see stall upon stall with huge metal cauldrons filled with simmering wine. Who knows how much alcohol a glass of vin chaud contains; it is the smell that makes you heady. Children (for whom a visit to the Christmas market must be a lifetime memory) warm their hands on heated orange juice, sweetened with honey.
Here you can find the best selection of tree decorations you will see anywhere. Wooden nativity scenes, made from bark and sphagnum moss, come in all sizes and prices, with or without the clay models of Mary and Jesus, the Wise Men and their attendant cast. You could find all your Christmas presents here in the stands selling wooden toys, jewellery and the like.
People come from all over in their thousands, and spend a lot of time and money here. This being France, they must, of course, be offered something decent to eat; hence the dazzling choice of stalls selling snacks.
There are always queues for the crepes. In a tiny, garden-type hut, you can see a man patiently working with two griddles, which have the promising dark patina you get in a well-seasoned wok. He has two mixtures. One is savoury - salt and some buckwheat flour; the other is whiter and sweeter. You can choose from variations on gruyere and ham through roast turkey to sugar and cinnamon or sweet-chestnut puree, and it comes flipped into a fan shape.
The big competition for the crepes comes from the waffles. Waffles are a serious business in France. From a magnificent zinc and Bakelite van with La Gaufre Lorraine - fondee en 1919 painted on the side, a line of women is expertly making them to order: chocolate and Chantilly cream, jam and fruit purees . . It is little surprise to find the van's walls lined with diplomas and gold medals for waffle-making, stretching back to 1936. The only problem with waffles is how to eat them elegantly.
The market's junk food is superior. A couple of candy-floss stalls are outnumbered by a newer trend - the dipped-fruit stalls. There are vermilion toffee apples aromatised with raspberry, and crisp Granny Smiths coated in white chocolate. Caramel apples come with a hazelnut or almond praline dusting. There are skewered brochettes of kiwi, grapes, pineapples and banana, all dipped in chocolate as you wait. Small segments of freshly cut coconut sit in tiny illuminated fountains.
Croques monsieurs are another staple: mountainous stacks of cotton-wool white bread layered with grated cheese and ham are just waiting to be finished off. More interesting are the half-baguettes, with their melted toppings of smoked bacon and cheese or Mexicain: hot tomato sauce, olives, peppers and haricot beans. The Alsacien answer to the pizza - tarte flambee - is everywhere. It is a paper-thin base topped with softly sweated onions, curd cheese, cream and bacon.
There are what Alsaciens call 'bretzel', which look like what Germans call pretzels. The local one is the mauricette, a moister and less salty submarine-shaped roll. They come filled with thin slices of raw ham and boiled egg.
Spice breads, here called pains d'epices, are everywhere. There are legions, shaped into hearts, Christmas trees, Santas, in letters and numbers, as are the serried ranks of honey cake, and bin after bin of nutty, shortbready biscuits. Some are factory-made, many are German. But it is not hard to find the stands where locals have used their own honey and shelled walnuts to make the real thing.
One such stall sells a Christmas- cake-meets-spice-bread creation - Le Hutzelbrot Enchanteur - but its real raison d'etre is preserves such as Lune de Miel (a mixture of wild strawberries, grapefruit, mango, kumquat, passion fruit, angelica, ginger and honey); or Confiture de Noel (windfall apples, cranberries and raisins). Items such as apple jelly with honey and dandelion blossom make unusual presents.
A massive central stall sells any spice you can imagine. There are bundles of spices formed into a crown shape, and ready-made sachets of star anis, cinnamon stick, root ginger, nutmeg and cloves for mulled wine. Pungent ground cardamom and green anis are there by the bagful, as are mountainous piles of black poppy seeds for seasonal baking. Home bakers flock here for items such as angelica, and candied fruits (fruits confits) from Provence, preferred for their good flavour and pale natural colours. There are dates on the branch, a big choice of dried fruits and nuts, sticky piles of mixed peel and more.
There is only one problem with this Christmas market. The atmosphere is intoxicating. Dithering over whether stall A's twinkling stars are better than stall B's, whether it should be a Norway fir or a sapin bleu, does fearsome things to the appetite and all economic sense goes to the wind. A crepe or waffle will knock you back anything from pounds 1.20 to pounds 1.80; a vin chaud or orange-miel chaud at least pounds 1.
I had decided visits would have to be strictly rationed. But that proved impossible, because my regular shopping stalls have been reinstated. The food-market traders have rebelled and lines of snaking stalls have colonised the narrow streets that lead to and from the Christmas market. They are determined that sales of fat geese (and all their usual repertoire) should benefit from the influx of bodies that the Kristkindlsmarik has generated.
Traffic has ground to a halt. The police have shrugged their shoulders and are hiding in their patrol cars. But no one seems to be complaining. Not even me.
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