A culinary adventure in Alsace: Scream if you want to go faster (and eat more)
Friday 25 January 2013
Imagine a Venn diagram depicting, in one circle, the kind of tragic car nerds who spend their holidays in Italy peering through fences at red cars lapping race tracks and, in the other, gluttonous food obsessives whose idea of a dream mini-break is a day-long patisserie crawl broken only by reservations at three-star restaurants. Now, look closer, at the middle of the Venn. There! That's me! Talking to myself about torque reserves and tripe recipes. I'm a massive hit at parties, I can tell you.
Now imagine my dream holiday. This is a tale of unforgivable self-indulgence, but it might just provide a template for a successful joint holiday for a car lover and a food lover. My destination is Alsace in north-eastern France, one of the great food and wine regions of Europe, which also happens to be the home to the maker of, arguably, the world's greatest car.
First, the car. I arrive early in the morning at the Bugatti factory on the outskirts of Molsheim and swap my hired Golf for a brand new, red and black Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Super Sport Vitesse, currently retailing at £1.6m. (There goes the mini-break budget.) "When I take it on the autobahn," Bugatti's test driver confides as he hands me the – surprisingly conventional – key, "I get Gallardos and GT3s coming up alongside. They are going flat out. I floor it, and… phhtt!" He flicks his hand dismissively. I stifle a gulp and, once a few technical points have been clarified (no, they won't be giving me the second key required for a 257mph maximum speed attempt – you also need a support team, special tyres, a very long track and £30,000 for that), I shimmy down into the firm, leather-trimmed driver's seat.
Nosing gingerly into the morning traffic it soon becomes clear that the Veyron is as easy to drive as the Golf – presumably why the likes of Simon Cowell and Ralph Lauren seem so relaxed about pottering around Beverly Hills in theirs. Being a 'Super GT' as opposed to a supercar, the Veyron has none of the high-pitched, ferine nature of the Pagani Zonda, or the bowel-loosening basso profondo of the Swedish Koenigsegg – both of which I have been fortunate enough to drive, and are probably the only other cars likely to figure on the same shopping list. All is relatively calm and refined. In fact, I soon forget about the price tag and concentrate instead on orchestrating gaps in traffic so that I can indulge in slingshot bursts of acceleration. The slightest dab on the throttle provokes such shocking thrust that it takes a while before I dare floor it fully. When I do, for the teensiest fraction of a second, and with a good few hundred metres of open road ahead of me, I am nosing the rear bumper of the car in front before I have time to catch my breath.
The plan is to leave the autoroute and head south, joining one of the loveliest wine routes in Europe through the foothills of the Vosges. Alsatian wines are only now recovering from their 1970s hell when they became tarnished by association with the kind of sweet German plonk sold in black bottles or with blue nuns on their labels. They use the same grape varieties – riesling, sylvaner, gewürtztraminers – but the truth is that this region produces some of the true aristocrats of the white wine world – not least those made by Olivier Humbrecht of Domain Zind-Humbrecht, one of the greatest biodynamic wine-makers in the world – as well as unexpectedly good, light pinot noirs.
Visits to vineyards were never going to be a part of my Alsace itinerary, but I do taste one of these prejudice-busting Pinot Noirs at Le Bistro des Saveurs (bistro-saveurs.fr) in Obernai. Parking a Veyron in the alleyway by the kitchen door is probably always likely to encourage good service at a restaurant, but I suspect that Thierry Schwartz is one of those chefs who delivers no matter who is in his dining room, or what they drive. There is such an obvious sincerity about the place and in the produce he uses. His food ticks all the current, Nordic-derived, local-seasonal restaurant trends, belying the traditional Alsatian vibe of the dining room. A startling starter consisting of little more than a single, gigantic carrot boldly bisecting my plate won a special place in my heart, for instance. It had been gently poached in its own juice for four hours and was as soft as warm butter, as carroty as a carrot can be.
Obernai commences a run of classic Alsatian wine towns, each more fairytale than the next, with glimpses of the turreted Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg in the forest high above completing the Disneyesque mise-en-scène. The Hansel-and-Gretel aesthetic reached a peak of half-timbered, hanging-basket hysteria at Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr – the kind of higgledy-piggledy villages which ought to be inhabited by dwarves, gingerbread men and witches but tend more to be clogged with tourists. f
One decorative curiosity common throughout Alsace is the questionable, 1970s-themed colours the locals have chosen to paint their otherwise perfectly-preserved, half-timbered medieval houses; minty greens, deep purples and lurid oranges abound. It takes quite a car to stand out amid such a visual cacophony, but parking the Veyron always caused a bit of a scene. Crowds still gathered to pay homage; people would sidle up, cock their heads, and whisper almost reverently, "That's a Veyron, right?" I imagine that, if you were in a position to buy a Bugatti, the most often-asked question would be, "But where will you park it?" To which, the answer of course is, "In the secure basement at L'Auberge de L'Ill in the village of Illhauesern".
The Auberge (auberge-de-l-ill.com) is one of those redoubtable French culinary bastions, passed down through the generations – in this case, of the Haeberlin family. The food is relatively modern with occasional Japanese touches, and I have no problem with the oft-criticised fripperies of three-star French dining, but, ultimately, Alsace is always going to be more about hearty comfort food – the cheesy, porky, carb-y, cabbagey stuff scoffed at red check table cloths in the local bistros, or 'winstubs', preferably with bottle bottom windows.
This was underlined over the course of the next couple of days, not least by the numerous tartes flambées I inhaled. The best of these oblong Alsatian pizzas, with their tangy topping of crème fraïche or fromage frais, onions and bacon, have a thin, crisp base, charred at the edges by open flames, yet still soft and chewy in the middle. Then there was the thick tranche of foie gras I accosted at Chez Yvonne in Strasbourg (chez-yvonne.net); the indecent amounts of spaetzle eaten wherever I could find it; and, of course, colossal heaps of choucroute garni, the best of which, at Au Pont de Corbeau (21, Quai St Nicolas), another Strasbourg winstub, struck the perfect balance between the barnyard and the fermenting barrel.
Other highlights in terms of my food itinerary included a visit to the home of what many believe is the world's greatest jam maker, Christine Ferber. Her confitures are on sale at her small grocers, Au Relais des Trois Epis, in Niedermorschwihr (pronounced: "Nrrrdroschwrrgggr", I think); one of her secrets seems to be that, unlike industrial jams, she uses whole fruits, not purées (I like to think I am the first person to have gone shopping for jam in a Bugatti Veyron). Then there was the lavish new Maison du Fromage (maisondufromage-munster.com), a kind of cheese lover's theme park outside of Munster, although, its chocolate equivalent, Chocolaterie du Vignoble (daniel-stoffel.fr), in Ribeauvillé, was little more than a glorified outlet store.
As for the petrolhead in me, he will never forget the astonishing riches of the Cité de la Automobile, otherwise known as the Schlumpf Collection, in Mulhouse close to the Swiss border. Along with the many serried ranks of Maseratis, Rolls Royces, Mercedes, Ferraris and long-defunct French marques, the Schlumpf houses the largest collection of Bugattis in the world, with two of the seven Type 41 Royales ever made as its centrepiece.
The Royales – built during the late Twenties, capable of 120mph and costing, then, four times the price of a Rolls Royce – have much in common with 'my' Veyron. Both were conceived to define the automotive superlatives of the day – to be the grandest, fastest, most expensive playthings of potentates and playboys. Both were criticised as profligate and superfluous. And both were the children of strong-willed, autocratic visionaries. Yet one was a flop, the other an unprecedented success. The difference seems to be the nature of the super-rich in their respective eras: in the depression of the late Twenties a Royale was deemed de trop, and few were prepared to put their head above the parapet and buy one; these days the mega-rich have fewer qualms about such conspicuous consumption, and the man behind the Veyron, Volkswagen boss Ferdinand Piëch, will take great satisfaction in shifting all 450 of his originally proposed production run.
I had never seen one, let alone two Royales in the flesh, and admit that my bottom lip might have quivered slightly when they finally stood before me; for all their bombast, time had leant them an unexpected pathos. During a tour of the storerooms (about which it suffices to say: Oh. My. God – there are cars tucked away beneath dusty tarpaulins which are worth millions and would be the centrepiece in any other collection), the museum's curator Richard Keller told me of the fate of the other Royales: the prototype was crashed beyond repair in 1931; one survivor was in Germany, one in Spain and two in America.
As I drove back to Molsheim, I decided there was no more fitting transport for my Alsace trip than the Veyron, and not just because Automobiles E Bugatti was founded there. This region, the dividing line between Latin and Germanic civilisations, has been the rope in a tug of war between Germany and France since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Echoes of those conflicts, most particularly the last, still whisper to you in the quieter corners of Colmar and on certain streets in Strasbourg; it is easy to imagine soldiers advancing, rifles raised, through these medieval mazes.
France still views Alsace with Teutonic-tinted suspicion ('Alsace: Nos Voisines les Allemands', read the cover of that week's L'Express), and on a memorable visit in 2011 even President Sarkozy got a little confused and claimed he was in Germany. But the Veyron is a potent symbol of Franco-German entente cordiale: its engine is built in Germany but the rest is assembled in France. When the first Veyrons rolled off the line in 2005 most of the workers were German; today most are French.
The relief at returning the keys to a car such as this is invariably equal to the thrill of being handed them in the first place, but the emotional rollercoaster was not over yet. Having been directed to the toilets, I entered Ettoré Bugatti's old hunting lodge, now offices at the heart of the factory complex. As I opened the front door, I stopped. In front of me was another Royale, the Coupé de Ville Binder, perhaps the most beautiful of them all. Supposedly "in Germany", it is, it turns out, the property of Volkswagen AG and, for now at least, it is back home where it belongs.
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