Alsace: In a right pickle

In Alsace, every child's nightmare vegetable, cabbage, is celebrated with an annual festival. Ray Kershaw holds his nose and joins in
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The Independent Travel

In some places they toss flowers, but in revelling Krautergersheim they bombard us with cabbages. Mercifully, they're shredded - for these are not your pipsqueak common or garden veg. Statuesque, majestic, weighing up to seven kilos, the cabbages the crowds are cheering are the Bonapartes of brassica, great chieftains of the cabbage race.

We are at the planet's biggest cabbage party. The parade seems never-ending. Roars of applause greet each cabbage-themed float. A dozen brass bands fuel the jubilation. La choucroute nouvelle est arrivée! Of France's ever-multiplying thematic roads, few sound as improbable as the Fermented Cabbage Road. In fact, La Route de la Choucroute is more a cabbage-shaped cluster than anything linear. A few kilometres from Strasbourg, fairy-tale villages like Meistratzheim and Blaesheim snuggle picturesquely among fields of giant cabbages in view of the Vosges mountains.

The most illustrious is Krautergersheim. Until the Middle Ages, it was just plain Ergersheim, but its cabbages were so famous it won the prefix "kraut". This German word for cabbage or herb is similar in Alsatian. And when Marie Antoinette, despising cake, introduced fermented surkrut to the French court, the unpronounceable name was Gallicised to choucroute - chou coincidentally meaning cabbage in French. Another fan was Captain Cook who sailed the world with barrels-full as a remedy for scurvy.

The Alsatian quintal cabbage and its piquant added-value version may have come from China in the Middle Ages. Centuries on, Krautergersheim still lives and breathes it, its ubiquitous tang flavouring the air. On the morning of the festival, beside the sign that proclaims the place the world capital of choucroute, a ray of sunshine gilds the cabbage-shaped bronze fountain. Even more than its wines, more than the storks' nests perched upon chimneys, choucroute is emblematic of Alsace's identity. Today the village is heaving with hungry Alsatians raring for their spot of prandial patriotism. The Foire à la Choucroute now spans two weekends to accommodate the crowds.

Cabbages are everywhere. The hundreds of events all happening at once focus on them. With the church bells pealing for harvest thanksgiving - the altar arrayed with peerless examples of the monster green orbs - the village choucroutiers sell to eager customers. Harvested between August and November, the shredded cabbages ferment for two to six weeks in pool-sized vats, emerging as choucroute nouvelle, mild in flavour and fragrantly crisp, heralding the start of autumn in Alsace.

In the cavernous shredding shed of his old family firm, Jean-Michel Adés extols the alimentary virtues. Rich in vitamins and minerals, rejuvenating, slimming, too few calories to count, it sounds the magic fill the wobbly world's been waiting for, promoting vigour and vitality, especially when eaten raw with its cocktail of bacteria. And like a living testimonial, displayed upon a platform are Adés's eight robust-looking sons. Aged four to 12, six are demonstrating cabbage shredding; two appear to be torturing, or conjuring with, a turnip. On a lathe-like contraption, the boys are shaving a spaghetti-thin strand that is vanishing into a barrel. It is like a magic trick.

It seems another local favourite is fermented shredded turnip. Adés makes us compare it with the new choucroute. Both prove moreish, and in one of those moments of holiday imprudence we impetuously invest in a five-kilo drum of each. At noon the crowds stream towards a mammoth marquee where the festival lunch continues until deep into the night. Inside, the spectacle is awe-inspiring. To the bouncy rhythms of a 20-piece oompah band, at tables that seem to extend to infinity, 1,000 Alsatians are limbering boisterously up for their first full-scale encounter with a lusty new-season's choucroute garni.

Portions in Alsace are inhumanely testing. Adés's standard recipe for six uses three kilos of choucroute and two kilos of meat. At the mayor's table, etiquette demands an appreciatory appetite. I'm still reeling from three innocently-ordered, gargantuan black puddings the previous night. But with the Riesling glasses brimming, the bonhomie afloat, when my mountainous choucroute platter arrives, sagging beneath its pork and sausage garnish, I plunge my fork in with renewed Alsatian gusto. Choucroute nouvelle, after all, doesn't come any newer.

A thousand sets of cutlery syncopate to the oompah band. Couples start to dance - at first pensioners and children, but soon the floor is crowded. The number of people in the marquee virtually equals the village population. The fair may be elaborate but suddenly you realise that the tourists are just guests. Spruce and in their Sunday best, locals join in with the energy of neighbours throwing themselves into their own homemade big day. Or maybe it's the choucroute. Despite their love of fatty pork, not a soul appears obese.

Chock-full of choucroute, light-headed with wine, our afternoon evaporates in an agreeable haze of cabbage-y diversions. The lanes are lined with stalls challenging our satiety with other local titbits like stuffed snails and foie gras. We do manage a crumb of the baker Siegrist's famous choucroute bread. From around every corner resounds another brass band. Other villagers have turned their homes into cafés serving home-baked damson tarts that beguile you into thinking that you surely still have room. Then with a blast of combined brass, an excited flurry of pushing for good places, the noise and animation erupt at 3pm into the Grand Parade. There are banners and bands, and carts of giant cabbages drawn by antique tractors; float after float of groups in local costume, shredding their harvest to pelt the spectators. Everyone's gone cabbage mad. Like a greengrocer's dream or nightmare, it's all a bit surreal.

We are staying at nearby Obernai, a near perfect example of a medieval town. Above its spires and jumbled rooftops soar the vineyards of Mont St Odile, Alsace's holy mountain with the seventh-century convent of Alsace's patron saint. For all its cobbled squares and half-timbered buildings, Obernai radiates the kind of affluence not dependent on tourism. Its businesses include making Triumph bras and brewing Kronenbourg beer.

Everywhere you find intriguing nooks and crannies. The town's jewel is the marketplace whose bijou dimensions are cramped by a 13th-century belltower. Our hotel, La Diligence, is at its base. Close to our window, the mighty carillon that diurnally greets each new shining quarter-hour also numbers, cruelly, each 15 minutes of the night. Bleary-eyed by morning from indigestion and insomnia, we are guided to the tranquil courtyard annex they keep for the bell-shocked such as we.

The all-too-short Choucroute Road meets the Alsace Route du Vin at Obernai. We buy Rieslings to accompany our now pervasively pungent pickled turnip and choucroute. For 100km a string of picture-book villages parade among vineyards. In the Vosges Mountains' dry and sunny rain-shadow, each remains committed to its age-old vocation of making fine wines: Rieslings, Pinot Blancs and superlative Gewürztraminers.

The new choucroute season dovetails deliciously with the start of the grape harvest. The autumnal whiff of brassica is replaced by the bouquet of fresh fermenting grape-juice. In Riquewhir, Europe's quintessential medieval-walled wine town, we lunch on tarte flambée and quaff the new wine. But the cabbage fates still guide us, and are hatching a finale. As well as wine and choucroute, Alsace is famous for its potent alcools blancs, headily fruity 45-per-cent spirits. At Ribeauvillé, where on the first Sunday in September the fountain flows with wine, the distiller Jean Paul Metté's shop sells 87 varieties. Between the basil and the blackberry, the hawthorn and the holly, I spy a solitary bottle of Eau de Vie de la Choucroute. Who could have imagined it? Authentic cabbage brandy! An erstwhile cabbage-hater, my brassicaceous passions, now festival-fanned, are burning with a convert's zeal. I must possess this bottle. Do they sell many? Very rare, I'm assured. Good for the digestion. Only one left. While my bottle is dusted, I count out €20 (£13). How lucky can you get? Is it just imagination or as the door closes do I catch a muffled chuckle, a heartfelt "enfin"?

Back in Krautergersheim, as the choucroute feast hiccups to its content end, the American émigrée Viviane Beller tells us that Alsatians fete anything and everything concerning what goes in their stomachs. Almost every weekend food events are on the menu. And where the Wine Road runs dry, there, we discover, starts the Fried Carp Road.

GETTING THERE

Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies from Gatwick to Strasbourg; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) flies from Liverpool, Luton and Stansted to Euroairport. Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Baden-Baden, officially known as Karlsruhe-Baden.

STAYING THERE

Hotel La Diligence, 23 place de la Marche, Obernai (00 33 3 88 95 55 69; www.hotel-diligence.com). Doubles from €48 (£34) - ask for the annex, unless you love bells.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Krautergersheim Choucroute Festival (00 33 3 8895 7518) takes place from 24 September-1 October.

Obernai Tourist Office, Place de Beffroi (00 33 3 88 95 02 98; www.obernai.fr).

Alsace Tourism (00 33 3 89 24 73 50; www.tourism-alsace.com).

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