When Armand Sablon, my sous chef at Galvin at Windows restaurant in London, went on a work placement at the three-Michelin-starred Auberge de l'Ill in Alsace, part of his prize for winning the Roux scholarship chef competition in 2007, I had the perfect opportunity to visit the region.
I've been travelling to France since I was seven but I've never been to Alsace. It's probably because I'm left-handed – I've travelled anti-clockwise around France starting at Brittany. As Alsace is in the east, I just hadn't got around to it.
So, in November my head chef, André Garret, and restaurant manager, Fred Sirieix, joined me on a trip to visit Armand. And while we were there, we researched food and wine for a special tasting menu to serve in my restaurant.
3pm: Brasserie Uberach, Uberach
Our first stop is an artisan brewery in the commune of Uberach, about a 45km drive north of Strasbourg airport. In addition to being a major wine-growing area, Alsace has a long tradition of brewing. Strasbourg is home to Kronenbourg, but I am more interested in seeing something hands on and Fred's contacts in the area have recommended Brasserie Uberach.
Uberach is my first sight of the typical Alsatian architecture we will see everywhere: timber-framed houses with steep gabled roofs (sometimes with stork nests balanced on their narrow apex) and wooden shutters at the windows.
Although we have Fred on hand to translate, Eric Trosset, the young brewery owner, explains the brewing process to us clearly in English. I like that production is on a really small scale and they are working as naturally as they can. The barley and hops are of good provenance and nothing about the process is hidden; it is all made in front of you.
They make about a dozen different beers and they would be happy for us to taste them all if we wanted to. As well as the usual blonde and brune beers, they make ales flavoured with pumpkin and ginger. I am shocked to discover that they make single malt whisky; very smooth, but a little sweet for my taste.
7pm: L'Hostellerie du Château, Eguisheim
We are staying in the heart of Alsace wine country in Eguisheim just south of the city of Colmar. A temperamental sat-nav has made for a more scenic journey from Uberach than was necessary, but driving into the village square and seeing our hotel, L'Hostellerie du Château has made it worthwhile. It is almost a Hollywood take on a typical Alsatian village; if there were a little layer of snow we could be on a film set.
Eguisheim is the perfect base for our food-and-drink trip, with more than 30 of the top wine producers represented in the village and a Michelin-starred restaurant. However, we decide to leave fine dining for another night and go in search of traditional Alsace cooking.
8pm: Caveau Morakopf, Niedermorschwihr
Best known for St Gall's church with its unusual twisted spire, Niedermorschwihr is a steep, winding drive from Eguisheim through the surrounding vineyards. Fred's local contacts have come up trumps again by recommending Caveau Morakopf. I love the ambience of the dining room with its wooden beams and checked tablecloths. You can see the German influence, not surprising given Alsace's position so close to the border and the fact that it's been under German control several times in its history.
We haven't eaten all day and we shock the kitchen with the amount of food we order. Through the serving hatch I can see the three female chefs in the kitchen staring at our check in disbelief. I think they'll probably frame it.
As well as starters we order dishes to share, including the local speciality of a tarte flambée, or flammeküche. There's nothing to it, just thinly rolled dough topped with fromage blanc, onions and bacon, but the four ingredients come together so well that it doesn't need anything else. It's cooked on the bottom of the oven so that the bacon fat drips, catches fire and slightly scorches the base, which makes it very moreish.
When the mountainous plates of choucroute arrive, we understand the fuss about our order. Probably the most famous of local dishes, the piles of sauerkraut with pork belly, local sausages and boiled potatoes are easily big enough for two people.
The wine list is very parochial, but why would you want to drink anything else? A lot of dishes in wine-making areas around the world are created for the wines, or vice versa, and they just work so well together.
9am: Domaine Bruno Sorg, Eguisheim, and Domaine Mittnacht Frères, Hunawihr
Our first appointment of the day is a wine-tasting at Domaine Bruno Sorg, a five-minute walk from the hotel. I don't usually taste wines at 9am, especially chilled wines in freezing cold temperatures. But on the plus side, your palate is a little bit sharper in the morning and the tray of pretzels they serve mid-tasting, fresh from the local bakery, are the best I've ever tasted.
It is lovely talking to François the wine-maker who had worked the land like his father before him and is absolutely passionate about the Alsace style.
We cover most of the common local varieties, including reisling, gewürztraminer and pinot blanc. They're light, fragrant and fruity with good acidity and all of them really cry out for food. It's not until I taste the premium quality grands crus from the best vineyards that I really appreciate how well constructed the wines are. You need a bit of age on them but equally you can't keep them too long. They hit a peak four or five years in.
It is interesting to contrast the biodynamic wines of Domaine Mittnacht Frères a few miles away in Hunawihr immediately afterwards. There is definitely an earthiness to them, but the difference is subtle.
1pm: Ferme Auberge du Rain des Chênes, Orbey
Munster is probably the most well-known cheese of this region. We've been told about a couple who make it at Ferme Auberge du Rain des Chênes in Orbey, about 20km from the town of Munster, which gives the cheese its name. The sat-nav fails us again and we have to phone ahead and wait in the town for M. Chaize to lead us up to his property. Somehow Fred manages to spot his red van as it speeds past and we give chase, barely keeping him in our sights as he roars up into the hills.
M. Chaize is obviously full of energy. We are freezing while he wanders around in his flip flops and short-sleeved shirt. He tells us that he's built the wooden auberge on his farm himself in order to provide a livelihood for his son. It is a fantastic location, a beautiful landscape with hazy clouds hanging low in the valley. All the tables in the dining room have great views, but the terrace is where you'd want to be sitting in the summer.
It's a really special place, especially if you're keen on walking. Knowing I could stop at the auberge for a slice of terrine followed by black pudding, all made from the farm's own produce, would get me moving a bit quicker. There are rosy-cheeked couples in the restaurant who have obviously had a very good lunch, getting their boots back on to stride off again into that amazing scenery.
After lunch, Mme Chaize shows us how she makes her Munster by heating the unpasteurised milk from the farm's herd of Montpellier cows to 33C, adding rennet to create curds and then draining off the watery whey. The curds are packed into moulds, salted to remove excess moisture and left to mature in damp cellars for two to three weeks and washed with brine every other day. The end result is soft, creamy and mild. Most Munster is aged for longer so the flavour isn't as developed as I expected it to be.
8pm: Auberge de l'Ill, Illhaeusern
It's amazing to think that the Haeberlin family has held three Michelin stars for more than 40 years at Auberge de l'Ill.
Decked out in thousands of fairy lights for Christmas, it looks like never-never land. It is more modern than I expect given that it's so entrenched in family and tradition. You go through an automatic sliding door into a reception area that is as big as some restaurants.
Chef Marc Haeberlin and his wife welcome us and give us a tour of the kitchens, which gives me a chance to catch up with Armand. They must serve thousands and thousands of customers, but they've got that skill of making you feel so welcome, as if they've been waiting all week for you.
Some of the front-of-house staff have been there since the beginning and you really feel as if you're in capable hands straight away. Everything is done in a balanced and measured way, with nothing over the top or out of place. The dining room, which has been recently refurbished, is fabulous.
The hallmark of a great menu is when you can't choose what you want. I could be here all night trying to decide between dishes like the signature truffle in foie gras and pastry with truffle sauce and mousseline of frogs' legs, so the easy way out is the multi-course tasting menu. The scallops with mussels and sea urchin and a hearty dessert of crèpes cooked at the table are highlights of a fantastic meal.
10am: Christmas market and Winstub à la Ville de Paris, Colmar
Wandering around the Christmas market in Colmar town centre with a mulled wine and Dean Martin drifting out of speakers hidden in the trees is great. It isn't really a food market; the focus is more on decorations and toys. There are a couple of stalls selling foie gras, but they look slightly commercial. There is a very good charcuterie stall with an array of different cured meats, terrines and pâtés. That's what I love about France: you can more or less buy a Michelin-starred meal to reheat or slice at home.
Winstubs are the Alsace equivalent of a Parisian bistro. We chance upon the Winstub à la Ville de Paris, just off the main square in a beautiful old, tall, timber-framed building. It is before 11am but there are already a few locals at the bar, so we decide to join them.
There is a hospitality and warmth about the place, although the decor is pretty wild; somebody colour blind must have painted the very traditional interior pink and lime. My petit salé of goose is great: the meat has been salted in brine, which gives me some ideas for dishes to work on at the restaurant.
We've only managed to scratch the surface of this region but I'll be taking something of the spirit of the place back with me to inspire my menu.
Further eating The La Découverte de l'Alsace menu is being served until 31 January at Galvin at Windows, 22 Park Lane, London (020-7208 4021; or go to galvinatwindows.com).
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