Unique Chateau in Alsace, France

Near the Eastern France/Germany border, the region of Alsace is a unique mix of French and German culture. Over the region’s long and storied history, ownership of this region has passed back and forth between the two countries time and again, resulting in shared influences on the cuisine, language and culture of the area.

The Chateau du Haut Koenigsbourg is perched on a mountain near the town of Orschwiller, and is a fascinating look into the region’s past. Originally built in the 12th century, the castle and grounds were intended as a fortress in a strategic location perfect for watching all the main roads in the area. Defensive structures were added when the castle was rebuilt after the original was destroyed in 1462. Unfortunately, the castle was again destroyed in 1633 and sat in ruins for two hundred years, until Germany took ownership of the region again and the town transferred the property to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who restored the castle to its former glory.

Since 1908, when restoration was completed, the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg has looked down over the Alsace plain, first as an estate of the Kaiser, then as a French national historic site.

On the day we visited, the mountain was foggy, with snow in the air. We were practically the only visitors, and got to take in the unique perspective of the castle in winter. It was easy to imagine how isolated, and yet how cozy and secure this chateau would have been in the colder months of the year. As with any castle fortress, there is an exterior “village” area where the workers (blacksmiths, coopers, farriers, etc.) would have plied their trades, then an interior keep where the family would have had their living quarters. Drawbridges and heavy doors separate the interior living quarters from gardens, pens for animals and the like. A small chapel, an armory and a room full of hunting trophies are highlights of the grounds tour.

At the conclusion of the grounds tour, there is a restaurant featuring delicious local fare, such as quiche Lorraine and blueberry tarts. In addition, a gift shop offers souvenirs related to the castle and general historical items. I picked up a medieval cookery/receipt book and some souvenirs for the kids.

The Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg is convenient to other Alsatien towns. We stayed in Colmar, but Strasbourg is only about 50 minutes away if that’s your home base in Alsace. Our visit was in early November, which is a great time to visit and avoid the crowds if you don’t mind a little cold.

 

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Cocktail Classics – The Aperol Spritz

The Aperol spritz is a classic European aperitif that you’ll find in traveling through France and Italy, especially in the summer dining al fresco or streetside in one of many outdoor cafes. When my husband and I visited Paris last fall, the Aperol spritz was on every drink menu, and we drank them all over the city. Whether we were on the Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, or sitting in a cafe on a rainy, chilly night on the Rue Montorgueil, this slightly sweet, slightly bitter, bubbly drink was delicious and comforting.

What is Aperol, and what makes it unique? This Italian liqueur is one of a number of European liqueurs that are herbal and bitter, providing a complement to sweet or sparkling European wines. Aperol is made from bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, cinchona and a variety of other ingredients.

In Europe, aperitifs became popular in the 19th century and were consumed before a meal as a way to stimulate the appetite. The classic Aperol spritz consists of three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol and a splash of club soda. Fresh orange slices, ice and a straw are added to a large wine glass to serve up this refreshing drink. I was missing them last night, so I had to whip up some Aperol spritz’s at home.

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What’s your favorite European cocktail?

Here’s a photo from L’Esplanade St. Eustache, the cafe off Rue Montorgueil where we had dinner and Aperol spritz’s in Paris.

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Paris – Finally!

The title of this post has a double meaning. My husband and I took our “grand European anniversary trip” last fall, but it’s only now that I’ve had the time to sit down and give our trip the in-depth posts it’s due. See, nearly as soon as we returned from our trip, holiday planning took over our lives and our days and weekends were filled with children’s holiday events, shopping for gifts and decorating. As soon as Christmas was over, we found a great deal on a bigger home (sorely needed, as our two boys were sharing a room in our old house), and so we began the stressful process of both getting our existing home in shape to sell and making an offer on a new home. We went through a number of twists and turns in the home selling and home buying process, and at the end of March we finally moved into our new home. Since then, nearly every waking hour we’ve had that hasn’t been spent on work or shuffling our kids around to all their activities has been spent unpacking and organizing the house.

The other side of my “finally” headline is the fact that’s it’s taken me so damn long to get to a city I’ve wanted to visit my whole life. Ever since I was a little girl taking ballet classes, Paris has been one of my bucket list cities to visit. Taking French since middle school and being a French minor in college, you’d think I would have gotten there far before now. But no, though I’ve traveled to many places, Paris had never been one of them until our trip last fall.

We touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport around noon on a Sunday after an overnight flight from Dulles. After the 45-minute taxi ride, we arrived at the Hotel Louvre Sainte-Anne, a cute little boutique hotel in the 1er arrondissement within walking distance to the Louvre. Being in “Little Tokyo” meant that there was a plethora of delicious-looking sushi and ramen shops, most tucked into tiny spaces with large windows onto the street. The girl at the front desk recommended we try Toyotomi, a sushi restaurant around the corner. Our sushi rolls were delicious and filling, a great quick lunch before wandering the city.

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On the first Sunday of each month, the Louvre offers free admission, so we walked the few blocks to the museum, taking in the vibe of the city and smelling chestnuts roasting (street vendors sell these in the fall and winter). While the rest of the city was not overly crowded, free admission to the most famous museum in Paris drew quite a crowd. We roamed the Denon Wing to see the “must see’s”:  the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo. The further we got from those works, the thinner the crowds were, so we had a chance to explore a bit.

Besides the paintings, the Louvre houses some of the most beautiful sculptures in the world.

In the basement of the Louvre is an interesting Islamic Art exhibit that houses art and cultural objects from 1,300 years of history throughout the Middle East, Europe and Southeast Asia.

After the Louvre, we walked across the Seine to Notre Dame de Paris, arguably the most famous cathedral in the world. Construction of the gothic church began in 1163 and finished in 1345. It was one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses to counterbalance the weight of the roof and walls. Heavily trafficked by Catholic pilgrims and other tourists from around the world, Notre Dame is guarded by heavily-armed French military following the string of terrorist attacks in the city. Indeed, other areas of the city, from the Eiffel Tower to the streets of the 11me arrondissement, were patrolled by soldiers carrying automatic rifles. It’s a feeling that’s somehow comforting and disconcerting at the same time.

Right around the corner from Notre Dame is the best ice cream shop in Paris, le Berthillon. Offering rotating, seasonal varieties, as well as dessert crepes and pastries, this shop has been in the same location for over sixty years. If Rum Raisin is on the menu, you must give it a try!

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Walking back to our hotel, we stopped to grab a sandwich for dinner. In Paris, long, thin sandwiches on baguettes are common. They’re topped with vegetables and meats and often melted slices of cheese. When nowhere else is open for dinner, you can be sure a kebab shop will have sandwiches, kebabs, crepes and a variety of drinks. We stopped at Creperie Doner Kebab d’Opera.

A l’Heure du Vin was a tiny wine shop near our hotel that had a range of excellent wines and spirits from France and Italy. After a long day filled with traveling and exploring, our hotel room window was the perfect spot to chill our white wine in the November night.

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More to come! Tell me about your last trip to Paris, or your dreams for exploring the city.

A Grand Adventure

I haven’t been blogging as regularly as usual, but I do have an excuse! I’ve been working on arranging all the details of my husband’s and my next grand adventure: a 12-day trip across France, Germany and the Netherlands with a stopover in my favorite place, Iceland, on the way home. We’ll be visiting Paris, the Champagne region, Alsace, southern Germany and Amsterdam on our trip, and I’ll be blogging about all the food and drinks we discover as we travel.

Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr for updates and photos from our trip. If you have suggestions for sights to see, please leave them in the comments below.

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Quick 7-Layer Greek Dip

If you’re looking for a quick, healthy and delicious snack to try at home or take to a party, give this 7-Layer Greek Dip a try!

Start by spreading a large container of your favorite plain hummus evenly on the bottom of a glass baking dish. Dice red peppers, red onions and cucumbers and sprinkle them over the hummus.

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Top with diced olives and crumbled feta cheese, then drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top. Sprinkle some oregano over, and add some salt and pepper if you like.

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Then dig in! Try it with my favorite snack, Stacy’s Pita Chips, or some fresh pita bread.

Pennsylvania Dutch Food Culture in Lancaster, PA

Ever since I was little, my parents have taken me and my brother and sister to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of Lancaster, Pennsylvania regularly.  As a kid, our summer vacation was often spent staying at a campground or a cabin for a week and visiting all the antique shops, farmer’s markets and Amish and Mennonite farms and stands.  Last Spring, my mom, my sister and I took my two boys back to Lancaster for a weekend trip, and my dad and brother felt left out, so the weekend after Thanksgiving this year, we took the whole family!  The weekend was perfect.  We stayed in a cabin with a woodstove and there was snow on the ground.  We got to see the downtown Lancaster Christmas tree lighting and watch Santa arrive on a fire truck.  We went to Dutch Wonderland, the tiny amusement park on the “main drag” of Route 30 that I adored when I was a kid.  And we ate… lots…

For anyone who’s never been to Lancaster, the main thing you need to remember is that the “Pennsylvania Dutch” aren’t really Dutch.  The German immigrants who sought religious freedom in America would tell people they were “deutsch” – the German word for a German person.  The miscommunication stuck, and the Amish were labeled the Pennsylvania Dutch, although most of them came from Germany, bringing their food culture with them.

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Lancaster’s Central Market.  This historic building just off the town square was originally opened in 1730, and features market stalls from local meat and cheese vendors, bakeries, produce stands and coffee shops.

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Oasis at Bird-in-Hand‘s meat and dairy products

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Checking out the chocolate

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Historic Lancaster Central Market

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Desserts from Shady Maple

We visited one of my favorite farmer’s markets in Bird-in-Hand on Saturday.  I had to re-stock my German spicy mustard from S. Clyde Weaver and I bought some amazing homemade fudge from Sweet Legacy Gourmet.  I love that the Bird-in-Hand farmer’s market vendors offer lots of samples, especially of the specialty meats and cheeses.  There were whoopie pies and shoofly pies in abundance!

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Bulk products like different types of flours and meals

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Mmm… desserts

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Shoofly pies!

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Sweet Legacy Gourmet

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Pickled everything!

After our farmer’s market visit, we drove just down the road to the Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant and Smorgasbord.  Smorgasbord is a German word for what is essentially a buffet, with more dishes and desserts than you can shake a stick at.

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Buffet items

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Desserts (more shoofly pie!)

If you ever get the chance to visit Lancaster, you will fall in love with it.  There is a thriving downtown restaurant scene and plenty of opportunities to try Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.  The Amish and Mennonite style of cooking is steeped in German, Austrian and Swiss food traditions with a focus on simplicity and excellent-quality, fresh, local ingredients.  Once you’ve tried a shoofly pie, pickled vegetables or a pretzel in Pennsylvania Dutch country, nothing else will ever measure up.

 

Project “Family Food History” Thanksgiving

So of course by now, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and with it my Family Food History project.  Since my aunt always makes a full, traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy, I didn’t want to make a ton more food since I knew everybody would already be stuffed.  I settled on bringing:

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Gluhwein – German spiced mulled red wine

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Spekulatius – German spice cookies (the Dutch call them speculoos and they are amazingly delicious!)

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Bratwurst and Knackwurst with sauerkraut

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Yorkshire puddings

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Cheese plate with Scottish smoked salmon and cheeses from Holland, England, Scotland and Germany, served with French champagne dill mustard

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My aunt and the rest of my family made a delicious Thanksgiving feast.

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I made a pumpkin pie from scratch with hot water crust and used a pumpkin from my garden.  My cousin bought an apple pie with caramel sauce from the school marching band.

When we got home, me, my husband and our two boys listened to “Alice’s Restaurant” like we do every Thanksgiving.  Then I cooked second Thanksgiving just for us.

From my family to yours, I hope everyone reading had a wonderful Thanksgiving!