WITH regional specialties like sauerkraut and pork liver dumplings, and towns with names like Eckbolsheim and Kayersberg, Alsace, say many of the French, is too German. To the Germans, who've captured and lost Alsace twice in this century alone, the region seems too French.
Forget geopolitics. The French region of Alsace, which stretches from just north of Strasbourg to the Swiss border town of Basel, is stunning, with the kind of storybook charm that Disney could turn to cliche' but never duplicate. Ancient villages cluster on W hilltops, with 13th-century houses in white alabaster and brown crisscrossed wooden beams. Vineyards stripe the hills. As you drive down the two-lane route du vin (wine route) through the countryside that produces spicy dry gewurztraminer and riesling white wines, you can see the ruins of castles strewn across the mountaintops. And in the village winstub--the Alsatian hybrid of a pub and cafe'--you'll find hunters and grape pickers eating flammekueche, or, as the French call it, onion tartes flambe'es.
Tarte flambe'e is the Alsatian version of pizza, without the cheese and tomatoes--although the old Alsatians who still speak the local dialects insist that tartes flambe'es came to Strasbourg before pizza arrived in Rome. As early as the 13th century, local history books say, peasant families would gather around the hearth to bake the coming week's supply of bread; they'd set aside a ball of dough and then, at the end of the day, they'd roll the dough thin, lather it with fresh or soured cream from the cow, sprinkle it with onions plus a few precious bits of smoked pork, and slide it into the oven. What came out a few minutes later was fragile crust, browned or slightly charred, tart bubbling cream and the crunch of just-cooked onion and pork.
"We're still particular about how and when we eat our tartes flambe'es," said Jean-Jacques Roeder, an Alsatian who takes them so seriously he was willing to lead an impromptu field investigation of the subject. "We almost never make it at home, we eat it only in the winstubs or in the auberges the country inns . And we never eat it during the week, we eat it mainly after a family outing on the weekend, and then especially on Sunday." According to Franc,ois Voegeling's "Alsacien Gastronomy," the tarte flambe'e ritual is "ideal after the hunt or after another sporting effort"--and it's even better if there's "a mantle of snow enveloping the countryside or a curtain of fog hiding the horizon."
Roeder's tour started at the auberge L'Osthof, in a tiny village near Strasbourg. Farmers' tractors were parked along the narrow streets. A sharp crescent moon cut the sky. Inside the auberge, families sat at long wooden tables under a gauze of wood and cigarette smoke, peeling the bitter skins off fresh white walnuts and sipping glasses of cloudy pink new wine. And almost everyone, of course, was eating tartes flambe'es--served scalding hot, less than a minute out of the oven, on long wooden planks.
It looked the ideal of French rusticity. But Roeder shook his head. "Tartes flambe'es aren't like they were when I was a boy," he said. Sure enough, the kitchen bore a family resemblance to McDonald's. A teen-ager flattened the dough between electric rollers; then scooped the cream mixture and onions out of plastic buckets, like a pizza jerk at a carryout. And instead of shoveling the tarts into the flames, he baked them in a stainless steel pizza oven.
Still, this dish has been little modernized. Tartes flambe'es have never become homogenized into the rest of French cuisine and culture, as pizzas have in the United States. They're strictly a local dish, so once you leave the region you'll never find them on any menus. "We don't serve those," a restaurateur said in a town a 30-minutes' drive from Strasbourg; "they serve tartes flambe'es only in Alsace." And in 600 years, the recipe has almost never changed.
B. Bommelaer, a young baker in a winstub on the main street in Ribeauville', is trying to change all that. Ribeauville' is a 700-year-old wine town, built in a crease between riesling vineyards that rise above the town like walls. At grape picking time the cobbled streets are jammed with flatbed trucks carting wooden vats of grapes to the wineries; everywhere there is the sweet smell of slightly fermenting grapes.
"Tartes flambe'es have been too parochial," Bommelaer claimed. "I want to teach the whole country to love them." So he has been spreading orange flyers around town boasting that he serves tartes flambe'es every night, not just on weekends; and he's been revising the traditional peasant recipe more than all of Alsace has in 600 years. He tops his tartes flambe'es with tomatoes and eggs, or ham and gruye re, or all of the above plus some mushrooms and crevettes thrown in. Our favorite, an unusual entre'e for an adult birthday, is tarte flambe'e covered with the usual cream mixture and onions and smoked pork, then layered with good muenster, sprinkled with cumin seeds, doused with warm and potent liqueur made from gewurtztraminer grapes (brandy will do) and then ignited into lovely blue flames.
"Of course, you must tell the Americans that these are my creations," Bommelaer said, "absolutely not the Alsatian tradition."
He paused. "But then, to invent things, that's the American way," Bommelaer said with admiration. "So tell your readers to create their own tartes flambe'es."
We've had to alter the traditional recipe, since it's difficult if not impossible to buy the traditional ingredients in the United States. For instance, the French make their cream mixture mainly with fromage blanc, a creamy-smooth fresh cow's milk cheese that's sold in every creamerie from big ceramic bowls; we've yet to find real fromage blanc in Washington, so we substitute cre me frai che, instead. (We offer another recipe for tartes flambe'es lovers who want to eat less butterfat.)
The French scatter their tartes with smokey lardons, chunks of smoked pork breast; the closest thing in Washington is thick, smoked country bacon. But any bacon will do.
Be sure to bake and serve each tarte flambe'e one at a time: the tartes are best steaming hot. TARTE FLAMBEE (5 servings) Dough: 1 cup warm water 1 tablespoon oil 1 teaspoon salt About 4 cups flour Filling: 3 cups creme fraiche (recipe follows) 1 egg yolk OR for a filling with a bit less butterfat: 1 1/4 cups creme fraiche 1 cup sour cream 1 cup farmers cheese 1 egg yolk 3 medium onions, sliced thin or coarsely chopped 1/2 cup country bacon, coarsely chopped Coarsely ground black pepper and salt (to taste)
Add oil and salt to water. Put flour in large mixing bowl; make a well in center, pour in water mixture, and mix well until dough forms a single ball, adding more flour or water if necessary. Turn dough out on counter or bread board and knead 5 minutes, until dough is elastic and smooth.
Heat oven to its highest possible setting (about 550 degrees).
Divide dough in 3 parts. When ready to prepare the tarte, roll ball of dough as thin as possible (about 1/16 inch) to the size of a rectangular cookie sheet or pizza stone. Lift carefully onto the sheet, repairing any tears with extra bits of dough.
Blend the cream with the egg yolk--or the cre me frai che, sour cream, farmers cheese and egg yolk--in a food processor or with a whisk. Lather a third over the dough, about 1/8 inch deep, covering the dough well except for a 1/2 inch border around the edges. Sprinkle with a third of the onions and a third of the bacon. Sprinkle with salt and pepper if you wish.
If using a cookie sheet, place it on the bottom of the oven if possible, otherwise place it on the lowest possible rack.
If using a pizza stone, follow manufacturer's instructions.
Bake 8 minutes, or until crust starts to brown. CREME FRAICHE
Here are two recipes from which to choose. We prefer the buttermilk version for its tartness. 2 cups sour cream 4 cups heavy cream OR 5 cups heavy cream 5 tablespoons buttermilk
Put ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake vigorously for 2 minutes. Let jar sit undisturubed at room temperature for 24 to 36 hours or until thick. Refrigerate. Keeps several weeks.