A Pilgrimage to Alsace: in search of (my) Kugelhopf
A sweet pilgrimage for a site named, MyKugelhopf ? That can mean only one place… Alsace ! This region in France by the German border is known (and disputably so, as all food history goes) as the birthplace of the kugelhopf. To be even more precise, that would take us to the town of Ribeauvillé, in the heart of Alsatian vineyards. Even though their annual “Fête du Kougelhopf” was unfortunately canceled this year (sadly not enough bakers wanted to participate), I didn’t let that stop me from heading to the source. Alsace happens to be one of my favorite regions in France. So when friends from New York told us they had a wedding to attend in Brussels, I jumped at the chance to see them while in Europe and a prime opportunity for them to discover one of my favorite places. And to track down the best kugelhopf, of course. I told them to take a train to Strasbourg and we’d pick them up there…
Once in France, you know you have arrived in Alsace when the town names start getting longer and more difficult to pronounce, and have a definite German flavor. From the car or train window, I love reading the sign names: Wittelsheim, Illkirch-Graffenstaden, Schiltigheim (known for its “Fête de la Bière” in August), Illhaeusern and Niedermorschwihr – the latter I adore, for both the sound of its name and for being home of the Reine des Confitures, queen of fruit jams, Christine Ferber. (Also spotted from my window: storks !)
Each town is more charming than the last, with its distinctive half-timbered houses, endearingly crooked and vibrant facades and a cuisine all its own. The dishes sound almost as foreign as their town names: Tarte flambée (Flammekueche), Choucroute, Baeckoffe… Go into any bookstore (even the newsstand in Strasbourg’s train station) and you will see an impressive selection of Alsatian cookbooks, as well as books on the history of the region, some with old illustrations of kugelhopf in Ribeauvillé.
And oh those signs ! Just like my best advice in Appenzell was to keep your “Heads Up,” here you should do the same. The decorative wrought irons signs (indicative of the business), architecture and so many details not to miss. Only, bring those eyes back down to the store fronts where you’ll see traditional pottery, bakeries with macarons d’Alsace in the windows (resembling coconut macaroons, not Parisian macarons) and menus outside restaurants luring you in with those exotic sounding dishes.
Plenty of wine shops too, one after another, with signs outside that welcome you in for a dégustation, a free tasting of their vins d’Alsace before you buy: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris… If you’re a white wine drinker, you’re in the right place. We were happy and relieved to see so many shop doors open on a Sunday, but next time we’ll go when a visit to the winery’s cellar is possible. We followed the recommendation of a local baker and spent a leisurely hour at Louis Sipp, where a Riesling Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé Grand Cru 2006 stole the show. The family who owns the vineyards is there to share small tastes of several varieties of their wine and answer any questions, 101 of which we had.
And now let’s talk kugelhopf ! There’s nary a boulangerie or pâtisserie without a large kugelhopf in its window, this yeast-risen brioche-like cross between bread and cake. When in Colmar in 2008, I discovered a fantastic kugelhopf (and langhopf) at Pâtisserie Gilg and I was pleased to see they had a shop in Ribeauvillé too. But I had my eyes set on Pâtisserie Schaal, where many say Rémy Schaal’s kugelhopf is the best around. I spotted the shop from afar with its bright blue shutters above and sign out front, proudly showing membership of the Confédération Nationale des Artisans Pâtissiers.
Inside, it was big smiles and friendly conversation with Rémy Schaal and his wife, Isabelle. As Rémy wasn’t quite in baker’s whites, my fellow New Yorkers and I could only giggle at his Texas t-shirt (below). With a smirk, he walked us toward the mini shrine to Texas in the back of the shop – he lived and worked in Dallas for over 20 years for La Madeleine before moving back to Alsace in 2003 to take over what was the Keller family’s pastry shop. Celebrity chef Hubert Keller is perhaps best known for his restaurant Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, and even though he wasn’t in pastry himself, chances are he helped his father and brother butter all the kugelhopf molds as a kid.
As I laughed with Isabelle about the name of my site, Rémy disappeared into the back of the bakery to grab one of his kugelhopf molds with the dough resting in it. “I let it sit for a good 12 hours. A must. Never less than 12 hours.” When I asked Rémy if he uses a traditional recipe that’s similar to that of bakers around Alsace, he told me his was richer, with very little water. Maintaining a proper balance, the moisture is coming only from eggs and butter, “not good for cholesterol or diet,” he advised. More flavors and aromas develop during the long fermentation, which can be 12-14 hours.
After a leisurely stroll around the village (and obligatory wine tasting), we were finally able to come back to the bakery to take our kugelhopf home. (See below, the real meaning of – that kugelhopf’s got my name on it !) Why the wait ? It had just come out of the oven and was still hot. Normally nothing can stop me from jumping at bread, cookies or cakes fresh and still warm from the oven, but a kugelhopf is best the next day or even a few days later. We all patiently waited the next morning back in Zürich, and dipped our slices into bowls of coffee.
I always thought that was the typical – and thus best – way to eat kugelhopf. But Rémy has since corrected me… “You have to come back to Ribeauvillé and have it slightly toasted, with foie gras. French would serve it with Sauternes, but here, Alsatians pour a glass of Sélection Grains Nobles.” Ok !
Merci Rémy et Isabelle, cela m’a fait grand plaisir de vous rencontrer et de découvrir votre kugelhopf, un vrai délice ! À bientôt, j’espère !