Your cow cheeks, monsieur. Bon appetit!
Strasbourg in spring is a delight. Blossoms swirl in a warm breeze drowsy with Chanel and partially digested sauerkraut.
Along the canals nannies shunt prams, little Jean-Ennui or Klaus-Glockenspiel wrapped snugly in a cocoon of cotton and human rights legislation.
Up in the narrow cobbled streets, blackbirds sing from rooftops and pugs in jumpers lick out discarded ice-cream cones, becoming first chesty, then thoroughly congested, until they fall over in asthmatic heaps, rum-and-raisin seeping from their desperately flaring nostrils.
In the exquisite waterways, apparently nothing more than damply picturesque excuses to flaunt lush poplars and willows, Franco-German ducks trumpet the triumph of the region’s multicultural harmony. Combining a Teutonic disregard for territorial boundaries with a Gallic fascination for the sleazy, they cruise brazenly up to tourists and demand crumbs or Gauloises. Guten morgen. Je crave un fag, mon amis. Quack.
And high above it all looms the red-brown cathedral, St Lacrimosa’s Chapel of Passive-Aggressive Disapproval and Eternal Caution for the Heathen Pre-Emptively Immolated For His Own Good, its thousand-year-old walls seething with saints a-sainting, martyrs a-martyred, and partridges being shot out of pear-trees by cross-bow-toting Protestants. (In all the sculptural chaos it’s easy to overlook two African saints, tagged on to the wall round the back, one of them sporting a creature at his heel that may or may not be a theological pug choking on sorbet.)
Yes, Strasbourg, like all of Alsace, is fiercely proud of its history, and every tourist brochure bulges with famous names who once walked its pretty streets. Over yonder was where John Calvin fathered little Klein Calvin, the famous medieval inventor of rustproof sabre-resistant underpants. Up there is where Mozart once spent seven hours, during which time he wrote four operas and, after some heavy drinking, a scintillating cantata arranged for oboe, duck, whore and flagon.
Indeed, so alive is history to the citizens of Strasbourg that ‘the bombing of 1943” is often recalled with almost tangible pain. Of course the brochures don’t seem to remember quite why the bombing took place; an amnesiac tendency that extends to other wartime catastrophes. Take a slow boat with its even slower audio commentary, and one is shown a hideous new building where once the town’s beautiful synagogue stood. Where is the house of worship today? ‘The synagogue was destroyed during the Second World War,” reveals the voice.
Ah yes, that notorious penchant so many synagogues have for spontaneous combustion. One day they’re there, and then — poof! Faulty wiring; a spark of static shooting out from under a too-vigorously adjusted yamulkah. Arson? What a vulgar suggestion, sir! See, you have made me spill Pilsner on my brown shirt.
But of course Strasbourg is a modern town with modern sensibilities, and to accuse it of keeping skeletons locked in cupboards would be to generalise and indulge in British tabloid cliché. No, barbarism seems to have been entirely excised from the politics of modern Alsace.
And injected undiluted into its cuisine.
Perhaps one day some culinary scholar will do the research that proves that ‘regional specialities” are just prettied-up serf snacks. You can give them quirky names; you can drown them in garlic butter to mask their innate pong; you can pretend that their creepiness imbues them with some sort of aesthetic merit; but when all is done and regurgitated, they’re still just the bits that were flung over the castle wall a millennium ago. You may call them cuisine, but they remain the sinuses of pigs, the tonsils of eels and the sphincters of chickens.
Admittedly, not all Alsace delicacies are euphemistically named. ‘Cow cheeks” are more or less self-explanatory. Likewise one doesn’t need to speak German to get an inkling of the nastiness of ‘Spätzle”: pronounced schpetzleh, it manages to conjure spittle, spatulas and cement; all quite appropriate given that it is a doughy yet rubbery noodle reminiscent of uncured rhino hide left to soak in lye for a year. One imagines that the ubiquitous ‘cheval” or ‘chevalier” involves horsemeat, although it’s possible the dish features a tiny tuxedo’ed singer named Maurice grilled on a kebab.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, the eternal singleton harbours one abiding terror: that she will die alone and that her unclaimed body will be eaten by Alsatians. One always just assumed she meant dogs.