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Thursday, April 21, 2011
Easter in Alsace
First published Canberra Times 20 April 2011
With blossom trees and bulbs exploding into flower, heralding the arrival of spring and Easter festivities, the traditional Easter imagery is unleashed in France. The shop windows of the boulangeries and patisseries across Alsace are groaning under the weight of gaudy bunting, providing a backdrop for the traditional images of the chicken, lamb and rabbit, the timeless symbolism of renewal and rebirth.
Across France, the church bells fall silent between the Thursday before Easter and Easter Sunday. The kids are told that that the bells have flown to Rome to see the Pope and gather sweets, returning on Sunday morning to drop chocolate chickens, bunnies, and eggs from the sky.
In Alsace, the traditional French Easter celebrations are treated slightly differently to the rest of France, with many of the traditions revolving around the rabbit, that fertile breeder and friend of the moon that reappears at Easter in various forms. Like their Australian counterparts, the kids believe it’s the rabbit that hides chocolate eggs around the garden.
Lamb also figures prominently in the seasonal imagery, particularly where food is concerned. Oschterlämmele, are lamb-shaped brioches sprinkled with sugar, baked in terra cotta moulds and elegantly attired with a ribbon around their necks to grace boulangerie display windows. Even the traditional Kougelhopf, an Alsation yeast cake baked in a ceramic fluted mould, departs from its usual shape and reinvents itself as a lamb.
On Easter Sunday, the kids in France wake up in the morning, to find eggs scattered in their bedrooms. They then go to their garden, to retrieve beautifully decorated Easter eggs, hidden in little nests and have egg rolling competitions.
With spring finally here after a particularly cold and long winter, the village gardens are transformed from bare earth to ploughed, fertile fields and garden beds are ready for spring planting. House shutters and windows are thrown open, airing doonas, pillows and rugs ready to catch the first rays of spring sunshine. It’s as if a switch is silently turned on.
Restaurants are busily replacing their winter menus with the lighter spring ones, which is a huge relief to us. We can already see the asparagus, crayfish and lamb dishes appearing accompanied by young spring vegetables. Fromage Blanc is used with lemons to create fresh and light ice creams and desserts more suited to the warmer conditions.
Lamb makes an appearance at Easter, as the traditional Navarin of Lamb, which uses the new season lambs and spring vegetables as its main ingredients. However in Alsace, again the tradition deviates slightly where Bäeckeoffe, a dish comprised of a leg of lamb or shoulder is cooked in a traditional clay pot with layerings of thick potato slices, sliced onion and pieces of meat, layered until all ingredients are used.
Bäeckeoffe is prepared using the celebrated Alsation Riesling as its signature ingredient. The wine is used as both a marination and cooking liquid, providing a unique, citrusy taste to the meats. Locals have a passionate belief in terroir; one that demands the mix of beast, vegetable and wine sourced from the same land, delivers a harmonious blend of flavours.
To ensure the melt in the mouth consistency of the meat, the clay pot is cooked in the oven for 3½ hours and sealed by placing a thin roll of dough around the lid, locking in the flavours. When cooked, the dish is taken to the table and the dough is broken allowing the delicious cooking smells to escape.
If you don’t own a clay cooking pot, any heavy based oven proof casserole dish will also work.
500g boneless pork shin
500g boneless lamb shoulder
3 onions, chopped
2 crushed cloves of garlic
large pinch of table salt
ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
3 juniper berries
600ml Riesling for cooking and 300ml for the marinade
1.5 kg thickly sliced potatoes
for the dough seal, 150g flour mixed with a little cold water to make a dough
The day before cooking, cut all the meat into large cubes and combine in a large pie dish with salt, black pepper, sliced onions, thyme, bay leaf, crushed juniper berries, garlic cloves and the wine for the marinade. Blend all the ingredients with clean hands, cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight.
The following day, pre-heat the oven to 175C. Into the casserole dish place a layer of the marinated ingredients, then a layer of potatoes and repeat the layers until the dish is filled. Pour over the left over marinade and the rest of the wine.
Cover with the lid of the dish then take the dough you have prepared in a small bowl, and roll it out into a long 'snake' and push it in to the joint between the lid and the pot to seal the lid to the base.
Place in the oven and cook for 3 ½ hours. When cooked, open the dish at the table by cracking the dough crust with a knife in front of your guests. This dish should be accompanied by a crisp green salad and a fresh Alsation Riesling.