Alphorns and Storks in Alsace. And cows, of course.

Alsatian Costumes
Traditional Dancers

My second ‘cows are coming home’ event in the past month was a Transhumance, and with that, I was of course in France. Check that: I was in Alsace, and you can read in a previous post what that means. If you don’t want to read that previous post: be that way, fine. Suffice to say that Alsace is just not all that French. One of the great discoveries here in the tri-country area is just how little the people that live there seem to care about such trivial matters as international borders. In St. Louis, right on the border to Switzerland, you can hear people on the market ask for something in Swiss German; they don’t bat an eyelash if the answer comes back in Alsatian, and a third person may feel the need to chime in and do so in French.

Alphorns
Alphorns in front of Munster’s church

And so the cows’ homecoming in this part of France is celebrated with folkloric dancing, music, and (wait for it) Alphorns. And if you’re shy about your abilities in French here, just try your best German and especially the older people will respond in Alsatian – a dialect that’s very close to the German they speak across the border, or to the dialect of Basel, for that matter.

What is unique about the Transhumance in the town of Munster (nothing to do with Munster, Germany, or the Peace of Westphalia, for those of you who remember that from history books) are the cows themselves. The first time I was in Munster, it was in winter so I could not find any in the snow-dusted pastures, and a few weeks ago I was in a cheese museum that is supposed to have them, but I was told that they had not come down from the mountains yet….

Vosgesienne II
Proud Cow
Vosgesienne III
Vache en tricolore
Vosgesienne I
And another one…

The elusive cows I am speaking of are tough ladies. They weather wind and rain and cold up in the high meadows of the Vosges Mountains, and so they’re called Vosgesiennes. With their characteristic black and white coloring, they’re some very good-looking bovines, and if you are a purist, you want your stinky Munster cheese to come from Vosgesienne milk. While they are the undisputed stars of the Fête de la Transhumance et de la Tourte, there is an awful lot more to see and do in Munster. The other part of the celebration is the tourte, a pie of well-seasoned ground pork and onions, but there are a lot of other delicacies to try.

Tourtes
Tourtes

Among them is Siaskass, a mixture of fresh cheese, crème fraiche (sour cream, but better), sugar and kirsch. There is smoked saucisson, spectacular farmer’s bread and candies from the mountains made with pine sap or a liquor made of mirabelles. For kids, there are random farm animals to pet, adding to a joyful, chaotic party that brings traffic through town to a screeching halt. And way over everyone’s head, dwelling in comfortable, I daresay luxurious nests perched like gargoyles on the church roof are the flying fortresses that are the official bird of Alsace. To make sure no one can ever miss it: there is a Pharmacie de la Cigogne, next to the Hotel de la Cigogne, which has an enormous Cigogne on its façade. There are Cigognes in the fields on the way to Munster and they hover over the church before landing onto their comfortable pads. The people from the Munster Valley love their cows, but they revere their storks.

Stork
Over everything and everyone, the stork

 

Munster Fermier (Week 3)

 

Munster Fermier c

Cheese: Munster Fermier

Producer: Ferme Schott & Ferme du Lameysberg

Where: Breitenbach, Alsace, France

The real Munster, cheese experts will tell you, has nothing to do with the cheese that is sold as such in the US, or the version that is linked to the eponymous city in Germany. Munster is a small town in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace, Northwestern France, close to Basel, and during a visit to our Basel office it seemed like a great idea to venture out into the countryside to find a Munster Fermier, buy it directly from a cheese farmer and say hi to the cows, the Vosgesiennes, a breed that is specific to the area (but Munster doesn’t necessarily need to come from milk of these cows). The mottled white & black animals apparently don’t mind the sometimes inclement mountain weather of the high pastures. In winter they are brought down to the farm and I guess purists would stay away from the cheese made from winter milk: the cows eat hay, not that nice mix of grass, herbs and wildflowers that grow in the meadows of the Vosges.

Murbach Abbey Winter c
Transept of the abbey of Murbach, Alsace

 

View on Stosswihr c
View on Stosswihr

The plan seemed simply enough, and I took a colleague along for the ride. There is a cheese museum of sorts in a town close to Munster and farms that sell cheese are clearly mapped on a website that provides lots of information about Alsace’s most famous cheese. Alas, the cheese museum was closed for winter (the website didn’t spill those beans) and one of the obvious candidate farms was closed for lunch. When we came back after lunch, there was a handwritten sign on the door that said “Out on an errand, back in 20”. 20 minutes came and went and poor Molly must have regretted that she joined what tuned out to be a mad quest for fromage fermier.

Ferme du Versant du Soleil Alsace c
The cheese is there, but nobody’s home. At La Ferme du Versant du Soleil in Hohrod

In the end, we got our Munsters in Colmar, a very charming little town not far from the Rhine. It’s a major tourist draw in southern Alsace, and it was the home of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who sculpted some nice fountains and other statuary. Oh yah, and that lady that stands in New York Harbor, welcoming the poor, tired, huddled masses….

Munsters are stinky, there’s no 2 ways about it. Really stinky. We came home to the hotel in Basel and ate our cheese with some dried Bündnerfleisch and drank a vendanges tardives Gewürztraminer with it. The Munster from Hubert Schott was still young, and as such the flavor was surprisingly mild. You would expect such a stinky cheese to be quite a mouthful. The Munster from the Ferme du Lameysberg was riper and here, the flavor was more robust. All in all worth the quest (we never did see any Vosgesiennes) but for January, the top ranking still goes to the Rush Creek Reserve.

Munster c
Hubert Schott’s Munster