COLMAR, France | There are two types of French people: Those who relish the savory-sweet tang of choucroute and those immune to the charms of the shredded and fermented chewy cabbage.
But there’s no arguing about the place of choucroute, a signature dish of the Alsace region visited Wednesday by the Tour de France, in the pantheon of classic French meals.
Three-time world champion Peter Sagan nailed the sprint finish to win Wednesday’s Stage 5 to the Alsace city of Colmar, close to France’s eastern border with Germany. To the delight of home fans, French rider Julian Alaphilippe rode strongly to stay in the overall lead of the Tour and its iconic yellow jersey.
As ubiquitous as baked beans in the Anglo-Saxon world and found in every French supermarket, choucroute has been eaten by families in Alsace, with thick forests, rich agriculture and a famous cycling climb up the Ballon d’Alsace mountain, since at least the 15th Century.
Naturally fermented in salted water without the addition of yeast, the preserved cabbage provided a supply of vitamins and roughage during the long, arduous winter months in Alsace.
“Now, we have pills, but back in the day people ate fermented heart of cabbage to have enough vitamins in winter,” said Sebastien Muller, president of the Association for the Appreciation of Alsace Choucroute, an industry group.
On the plate, choucroute looks a little like spaghetti. Once heated with a little fat, fried onion, a splash of white wine or beer, and whole juniper berries for a woody flavor, the cabbage is most often garnished with buttered boiled potatoes, juicy hunks of smoked pork belly and smoked sausages.
Choucroute eaten soon after the cabbage harvest in August, fermented for just two weeks, will be delicate in flavor. But a July choucroute, fermented for months since the previous year’s harvest, will have a more acidic bite. Muller suggests rinsing the cabbage in water if it’s too tangy.
A good choucroute is measured by the length of the cabbage shreds, their whiteness, firmness and slight acidity, Muller said.
“It’s a vegetable that has crossed the centuries,” he said.
Best washed down with one of Alsace’s many crisp white wines.
WINE OF THE DAY: French rider Thibaut Pinot, carrying the country’s hopes for a first homegrown Tour champion since Bernard Hinault in 1985, shares his name with a signature grape of Alsace, the Pinot gris.
It produces both dry and sweet wines with a yellow-gold color that can age well, with delicious buttery notes and complex dried fruit aromas.
CULTURE: Saint-Die-des-Vosges, the start of the 109-mile Stage 5, is home to a delightful cubic industrial building designed by world-famous architect Le Corbusier.
Jean-Jacques Duval, whose hosiery manufacture was destroyed during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, invited Le Corbusier to draw up plans for a replacement factory. The Le Corbusier foundation says construction was slow, and the radical building drew unanimous criticism. With its modernist façade, large interior volume and contrasted materials and colors, it is now regarded as the work of a visionary.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I just have to ride with passion and the victory comes” — Sagan, of his 12th career stage win at the Tour.
STAT OF THE DAY: 86.36. The top speed, in kilometers per hour, that Alaphilippe reached on Stage 5’s final descent to Colmar. That’s 53.7 miles per hour.
NEXT ON THE MENU: A sharp climb to the Planche des Belles Filles ski station in the Vosges mountains, featuring a brutal 20% incline at the top. In autumn, its slopes are a gold mine of mushrooms. On Thursday, it will offer the sternest test so far for top Tour contenders.
Chris Froome, who missed this Tour with broken bones from a crash, mastered the Planche in 2012 and Vincenzo Nibali triumphed at the summit in 2014, the year he won the Tour.
The final ascent comes after several other climbs including the Markstein, the Ballon d’Alsace and the Col des Chevrères, meaning the pack should be reduced in the final kilometers to a small bunch of riders contending for the overall victory in Paris on July 28.
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