Big vats of choucroute perfume just about every farmers’ market in France. Gloriously fragrant, the cabbage bubbles away, surrounded by hillocks of sausages, smoked pork hock, bacon, and various other pig parts. If you’re in the mood, you simply say “Choucroute pour quatre” or however many you may be, and the vendor packs you up a container of cabbage, another of more pork than you’ll be able to eat in a week, and distinct instructions. “Cook the cabbage in white wine for 20 minutes before you serve it. Enjoy!”
Where does choucroute originate? It’s a wild tale involving Mongols, Huns, Tartares and the conquest of Europe, ending up ultimately in the territory now called Alsace. Quickly – during the construction of the Great Wall of China, vats of fermented cabbage were set up for the workers. (According to legend, this is the origin of kimchee, but that is another – though related- story). Fermented cabbage, it was believed, held medicinal virtues and was vital to the health of the workers. We now know that it is loaded with vitamin C, so they were correct.
Fast forward to Alsace where, in 451, the very first cabbages destined for pickling were cultivated, brought by the above Mongols et cie. It wasn’t until the 15th century, though, that written reference is made to a dish sometimes referred to as chou compost or “compost cabbage” sometimes referred to as chou acide or “sauerkraut” that was prepared in monasteries of the region.
When I first tasted French choucroute, it had no relation to the mouth-puckering sauerkraut of my childhood, a fixture on our table. But I have grown to love it, and the abundance it represents. You must be prepared, when sitting down to choucroute, to mentally transport yourself into the persona of a hard-working person who needs lots of protein and vitamin C to get through the day. Once you’ve done that, dig in.
Beer is often served with choucroute; Reisling is a great choice too.
CHOUCROUTE WITH PORK
This French version of choucroute is less tart than the American version. The apples here lend a touch of sweetness.
2 pounds (1 kg) fresh choucroute (salted, fermented cabbage)
3 tablespoons duck or goose fat
4 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
3 sweet apples, cored, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 cups Riesling, or other fruity white wine
1 cup (250ml) water
Freshly ground pepper to taste
2 whole cloves
6 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
2 cloves garlic
6 smoked knackwurst
6 fresh German frankfurters
1 pound (500g) smoked pork sausage, such as kielbasa
2 pounds (1kg) small potatoes
1 pound (500g) slab bacon, cut into large chunks
- Preheat the oven to 350° F (180°C).
- Soak the choucroute in cold water for one hour. If it is very acidic or salty, soak it until you can eat it and not pucker up. You do want some – but not all – of the acidity to remain in the choucroute so taste it as it is soaking.
- In a large, flameproof casserole over low heat, melt the fat and add the onions. Sauté until the onions are tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Remove the onions from the pan. Place one-third of the choucroute in the pan, and top with half the onions and half the apples. Season with salt and pepper. Repeat the layering, topping with the remaining choucroute.
- Add the cloves, juniper berries, bay leaves and garlic, pushing them down into the choucroute. Pour over the wine and water, place the pan over medium heat and when the liquid comes to a boil, cover the pan and place it in the oven until it is cooked and tender, but still has some texture, about 1-1/2 hours. Check it occasionally; add additional water if necessary. You want it moist, not soupy.
- While the choucroute is baking, pierce all of the sausages throughout, so they don’t burst during cooking. Poach each variety in a separate saucepan in gently simmering water, each for about 20 minutes. Drain all the sausages, slice the kielbasa, cut the longer sausages in half, and keep all warm until serving time.
- Meanwhile, cover the potatoes with water, add 2 teaspoons salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat so the water is boiling gently and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 18 minutes.
- Sauté the bacon until it is very golden and crisp on all sides, which will take about 8 minutes. Keep it warm.
- To serve, make sure the choucroute is blistering hot. Drain it, and remove all the herbs and spices (if you find them. If not, warn your guests…!) Mound the choucroute in the center of a big platter. Surround it with the sausages that are whole and halved, and top it with the bacon and the sliced kielbasa. Serve with plenty of mustard and chilled beer, or Riesling.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings