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.