Everyone knows Sauerkraut. How about choucroute? Same difference. Well, almost. Choucroute is just the French name for it – so much sexier than Sauerkraut, which sounds like a German on a bad day.
The name choucroute (I’m sticking with its French nomenclature, living as I do in Alsace) indicates not just the raw material – smooth white cabbage finely shredded and salted – but also the famous dish, a mountain of steaming cabbage which comes tottering under the weight of sundry sausages, smoked pork meats, potatoes and – if you’re lucky – the occasional liver dumpling.
Choucroute is one of those classic, seasonal preserves that was traditionally put up in the autumn to last the whole winter through. To make it, a special variety of tightly packed white cabbage known as quintal d’Alsace is finely shredded and layered with coarse salt in a large container. The action of the salt on the sugars in the cabbage produces liberal quantities of lactic acid, which rise up and completely cover the cabbage, excluding the air and enabling the choucroute to be stored for several months without spoilage.
Though a few households in Alsace still make their own in special barrels or crocks stored in the cellar, most people nowadays buy it ready-made – fermented, but still raw. I get it from my local butcher, who sells it in a little green bucket. It’s a neat idea, because at the same time he sells me a selection of his home-made knacks (think frankfurters), Montbéliards (smoked pork sausages), lard salé or fumé (salted or smoked bacon) and schiffala or collet (smoked pork shoulder or neck) to go with it.
I have to confess to a special relationship with choucroute. Some twenty years ago, when I was researching my book A Taste of Alsace, I went to visit chef Roger Fischer of the Restaurant Studerhof in the small village of Bettlach, and shared with him my particular interest in this most emblematic of Alsatian foods.
Soon I discovered that Monsieur Fischer was a founding member of the Confrérie de la Choucroute, a sort of society for the preservation of pickled cabbage. The French have Confréries or Brotherhoods for just about any food or drink that’s featured in the Larousse Gastronomique, and a few that aren’t. These societies provide a wonderful opportunity for the members to commission and wear some splendid robes and swear undying loyalty to the food or drink in question.
Imagine how chuffed I was to receive an invitation to join the august ranks of the Confrérie as a Choucroutière d’Honneur or honorary pickled cabbage ambassadress. The date of the next intronisation (enthronement) was set, and along I went, together with other aspiring choucroutiers. We were greeted by members of the Confrérie, clad in floor-length emerald green robes and black three-cornered hats, each one wearing a magnificent chain of office with an ornate metal badge showing a steaming plate of choucroute surmounted by an Alsatian headdress.
The ceremony began and one by one we filed up to the front. Chef Roger raised his polished wooden pole (which looked remarkably like a baseball bat) and touched each one of us on both shoulders, rather as the Queen does to aspiring knights (only she uses a sword). We all had to swear undying loyalty to the choucroute cause, promising to eat it at least once a year and to lose no opportunity to vaunt its considerable virtues.
Which is what I’m doing now, with this recipe which we did in my recent workshop, A Taste of the Regio. It’s a bit new-wave and it’s adapted from one that features in my book. The combination of choucroute with salmon (fresh and smoked) is a happy one: the sharp chou provideds a nice foil to the rich oily fish, and instead of puff pastry as in the original, I’ve used brik pastry. Simple, stylish and delish. Worthy – I hope you’ll agree – of a choucroutière d’honneur.
STRUDELS DE SAUMON FRAIS ET FUMÉ A LA CHOUCROUTE
Salmon strudels with choucroute and creamy sauce
250g cooked choucroute/Sauerkraut
3-4 tbsp crème fraîche
6 brik pastry leaves
6 x 150g pieces salmon (‘pavés’), no skin, no bones
150g smoked salmon slices
vegetable oil for brushing the strudel sheets
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tsp cornfour (Maizena)
250ml/1 cup fish stock (or 250ml/1 cup water + 1 tsp powdered fish stock)
100ml/6 tablespoons crème fraîche liquide (whipping cream)
salt and pepper
- If the choucroute is very wet, squeeze out excess moisture
- Reserve 1 tablespoon choucroute for the sauce; mix cream into the rest
- Unwrap brik leaves one by one, brush with oil, lay a piece of salmon across the end closest to you, spread with a thin layer of creamy choucroute, then a slice of smoked salmon (cut to fit if necessary)
- Turn the end and the sides of the brik leaf in over the fish, then roll up to enclose the salmon in a snug parcel
- Line a baking sheet with non-stick paper, lay the parcels on it seam sides underneath, brush with oil and refrigerate till needed
- Heat the oven to 220oC
- Bake parcels for 15-20 minutes or until pastry is golden and the fish is hot through – stick a skewer in the middle to test, prolong cooking if necessary
- For the sauce: soften the shallot in the butter, stir in cornflour, add stock and bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes or until somewhat reduced
- Stir in the cream and the reserved choucroute and simmer again
- Check the seasoning – usually no salt needed, but some pepper
- Serve the parcels with some sauce