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In Alsace, Land of My Ancestors, People Still Live Off the Land to Surprising Degree

11/13/2012 03:26 pm ET | Updated Jan 13, 2013
Flickr: pussnboots

HOUSSEN, Alsace, France -- Here in the village from where my great-great grandparents emigrated to America, in the former province known as Alsace, those who derive their living from the land are now a fraction of what they were at the time my ancestors left in 1872. But many, including the Eckerlens, my modern-day relatives that I know best, still live off the land to a surprising degree -- especially in the late summer and early fall.

During a visit here in September, I had a dinner and two lunches at the home of Germaine Eckerlen who lives in the village of Houssen, where my great grandfather Eugene was born in 1867. And yet everything, or nearly everything, I ate came directly from her backyard in the village. Germaine, 80 years old, is the widow of my father's third cousin. She treats me like a long-lost relative which, in fact, I am: I only discovered this village in 2000 after years of genealogical research.

All three meals I shared with the Eckerlens featured vegetable soup, composed only of vegetables from the family's garden.

At the first lunch, I ate a delicious tarte made from a fruit called "quetsch" in French -- small blue plums that were falling from three trees in her backyard. The English translation of quetsch is "Italian prune plums," which I noticed were also in the market where I live in Washington, D.C. after my return from Alsace.

At dinner that night, Germaine presented me with a jar of quetsch jam she had made especially for me that afternoon, so I could have it for breakfast the next morning. Quetsch is one of several fruits transformed into alcoholic eaux de vie (schnapps, in German) that are popular in Alsace as digestifs after dinner (also available in many other flavors including raspberry, pear and plum) but Germaine does not make it. The family also has trees of coing, a yellow fruit that, from a distance, looked like pear but was not. Coing (quince in English) is not eaten raw but cooked to make compotes, tartes, jam and eau-de-vie.

The family has a small herd of sheep grazing in their backyard. Sheep farming is dying out in France so wool is much in demand. Several times a year a sheep shearer comes to the village to shear it and cart if off.

Germaine and her sons raise rabbits for the meat. I didn't eat any on this trip but she showed me a red wine that she uses to "give color" to the white rabbit meat.

Like many families in Houssen, the Eckerlens rent land in the communal vineyard to cultivate their own grapes which they make into table wine; they sell the excess grapes to commercial vintners. My questions about the vineyards prompted Germaine to remind her sons that they needed to get out into the vineyards to prune the vines. That afternoon, I helped two of my cousins prune the weak grapes so that the stronger grapes can attain more succulence.

Of course, all three meals featured wine -- white wines with the fish and pasta and a red wine with the beef. Alsace is justly famous for its fine white whites; my favorites are Riesling and Pinot Gris. Also in September, I found "vin nouveau" -- partially fermented "new wine" being sold alongside the road. This is seen only in September and October when the grapes are being harvested.

On this trip, I visited two other homes of family members. At both homes, I was offered their finest white wines in the mid-afternoon. One of them served me "vendage tardive" ("late harvest") which is derived from grapes that are left on the vines to sweeten after the other grapes are harvested. This is risky, and bad weather can ruin them, but if the gamble pays off, the reward is an unusually intense and flavorful wine. "Vendages tardives" are successful only one year out of five and, therefore, are considerably more rare and expensive than normal wines.

Alsace is famous for its blend of France and Germany (it is located on the Rhine River, which marks the border between the two countries). The Alsatians consider themselves French but only up to a certain point. In the area of food, they pick what they like but do not accept everything French.

For example, the family does not eat frogs, which are popular in much of France. Christian, my 50-something fourth cousin, told he has never eaten frog legs in his life even though he is aware that some people in other parts of the world refer to the French as "frog eaters." They don't believe him when he tells them he has never eaten them and has no desire to do so.

And one of the classic Alsatian meals is Choucroute Garnie (sauerkraut) with sausages, potatoes and all the trimmings -- normally thought of as a German, not French, dish. But this is strictly a winter dish and not prepared in homes when the weather is as lovely as it is in an Alsatian September.