Francis Dubois built his career as an official at the United Nations, both at the headquarters in New York City and in the Middle East. When he retired, it was to take on an active role in associations that he cared about, such as serving as President of the Union Alsacienne of New York. He is also the Governor of the prestigious National Arts Club in New York, where he supports artists that he describes as "true messengers of peace." In this new episode of French Summer Trip, Francis describes his homeland of Alsace to us. Let's head to the East of France, to Strasbourg and its surroundings!
When you think of Alsace, what memories come to mind?
Alsace is a very beautiful province, rich in terms of landscapes. There are mountains, plains, all sorts of historical monuments, and the second tallest cathedral in the world. It's in Strasbourg and is made of sandstone. It's a big gothic cathedral and this pink stone gives it an absolutely extraordinary aspect. We have amazing towns such as Strasbourg and its Petite France neighborhood, Colmar, and plenty of other villages.
What was it like to grow up in Alsace?
There's a memory I thought about recently and that I remember so vividly. Every Friday in Strasbourg, the bakers made onion tarts. At the time, it was the fast day, so we did not eat meat on Fridays. Alsace has remained a relatively religious area. So very early in the morning, the bakers would prepare this onion tart and the whole city smelled delicious. I have not found this incredible smell anywhere else.
What outings did you do as a family?
We would go to the Vosges. Each year, my parents rented a big house where we would go with my brothers. We invited family, cousins. We would visit castles. We went on a lot of walks to pick blackberries and we would make jam. I have fabulous memories of helping my grandmother and my mother make these jams. I have kept that habit: I still make jam. That passion was born in Alsace, in the Vosges.
Which culinary specialities do you recommend that we try?
Of course there's "choucroute" (sauerkraut), which one does not eat in the summer. It's a dish for the winter or when you have walked a lot and you're very hungry. It's absolutely remarkable!
Tarte flambée has become very popular as well. It's a sort of Alsacien pizza. As a matter of fact, there's a restaurant in New York called "Tarte Flambée" on 33rd Street.
One of the dishes specific to Alsace is what we call the Baeckeoffe. It's a dish with three types of cooked meat with potatoes and onions. In the 19th century, it was prepared when women were doing laundry, on Mondays. Because they did not have the time to cook, they would bring this dish to the baker in a big pot, and he would put it in his oven. When the women came back from the wash-house, they would take the meal that had been cooking for several hours. It's really delicious!
The other thing that's fabulous in Alsace is charcuterie. There is a considerable array of choice. We inherited that from the German side.
Where should one go to enjoy the Christmas market in Alsace?
Strasbourg is known worldwide as the organizer of one of the most beautiful Christmas markets.
We organized also one in New York with 30 stands in December 2019. It was a great success commercially (which is always nice) but also in terms of promoting Alsace and its products, like pastries, linens, culinary dishes, beer, and wines. We hope that we will be able to do it again in 2021 (after the pandemic).
Which villages are worth the detour in Alsace?
All the villages on the Wine Road are worth stopping at, like Kaysersberg and so many others.
How do you recommend travelling this Wine Road to become familiar with the region's wines?
I recommend starting on the Wine Road from the North and making a stop in each village to have a glass. The wines are extraordinary between the Gewurztraminer, Traminer, Pinot blanc, Pinot noir... On the Wine Road, you must stop in each of these wine cellars, you will be well-received.
What are other alcohols are there to discover, other than wine?
There are the spirits. All the raspberry brandies, the Kirsch, the pear brandies, Schnaps... The Massenez distillery has been doing this for many years. All these fruit liqueurs are typical of Alsace.
What historical sites in Alsace do you like and would recommend?
There are so many because Alsace is something of a European crossroads of civilisations between France, Switzerland, and Germany. You must visit the medieval castle of Haut-Kœnigsbourg, which was entirely renovated by the emperor William II when Alsace was under German occupation. It's a very beautiful imperial castle. In fact, every hill in the Vosges is topped with a castle, but they are often in ruins. This one, however, is renovated like in the Middle Ages.
Another historical site, a little different this time, is the Struthof. It's the only concentration camp that the Nazis built in metropolitan France. There is a museum of memory -- you must go see it.
How would you describe the Alsacien people?
Alsaciens are odd people. Back in the day, they spoke a dialect of German. They were considered not completely French. So the Alsaciens made tremendous efforts over the course of history to be more French than the French. They gave French innumerable generals and marshals like Kellermann or Kléber. We kind of have the "adopted child complex", like Pastor Hoffet wrote in his book "Psychoanalysis of Alsace."
Alsaciens are very efficient people who work hard and succeed where they are. At the United Nations, for example, we had a fair amount of Alsacien officers who were bilingual from birth (French and German) and who learned languages very quickly.