The intense French nationalism of the German-speaking Alsatians is legendary.
During the war, to get around the German order forbidding the display of the French tricolor, the Alsatians at considerable personal risk planted living flags of red, white and blue flowers. On Bastille Day, windows all over Alsace just happened to be airing a red and a blue blanket separated by a white sheet.
These inverted nationalists have made themselves so French that the rest of France in return has taken up Alsatian food and drink with gusto. Sauerkraut, or choucroute as the word has become in French, is as much a national dish here as in Germany.
Actually it is a regional dish in both countries, originating along the Rhine, from whence it moved east and west.
No doubt the Alsatians who came to seek their fortune in the capital are responsible for its present popularity. One has a distinct impression that every café and restaurant between the Gare de l'Est and the Place de la République calls itself something on the order of "Aux Armes de Colmar" or "La Strasbourgeoise." This is obviously where to find the best choucroute, and despite a complicated preparation it remains one of the most inexpensive foods available in Paris.
You can perfectly well make choucroute from start to finish by yourself, but when you discover what this entails, you, like nearly all charcuterie and restaurant owners, will probably be content to leave it to the large specialized firms in Alsace and elsewhere in the east of France.
How to Do it Yourself
First of all buy about 200 pounds of cabbage and a large barrel. Cut off the stumps and tough green outer leaves of the cabbages and cut each head into thin slices. Line the barrel bottom with whole cabbage leaves, cover with salt, put in a layer of shredded cabbage, sprinkle with juniper berries and cover with salt. Continue adding layers until the barrel is three-quarters full. Cover the last layer with a cloth, put a wooden cover directly on the cloth, and weigh it down with a large stone.
For three or four weeks the salt and the pressure will produce a frothy liquid that will rise above the wooden cover, which should remain wet. When no more foam appears the raw cabbage has become raw choucroute, and it will keep all winter.
Did you say you were just on your way to the charcuterie?
There is a good one called Produits Schmid, located – naturally – smack in front of the Gare de l'Est, with entrances on the Boulevard de Strasbourg and around the corner on the Rue St.-Laurent. Robert Schmid, who was born in 1904 in this establishment, founded by his father the year before, sells not only choucroute but also innumerable types of sausage, salt and smoked pork, ham, Alsatian pastries, and everything else required to keep his compatriots' homesickness under control.
If you wish to cook your own choucroute there are several ways to go about it and a large variety of pork, ham and sausages to garnish it with. You will find everything you need at Schmid's, including a free recipe book. To save time – most choucroutes take several hours to cook – you can buy it ready to eat, needing only to be heated with a little white wine (half a cup to a pound of choucroute, which is enough for two) and whatever meat you choose.
If you want nothing at all to do with the preparation, you can always go to an Alsatian restaurant where you will eat cheaper for the quality and quantity of food than anywhere else.
The best all-around bet is the Brasserie Flo, hidden in the Cour des Petites-Ecuries. The old fashioned and original 1880's décor of dark wood paneling and padded leather benches, set off by the glint of polished brass rails and chandeliers, charms even such modern long-hairs as Françoise Hardy and Antoine. The delicious choucroute with smoked ham hock (jarret de porc fumé) and a half a liter of German draft beer or Riesling in carafe together with an hors-d'œuvre and a dessert will cost you less than 15 francs, and you may have trouble getting up from the table.
Another equally inexpensive and enormous brasserie-restaurant is Chez Jenny at 39 Boulevard du Temple just off the Place de la République. The food and drink is copious and good and the waiters and waitresses not only dress in Alsatian costume but speak French with a strong accent. You will hear a lot of German spoken by both Alsatians and Germans, who know a Germanic atmosphere when they see one. If you speak German it is easy to tell them apart – the ones you can't understand are Alsatians.