It soars through the streets of Strasbourg like Captain America blazing highways in Easy Rider. It pirouettes around the Cathédrale Notre Dame turrets before teasing the rooftop pigeons. When you run along the European capital’s canals in the morning or stroll quayside in the late afternoon, you think you’re enjoying an uplifting breeze, but you’re not.
What you’re savoring is the smell of onions – specifically, the aroma of sautéing onions – that permanently lingers in the Strasbourg stratosphere, permeating your pores, gratifying your gullet, electrifying your endorphins. The only way onions will make you weep in this town is if you’re not having any. Quiche à l’oignon. Tarte flambée. Choucroute. A restaurant called l’Oignon. It’s like bulbs of ingenuity flashing above every cook’s head in one of France’s gastronomic capitals, emanating the glow of homely comfort laced with urgent pungency, guaranteed to brighten every meal.
Let’s summon our first witness to the stand, the choucroute from Au Brasseur (22 rue des Veaux), one of the finest examples of a Strasbourg bierstub, better defined as a large beer hall where the only things heartier than the cuisine and ales are its patrons’ laughter. This is the kind of place where students crush into dark booths and smash as many slices of tarte flambée as they can within the 90-minute free-flow deal while old ladies on a girls’ night out happily shrug when it’s time to order another four pitchers of house microbrews. But no matter who you’re with or which table you’re at, all chattering, chuckling and conviviality stop – just long enough for the heart to reset its senses – when the first pile of choucroute is dispensed.
The Alsatian version of the German sauerkraut – a given, since this French region is just three miles from the river Rhine that borders both countries – is more delicate, less tangy, and in the Au Brasseur rendition, steeped in onion oil that doesn’t necessarily broadcast its presence as much as sweet talk your palate. (The next morning, the top I’d been wearing at dinner continued to smell of this onion oil, and I prayed this tryst would last longer than a one night stand.)
Next, we’ll call upon the tarte flambée, Alsace’s most famous dish and quite frankly, the reason I’m in Strasbourg. This thinnest of ‘zas has its dough rolled out to its finest (in every aspect of the word), before bacon, cheese, cream, and onions are splayed across in a Pollockian hand, and everything is blazed between one to two minutes in a wood-fired oven. That gives the crust a crisp that’s sharper than a newly minted hundred euro bill, little bubbles that confirm the yeast has properly risen, and a slight char for that smoky zest. More importantly, the caramelization of the onions sweetens the deal, whether smoothly cutting through the gruyère, adding color to the crème fraîche, or doing a diabolical tango with the lardon pieces.
Aunts were put on earth to be kindly ladies always more likely to give you too much of a good thing than your moms will. At Tante Liesel (44 rue des Dentelles), where local gentlemen dig into the house platter of terrine and foie gras with checked napkins tucked into their collars, onions are nuanced into the anatomy of the quiche, lusciously imbibed into a silky flow of egg, milk and cheese. In Alsace, a quiche is not just a quiche – it’s an onion quiche, although if that’s something you hadn’t noticed, you might need a facial for your tongue.
And instead of backhanding you some change for candy, Tante Liesel does even better by surreptitiously slipping lots of onion bits into her pan-fried potatoes. Little is more pleasant that discovering the crunch of a sweet onion as your mouth works its way through powdery fluff – the devil’s in the details.
With onion, that aphrodisiac of appetite, constantly on your mind, hair and clothes in Strasbourg, you might find yourself appreciating the fowl floating about the city’s canals as confit canned for six months, ready for the skillet. Except, others can have the leg of duck or goose – you’ll settle for more onions, sautéd in fat.