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CEA Excursion: Flammenkuchen in Strasbourg

Flammenkuchen. So much flammenkuchen.

Flammenkuchen, which I promise to explain later, was the overarching takeaway from our latest CEA excursion to Strasbourg, a city in the Alsace region of France, near Germany. I just thought that was important to note up front.

We arrived in Strasbourg at 11 AM on Saturday morning via train. Led by our French tour guide Pierre-Jean, our group of about 30 CEA study abroad students walked across the river L’Ill and got our first glance at the Strasbourg Cathedral.

 The Strasbourg Cathedral was the world's
tallest building for 227 years (From 1647 to 1874).

Pierre-Jean set us free for lunch, but not before warning us to avoid eating the stuff that looked like pizza, because we’d be having that for dinner. As you can probably guess, that pizza-like dish is called flammenkuchen. Ted, Akon, and I heeded his advice settled on spaetzle for lunch, a delicious — and cheap — type of noodle that’s combined with your choice of mix-ins.

We walked back to check in to our “hostel,” which was so nice that it probably should not have had an ‘s’ in it, before rejoining the group for a boat tour of the city.

 The Ill River in Strasbourg, France

After a few hours of free time, all of us reconvened for dinner at Le Gruber. It was a nice restaurant, with a wooden staircase leading upstairs and low-hanging lamps over the tables providing gentle lighting.

The waiters took our drink orders and brought out the first round of flammenkuchen, one for every two people. Flammenkuchen, also known as “tarte flambée,” is a famous Alsatian dish with a thin crust, typically covered in cheese or crème fraîche, and topped with onions and bacon. I devoured my half of the pie, giving a half-hearted effort to eat it with a fork and knife before giving in to pizza-style. After a bit of a pause, we began to wonder if that was it.

Speculation ensued.

“Could that really be it?”

“Did you see how thin that crust was?”

“I could eat like three of these.”

“What’s this food called again?”

“We’re going to have to go eat dinner again after this.”

“Ok, there’s no way that was really it, right? Right???

“I think we still get dessert, at least. What could be for dessert?”

But, just as hope was running out, I overheard Pierre-Jean say this was just the first flammenkuchen; they’d bring out many different kinds and we’d have plenty. Whew. We were just getting started. A relief, or so I thought.

 Our first round of flammenkuchen
(Photo courtesy Olivia Blomberg)

They brought out the second round of flammenkuchen, eerily similar to the first one. I think it had a little more cheese on it. Again, crushed it. Akon and I even snagged some leftovers from the table next to us.

I was still eager for more as they brought out the third round. Despite the waiter’s claim that this flammenkuchen was different from the last one — which was distinct from the first one - it looked, and tasted very similar. I’m not really one for counting onions, so maybe that was the difference: an extra onion on each flammenkuchen. Regardless, by this point, we’d grown a bit tired of the taste, and our hunger had been satisfied.

But that didn’t stop the food from coming. They brought out salads for the table, which provided a nice change of pace, though we found it a bit odd as we were used to salads becoming before the main dish. Pierre-Jean, too was a bit flummoxed, but explained that a sweet, dessert-style flammenkuchen would be coming up next.

The waiters brought out the next flammenkuchen, but to our (and Pierre-Jean’s) surprise it was not dessert. It was the same as the first three, but with mushrooms. At this point, it had become pretty clear that there wasn’t much variety between types of flammenkuchen. And by now, flammenkuchen had turned from food to comedy for us. There was no way anyone was eating any more of it.

I watched people’s faces transform in to looks of apathy and defeat as the flammenkuchen was brought to their table. We laughed as the waiter took one of our unwanted flammenkuchen - nearly full, but with a half eaten piece on the side — and gave it to another table. There were full, uneaten flammenkuchen everywhere. We tried to tell them we didn’t want anymore. I offered up the suggestion of bartering with regular customers who may have ordered something different. I couldn’t even stand to look at the flammenkuchen. I just wanted someone to take it away.

The laughter got me through. The taste of flammenkuchen had been engrained on my palate for the forseeable future. I’d had a lifetime’s worth in one dinner. But it was still a fully positive experience. It was a chance to laugh and to laugh hard. Laughter is undefeated in its ability to connect people and make us happier.

I looked forward to the new flavors in the dessert flammenkuchen. I joked that it would be the same as the first four, but with a little chocolate on the side. I wasn’t far off. It had the same cheese and flavor, just with cinnamon apples as the topping rather than bacon. Of course. All I could manage was to peel off the cinnamon apples.

 The final round of flammenkuchen
- with cinnamon apples as the topping

Mercifully, we’d reached the finish line of the flammenkuchen marathon and were free to go back to our hostel.Unfortunately, I got sick later that night and missed the second day of the excursion, which included a trip to the Black Forest in Germany.

While I have no way of confirming this, I have an idea of the cause of my sickness: Flammenkuchen. Too much flammenkuchen.

Riley Duncan is the Fall 2014 MOJO in Paris, France. He is currently a junior at the University of Tennessee.

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