Thursday, March 24, 2016
Guten Morgen Freiburg! The nearby open-air market’s the very reason we chose to divert our course through the city, but I suggest a quick coffee from the hotel breakfast spread before combing the market for wurst. We nibble and sip. The vendor carts completely change the personality of the Cathedral plaza; it’s buzzing and fresh this morning. We ogle rainbow tulips, piles of mushrooms, mottled olivewood tools, and the handful of stalls offering ready-to-eat goodies. The choice is obvious: it must be wurst. Bizarrely, there are five or six quest stalls that appear near-identical right down to the curry-ketchup pumps, all lined up next to each other. MP lets her gut guide her, and we end up with a prized spicy sausage with toasty onions for our efforts. Om and nom.
Somehow, we also manage to pick up ANOTHER mustard for my burgeoning collection. Senf!
We round out the morning with a slab of Appfelkuchen, a traditional crumbly cake with soft chunks of apple throughout.
In Freiburg, we’ve done wurst (twice!), sauerkraut, beer, brezel, and Appfelkuchen. Looks like it’s high time to head back to France. We hightail it to the car and get the heck outta dodge.
I navigate MP to the fastest pipeline out of Freiburg, but then scoot her off to teeny streets as soon as it looks like we’re clear of any possible snarls (who knows, they might find another WWII relic. My trust has been shattered).
We poke about through the German countryside, through March, Bötzingen, Vogtsburg… We pass through a wine community that doesn’t register on Google Maps, replete with solar panels coating every rooftop. It’s here MP gets a wild hair and takes a right turn into apparent nothingness. I roll with it, and we quickly end up here: Acceptable.
Soon after, we cross into France, and I steer us from village to village ’til we reach the relatively large Sélestat. Coffee calls. We peer into the Cathedral first. It’s definitely a church. It takes a few misfires, but we finally locate a café with indoor seating that has the right vibe. We inquire about the possibility of quiche, but they’re out, so we end up with another slice of that winemaker’s meat pie and ohhhh man, no complaints. On the way back to the car, we’re suddenly confronted by the sight of an enormous nest. And – what’s that white thing in there? – OH GOD A STORK JANEL GET THE CAMERA. By the time I do, our feathered friend has ducked back within her little home. Hey, at least we finally SAW one, right? Be present! Live in the moment! MP is chagrined.
We’ve got time for just about one more adventure before check-in time (read: naptime), and I see a place on the map called Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg that looks like it’s on the other side of a very cool stretch of road. Allons-y! We don’t make it far out of Sélestat before OH MY GOD JANEL GET THE CAMERA happens all over again. I hit the shutter button like it’s going out of style as our second stork flaps its way across the road. How very serendipitous. Er… well, as much as you can get when you pull over next to Cegoland anyway.
It’s very pleasing to plot That Thing Up There On The Hill as your destination. The serpentine road through both forest and überquaint villages leading to Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg is just what we were hoping for today.
The Château is a castle from forever ago restored to perfect condition in the early twentieth century. The views are spectacular, but it’s slightly unnerving to walk through the weapons room given I’m deep into A Song Of Ice And Fire.
Once we’ve seen what we can see, we take the cool way down the mountain and towards today’s true goal: Illhaeusern.
The principal notable feature of the itty-bitty French village is exactly why we’re here: the Auberge de L’Ill restaurant and its accompanying Hotel des Berges. We’ve purposefully run the culinary gamut this trip – I can’t tell you how much we loved the sausages and sauerkraut at the bar last night – and now we’re swinging all the way back to the other end of the spectrum with a three-Michelin-starred dinner this evening. I’ve previously dipped my toe into the triple-stars at DiverXO and El Celler de Can Roca, but it’ll be MP’s first time at a place so decorated. The grounds of the restaurant and hotel are just on the bank of L’Ill River, complete with weeping willows and resident stork. We take a quick sneak-peek at the tables through the windows, where a lucky few stragglers are finishing up their lunch.
It must be naptime. How better to prepare for a very fine evening than a spot of beauty sleep? Around 19:30, we gussy and emerge. A drop of pre-degustation champagne is clearly the right choice. At 20:00, we make the two-minute trek across the grounds and into Auberge de L’Ill. They offer us what appears to be the best seat in the house, smack dab in the center of the array of windows framing the river. Devious little picky things emerge (a puff of Roquefort, a sliver of smoked eel, you know – typical hors-d’oeuvres), and – after announcing our intentions to degust – we continue with champagne. The scant wine list arrives just before our cod, cauliflower mousseline, and wasabi foam amuse. The server kindly suggests I enjoy it while it’s warm. Good call; otherwise, a person could easily end up waylaid between Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
When the affable sommelier swings back by, we tell him we’re looking for local, dry, and mineral (like the Rieslings we’ve been enjoying). He suggests a pair of half bottles – a Riesling and a Pinot Noir – perfect.
The degustation menu begins in earnest with sake, however, selected to accompany terrine of goose foie, sake and avocado cream, and a sesame cracker with pineapple. One bite and we come to a sombering realization: we have never actually had foie before this moment. The velvet texture and depth of animal flavor are otherworldly, and the pairing with the sake shooter is magical.
We continue with:
– wild sea bass atop an emulsion of cilantro with rice noodle fried wonton
– lobster with fresh morels and asparagus spears, which is simply spring come to life on your tongue
– supreme of pigeon with truffled lentils The cheese plate is not merely a plate at all, but an entire wagon du fromage. There have got to be at least 50 distinct varieties of cheese in here, and the server – impossibly – asks us what we’d like. We tell her a selection, a range, anything, just don’t make us choose. MP and I end up with seven distinct cheeses each, the large majority gooey.
We’ve made it through the savory and the cheese, and now face traversing the land of sweets. There’s a pre-dessert (don’t you do that at your house?) with a macaron, a madeliene, a creamy thing, om and nom. It’s followed by a small bowl of creamy rhubarb, which I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of trying previously – mmmmboy.
The final formal dessert is a melange of fruits in various textures and temperatures, including banana-calamansi sorbet. It’s playful and perfectly balanced between the citric and the sweet. We are stuffed, yet we persevere.
Out of nowhere, a deep dark chocolate cake appears, with Bonne Anniversaire scribbled in silver just to the side. Ohhh, this belongs to Janet!! We toast to her very happy Rebirthday and blow out the candle.
An offer of coffee comes as a relief – we go with decaf espressos – but then it turns out they’re in the company of a vast array of endless chocolates. Truffles and nougats and cream centers, oh my.
We linger a small while, basking in the glory of such an experience and the luck that brought us here. But not for long. Our beds, they call to us – and they’re so close by, we could practically do a somersault into the sheets.