A Bite in the Apple: Feast of Colmar at the Cloisters
The Cuxa Cloister, where the dinner will be held on September 25, 26, 27.
When chef Gabriel Kreuther was asked by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to prepare a meal inspired by the medieval food of the Jews of Alsace, he jumped at the chance. Chef Kreuther grew up on a farm in Alsace, in Niederschaeffolsheim, a small town 15 miles north of Strasbourg. Revisiting the Jewish cooking of his region was “reviving my childhood,” says Kreuther.
The dinner, entitled “Feast of Colmar with Yotam Ottolenghi,” takes place on September 25, 26, or 27 at the Met’s Cloisters. Noted chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi has been working on this event for more than 10 months, together with Barbara Drake Boehm, the exhibit’s curator, and chef Kreuther. This is the fourth museum “feast” hosted by Ottolenghi.
This feast is held in conjunction with an exhibit about the fourteenth century Jewish community of Colmar, a city in the province of Alsace, in present day France. In medieval times, Colmar had a vibrant Jewish community which was scapegoated and put to death when the Black Plague struck the region in 1348-1349. A cache of precious objects, which had been owned and hidden at the time by a local Jewish family, was discovered in the mid-1800s in a wall of a shop in Colmar. That collection of rings, brooches, and coins is the heart of an exhibit entitled The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy now on display at the Cloisters through January 12, 2020.
According to Kreuther, the cuisine of the Jews of Alsace is not all that different from the cuisine of Alsace in general. In medieval times, like now, the Jews refrained from eating pork. Instead of using pork fat in their dishes, they substituted the readily available veal or goose fat. And like today, they did not mix meat and dairy products. The meal planned and prepared by Chef Kreuther follows those guidelines, as well.
“I researched all manner of sources about the food of the Jews in fourteenth century Alsace, and my menu reflects the food at the time,” said Chef Kreuther. “For example, there were no potatoes in Alsace in the fourteenth century, so there will be no potatoes on the menu.”
Before dinner is served, guests will be welcomed into the Fuentidueña Chapel, a twelfth century Spanish chapel. Ottolenghi, the host of the evening, will address the guests with curator Boehm. They will discuss the fourteenth century Jewish community of Colmar and the Jews’ role in medieval winemaking. Chef Kreuther will then describe the food of the region and the menu for the evening. Philippe Blanck, a wine expert from Domaine Paul Blanck, will talk about Alsatian wine.
Following the conversation, guests will be ushered into the Cuxa Cloister, a covered walkway surrounding a large open courtyard, that was originally found in a twelfth century French monastery. The dinner will take place in that space. Guests will be seated at long tables, suitable for a “feast.” Food will be served family style and Ottolenghi and Boehm will mingle with the guests throughout the evening.
The evening will start with canapes on matzoh and the bread to be served is one still made in Colmar today called “berches.” According to food writer Joan Nathan, berches means twisted and “it is a derivative of the Hebrew word birkat (blessing).” Kreuther’s “pain berchu” is a braided braid made with schmaltz (chicken fat) and poppy seed. Although the Jews of medieval Colmar may have used goose fat, chicken fat is far easier to source in New York.
Much of the other food on the menu will be familiar to those who eat eastern European Jewish cuisine. The meal includes a veal pate, similar to a liver pate, that is accompanied by salads made from cabbage, black radish, celeriac, and cucumber. All of the foods are simply prepared, staying true to the period. For the side dish of black radish, Chef Kreuther will shred and salt it, then rinse it and season the radish with oil, vinegar, onion, salt, and pepper.
Pickled fish will also be on the menu, but rather than herring, Kreuther is pickling rainbow trout, a fish found in the region. He also will be serving a stuffed veal breast accompanied by knopfle, a dumpling made with flour, eggs, water, and leftover bread.
“The pillar of Alsatian Jewish cooking,” says Kreuther, “is to maximize your food by finding ways to stretch what you have. The families were big and poor, so a bit of meat needed to feed many. They did that by adding in bread and stuffing to extend the product. Everything was used to its fullest extent. One-dish meals were very popular like the Jewish Alsatian soup Gamarti, a bean soup made with carrot, onion, celeriac, and smoked beef sausage. Leftovers were always repurposed into food the following day, so the meat and vegetables in a “pot au feu” could then be used the next day with a salad. Or knopfle could be eaten subsequently with roasted sauerkraut or roasted onion.
Desserts at the meal will be dairy free and made from produce that grew locally, like his white wine mousse and a cinnamon prune tarte, similar to a linzer tarte, made with a pie shell filled with stewed prunes mixed with schnapps. Pie naturally appears on the menu because all manner of pie was very popular in the Middle Ages.
Colmar today is known as the capital of Alsatian wine. The Jews of the Middle Ages were very involved in the wine trade, via buying and selling. And since water was often not safe, people drank alcohol instead. Fittingly, the event will feature only wines from Alsace.
“Food tells a story,” says Kreuther. “It is culture. Some of the best food comes from people who were struggling in their lives. The success of the dishes depended on the talent of the cook.”