Feasting on Alsatian-Jewish Food With Yotam Ottolenghi, At The Cloisters
When I read that Israeli-born star chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi was hosting a dinner at the Met Cloisters in conjunction with The Colmar Treasure, I was more than intrigued. The exhibit, which is on view until January 12, showcases a captivating trove of objects —including jewelry and prayer books — hidden away by a Jewish family in Alsace in the 14th century.
The meal would be a Medieval-style Alsatian feast prepared by Gabriel Kreuther, the Alsatian chef whose eponymous New York restaurant has two Michelin stars. The event combined three of my passions: Jewish food, medieval history (I majored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies in college) and Ottolenghi, whose entire oeuvre of cookbooks take up most of a shelf in my kitchen.
The evening did not disappoint. It began at 6:30 p.m., when we were invited to explore the exhibit and have a glass of Alsatian wine — either pinot gris or gewurztraminer — in the museum’s Romanesque Hall. At 7 p.m. we were ushered into the Fuentidueña Chapel where, under a 12th-century Spanish painted wooden Jesus on a huge crucifix, Ottolenghi led a panel discussion with Met Cloisters senior curator Barbara Drake Boehm, Kreuther and Alsatian vintner Philippe Blanck.
“Philippe will make sure you understand and have a proper spiritual experience with the wine,” Ottolenghi said.
The event was a way of “trying to create a kind of thread” between Jews in Alsace, winemaking and food, he said. “They are connected in some really interesting ways.”
The Colmar Treasure was discovered in 1863, when workmen renovating a bakery (“that was the Ladurée of its day,” Drake Boehm said) “stumbled upon this hoard in a wall.” It was immediately clear that the objects were owned by a Jewish family: Prayer books are written in Hebrew and the words “mazel tov” are inscribed on a wedding ring.
Behind the panelists, slides appeared on a screen. The first showed broken pieces of jewelry (“the kind you see at the bottom of a jewelry box,” Ottolenghi said). “We don’t really know who owned it, but we can infer certain things.”
“This is not a princely treasure,” Drake Boehm explained. “It gives us a window into the merchant classes.” She pointed out that as the family’s circumstances improved, they “upgraded their jewelry.” Early pieces were made of silver, with semi-precious stones, while later ones were gold, some ornately bejeweled with precious gems.
Jews began arriving in Alsace in the second half of the 13th century. They established a synagogue, a school and a mikvah. “This was clearly a community that was putting down roots and confident about the future,” Drake Boehm said. “There were Jewish communities up and down the Rhine in the mid-13th and early-14th century, arriving as things don’t go well for Jews in the kingdom of France. Everywhere there is a wine industry in Alsace, that’s where Jews settled.” In part, it was because they needed to make kosher wine.
Alsatian wine grower Blanck explained, “Christians were not allowed to do business with money. In 1358, three million gallons of wine were exported from Alsace.” Jews, he said, were financing the winemakers.
“If you needed a loan and you were a winemaker, you can come to me for a loan,” Drake Boehm said. “Your collateral is your wine. I can’t drink it but I can sell it.”
This arrangement worked for about four decades, until the 1340s when the bubonic plague struck, following a very bad harvest, and one third of the population died in a couple of years. The Jews were scapegoated — officials extracted a false confession that they had poisoned the wells — and the entire community was put to death.
One thing remained, though, according to Ottolenghi: Their influence on the Alsatian culinary identity.
“People used to take me to Jewish delis and they’d say this is what New York is about,” Kruether said. “I’d say ‘that is not surprising to me because that’s how I grew up.’ My grandfather, when I was growing up, was making sauerkraut.” Once a week, he said, his grandmother made a kugelhopf cake, a recipe for which is in Leah Koenig’s new “The Jewish Cookbook.”
Before we were led outside into the actual cloister of the Cloisters — a beautiful square courtyard surrounded by covered passageways — Kreuther described what we would be eating.
There would be “fancy chopped liver with five salads,” he said. “Red cabbage, green cabbage, celery root, cucumber and black radish.” They would be served with an Alsatian braided pain au Pavot — essentially a challah — which he told us to break with our hands rather than cutting. The next course was pickled rainbow trout, which was certainly reminiscent of pickled herring, then slow-braised stuffed veal breast. Dessert would be a cinnamon prune pie and a white wine mousse.
The night was warm and comfortable, and we sat at long tables under the stone canopies, with candles flickering, enjoying our delicious and meaningful meal. I thought about the last thing Ottolenghi said before dinner: “Alsace is the only place in France that kept its Jewish culinary identity.”
With events like this one, which codified the cuisine and the history for a delighted group of curious diners, that Jewish identity received the attention it deserves.
Liza Schoenfein is senior food writer for the Forward. Follow her on Instagram, @LifeDeathDinner