Written by SU Strasbourg student Jenny Cheng.
If it wasn’t for my host mom, I never would have found the real France. If you’re unsure about whether or not you want living with a host family to be a part of your study abroad experience, then take it from me, it has been most rewarding, especially if you’re learning the local language. I got paired up with a 60 year old woman who lives alone but busies herself taking care of her grandchildren, attending church activities, chatting with students at the international school to help them practice French, and of course, taking care of the many host students she welcomes to her home.
One of the most memorable days this semester has been the first weekend in Strasbourg when we had dimanche en famille (Family Sunday). Since Strasbourg is only a few minutes by car from the German border, my host mom, Madame, asked me casually if I’d like to visit the French or Germany countryside today, because both are just a brisk drive away!
I chose to stay on the French side, so Madame loaded up her hiking poles and off we went to Barr, a village about half an hour’s drive from Strasbourg. We ate at a traditional auberge (tavern) and I had my first taste of cuisine alsacienne (cuisine of Alsace). We stuffed ourselves with jambonneau (knuckle of ham), my host mum’s favorite. The ham is cured so it’s very salty, it was a little hard to finish because of the sheer proportion.
We sat outdoors and enjoyed the Alsatian air, which is a bit chilly at times, but my host mom was smart enough to bring two cardigans, one for her, one for me. Our table was right next to a goat pen, and Madame would throw pieces of leftover bread over the fence to feed the goats. We finished off with a light fromage blanc (chilled sweet cheese dessert).
Our conversation concerned very simple topics as I was still refreshing my French. I struggled with understanding her French, and putting sentences of my own together. It was one intense language workout. But speaking French doesn’t burn calories, and boy, did we have a lot to burn.
We set off on our hike toward Bellevue, which took us over a part of the Vosges Mountains. Along the way, we picked yellow mushrooms that Madame knew weren’t poisonous. She has a sharp eye for those suckers, even when there’s only a little bit of the mushroom poking out of the soil. The hike was more perilous than expected, and there were times when it took a little courage to make the leap from rock to rock. But Madame navigated the woods with confidence and I followed closely behind.
Madame wasn’t done collecting dinner ingredients yet. Since Autumn is in full bloom, we visited an orchard and picked a bagful of plums, mostly quetsches (deep purple) and some mirabells (deep yellow). Madame used them for dessert the next few weeks by making tarts and pies out of them. Madame also loves picking walnuts and chestnuts from the woods.
To celebrate Autumn the Alsatian way, one evening we ate pâté, heated chestnuts, cracked open walnuts and drank vin bourré (fermented grape juice). “You’ve got to work for your food tonight,” Madame told me and the other host student from Thailand. She was right, and it was quite a strenuous meal clamping the nutcracker all night long.
So far, every meal has been an adventure. It’s been 7 weeks, and Madame has rarely repeated a dish. Even with leftovers, she’ll find a way to throw together something different. And she’s probably already introduced me to every French cheese. The semester’s only halfway done and she’s already taken me on a whirlwind gastronomical tour of Alsace. Christmas is almost in sight, and Strasbourg’s German influence makes it one of the most festive cities. I’m excited for what’s in store in Madame’s kitchen.