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9 things that make Alsace different to the rest of France

It's definitely part of France, but its complicated and frequently bloody history gives Alsace a very different character to the rest of the country, as journalist and former Strasbourg resident Martin Greenacre explains.

9 things that make Alsace different to the rest of France
Photo: Patrick Herzog/AFP

“It must be cold?” “Is there anything to do there?” “Isn’t that in Germany?” Mention Alsace to anybody from another part of France, and you will frequently provoke a mixture of fear and intrigue. The historical region was part of Germany from 1871 until the end of the First World War in 1918, and as a result of that history, has taken elements from both French and German culture.

It may have officially become part of the Grand Est region in 2016, along with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne, but things are still done differently in Alsace.

If you are considering visiting or moving to eastern France, here is what you should expect.

1 The pastries

Pain au chocolat, chocolatine, or in the case of eastern France, petit pain au chocolat… Whatever you choose to call it, this pastry is a staple of diets all across France. But if you pop to the bakery for some breakfast during a trip to Strasbourg, you may notice one difference. As if this treat wasn’t indulgent enough already, Alsatian bakers like to add a layer of icing sugar on top of their petits pains au chocolat.

READ ALSO Pain au chocolat v chocolatine

Magali Poulaillon, who runs the Poulaillon chain of bakeries, gave one possible explanation when speaking to Pokaa: “Since Alsace is close to Germany, bakers have been able to take inspiration from the other side of the Rhine, because the Germans use a lot of icing on their pastries.”

Whatever the origins, this is one innovation we can get behind.

2 Pretzels

This is another snack which is definitely inspired by France’s neighbours to the east. You can find the hard, mini pretzels (bretzels in French) in supermarkets all across France. However, the large, soft pretzels common in Germany and the United States can be difficult to come by.

Except, that is, in Alsace, where you can walk into any bakery and order a bretzel. In fact, the heart-shaped pretzel is so popular it inspired the official logo used for Alsatian products.

You can even visit the pretzel museum in the village of Gundershoffen, north of Strasbourg, if that’s your kind of thing.

The pretzel-style logo of the of the Collectivite Europeenne d’Alsace (European Community of Alsace) in Colmar. Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

3 The language

The region’s strong local identity and German influences are never more evident than in the Alsatian dialect.

A 2012 study found that 600,000 people were able to speak Alsatian, most of whom were over the age of 60. While it is becoming increasingly rare among younger generations, you may still hear peaking speaking the local dialect in restaurants, or at football matches at the Stade de La Meinau.

You will also have to grapple with the language barrier when trying to pronounce the names of streets and villages.

The great thing about place names in Alsace is that even native French speakers who are not from the region struggle with them, so you’re less likely to feel like a foreigner.

Street signs can seem intimidating at first, but many place names follow the same set of rules. For example the ‘h’ is not pronounced when it follows an ‘s’, so the final syllable in Lingolsheim is similar to the first syllable in the English name Simon. With a bit of practice, you’ll be giving people directions to Niederschaeffolsheim in no time!

Strasbourg styles itself the Christmas capital of France. Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

4 Christmas

Eastern France is most famous for its Christmas markets, which usually begin in late November and run until the end of the year.

Strasbourg and Colmar are popular choices for their hundreds of stalls, selling everything from tree decorations and artisanal teas, to hot wine and local delicacies like the tarte flambée. You also have the choice of markets in many quaint, smaller villages like Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, and there is even a “Navette de Noël” bus which will take you from village to village, beginning in Colmar. These markets were largely absent or scaled-down over Christmas 2020 due to the health restrictions, but will hopefully be back in 2021.

If that wasn’t enough to get you in the Christmas spirit, when it snows, the pointed roofs and colourful, timber-framed façades are redolent of gingerbread houses. There is perhaps no better place in France to spend the festive period (although stuffing your body full of fondue in the Alps does come a close second).

5 Education

In another nod to Alsace’s geography, children will often start German classes in primary school, meaning many students learn German before they learn English.

But languages aren’t the only subjects which are taught differently in this part of France. The 19th-century Concordat of Alsace-Moselle also provides an exception when it comes to religion. Unlike in the rest of the country, children in public schools in Alsace-Moselle receive classes in religious education, taught by members of four recognised faiths: Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christianity, as well as Judaism.

6 Holidays

There’s another crucial part of that Concordat concerns public holidays and people living in Alsace and neighbouring Lorraine get 13 public holidays a year, compared to just 11 in the rest of France.

Good Friday and St Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day on December 26th) are both holidays in Alsace and Lorraine. They had been days off when the territory was under German rule and when it returned to France in 1918 the locals weren’t exactly thrilled at the idea of losing two days off and simply refused to give them up…perhaps demonstrating a French side to their natures which hadn’t been lost during all those the years of German rule.  

READ ALSO The French holiday calendar 2021 

The sun rises over the Kirchberg vineyards in Barr, Alsace. Photo by PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP

7 The wine

Ask your average visitor what they know about French wine, and they will probably talk about Bordeaux, or Burgundy, or Champagne. But did you know that Alsace is also a great wine-producing region?

It is most famous for its whites, such as Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, and the vineyards provide a beautiful backdrop to local villages making the “Route des Vins d’Alsace” the perfect way to discover the region.

Alsatian wines also come in distinctive bottles, called “flûtes d’Alsace”, which are tall and thin. For another authentic touch, the wine can be served in traditional glasses which have long, green stems, and make the perfect souvenir.

8 The Currency

Local pride is a big thing here: a large majority of locals want Alsace to regain its regional status. Regional identity is so strong that the Bas-Rhin, the départment which covers the northern half of Alsace, even has its own currency, the Stück. One stück is worth one euro, and is accepted by 220 different companies and professionals across the Bas-Rhin, including in Strasbourg, with the aim of promoting local, ethical consumption.

9 The mentality

Like their neighbours in Lorraine, Alsatians have a reputation for being “cold” and “uncommunicative”.

It is undeniable that in terms of mentality as well as geography, north-eastern France is closer to Germany than to the Mediterranean. That being said, all you need to do to win over the locals is invite them for a choucroute and a good beer, and you’ll be best friends in no time. S’gilt! (that’s cheers in Alsace dialect).

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Revealed: How your food and drink habits change when you move to France

From shopping to cooking, eating out to wine, here are the ways readers of The Local have noticed their eating and drinking habits have changed since moving to France.

Revealed: How your food and drink habits change when you move to France

France prides itself on its gastronomy and food and drink play an important part in everyday life and culture. It can take a bit of getting used to for foreigners, but when we asked readers of The Local, most said that the change has been in a positive direction.

In our survey asking readers how their relationship with food and drink has changed since moving to France, 90 percent said that they noticed that the quality of the food they consume had improved.

Fresh food and markets

Janet Parkinson told us that she feels “healthier overall, despite the quantities of butter and cheese I consume!”

“I may be one of the few people who LOSE weight when they visit Paris. We shop at the outdoors food markets all the time and eat a ton of fresh produce. The quality is so much higher than in the US and the prices are so much lower, it’s astounding”.

For readers from the United States, the availability of fresh markets was one of the primary ways they noticed the quality of their food increase.

Jim Lockard in the Rhône département said he feels “more healthy here”.

“It is much easier to obtain affordable healthy ingredients here, especially with the outdoor marchés and the prevalence of smaller food shops”. 

Another American, Gregory Long, in the Paris area, said “we do not waste food here. We go to the bio marché [organic market] on Sunday and buy food for the week. We are definitely making more “big salads” at home. Eating much more fresh pastries”. 

Karen Hairston said the main thing that surprised her about eating and drinking in France was the “vast availability of fresh markets in Paris”.

As of 2021, there were over 10,700 food markets (both covered and uncovered) in France. In Paris, you are never too far away from a market – there are several per day all across the city, and they are all listed on the town hall’s website with an interactive map.

READ MORE: All you need to know about shopping at French food markets

Eating out vs. cooking from scratch

About half of respondents said that they eat out more often in France, while the other half said they are more likely to cook from scratch.

As for respondents from the UK, several found that they have been doing more home-cooking while on this side of the Channel.

Elizabeth Lynes, who has been living in France for over four years, said: “our diet is more healthy as we don’t eat takeaways here. Food isn’t as processed, meat is a far better quality here, though fruit and vegetables don’t store so well here”. 

Mandy Moat, who is vegan said: “it is more difficult for me to eat out and there is less variety of vegan options in France than in the UK.

“I do a lot more cooking since moving here, but I eat better and healthier, and I’m able to grow my own food as I have a bigger garden here. I rarely eat out”.

Simultaneously, many other respondents – both from the UK and US – were surprised to find that restaurants can be more affordable than previously imagined.

Jane Fisher, who has been visiting France for several years, noted this: “Generally we can eat much better and for a much more reasonable price in France than we can in the Boston area.

“We’ve had lunch for two at a Michelin one star restaurant for €140. Going to an equivalent restaurant in Boston would cost twice that. Many Americans think France is expensive, but when restaurant prices include tax and tip, and wine is reasonably priced, in general meals will cost less than comparable meals in the US”.

As for Susan Parker Taylor, said she “[goes] out more for food as it is great value for money. We also socialise more with friends”.

The joy of a meal

Almost half of the readers who responded to the survey said that living in France has made them more adventurous when it comes to trying different and new types of food, and many noticed themselves slowing down to really enjoy each bite.

Jim Lockard said that in France “Meals are to be savoured, and you talk about life, not about what you are eating and drinking”.

Another reader, Jen Williams in Paris, noted that “we sit at meals much longer than we would in the US. I’m much less picky now”.

This sentiment of really savouring a meal was a common one. 

Canadian Jo-Ann Gagnon, who has been living in France under a year, also noticed that she eats slower in France – she said: “I take more time to taste my food. I pay more attention to my table manners. For instance, I put my fork and knife down between each bite. I drink Champagne instead of wine because it is affordable in France!”

For many readers, this is best reflected in the way restaurant service works in France.

READ MORE: Reader question: Do I really need to reserve before going to a restaurant in France?

“I love the slow rate at which a meal at a restaurant is served and eaten. Dinners out are about relaxation and not about wilding down food. The waiters don’t rush you out,” Sarah Van Sicklen told The Local.

Richard Stenton, who lives in the Gard, felt similarly, saying that there is no rush to finish. “When you go to a restaurant you have the table in most places for the whole evening or afternoon. You have to ask for the bill”.

Not all positives

Some readers did find some negative aspects about eating and drinking in France, however. Roger B in Pyrénées-Orientales lamented the fact that “there are no robust breakfasts available”.

Two readers also referenced the fact that fast food has become more prevalent in France in recent years, particularly those that focus on selling burgers and pizza.

READ MORE: Krispy Kreme, Popeyes, Five Guys: the American fast-food chains taking on France

And as mentioned above, adjusting to the French diet can be challenging for those with food restrictions.

Sarah Van Sicklen said that before she moved to France, she had been vegan for almost 10 years. “The quality and availability vegan food made continuing to be vegan extremely difficult. It’s still easy to avoid meat but good luck avoiding butter. It’s practically in the air here”, she said. 

Nonetheless, Van Sicklen did add that this was one aspect that surprised her: “the butter is insanely delicious!”