Automat Memories and One Very Tasty Meal

Good things await inside.

Automat. The word conjures up memories of old movies from the 40s where frugal New Yorkers on their lunch breaks could grab a bite to eat. It was the original fast food. The hungry secretary or executive-in-training would pop into the Automat to find rows of little glass-fronted doors, each with a coin slot. Behind the doors were little cubbies holding anything a famished person could want—sandwiches, soups, pie—all awaiting the drop of a coin to release them from captivity.

This little blast from the past was brought forward to the present day for me last weekend. We were invited to have lunch in a small town in Alsace, France by Gudrun, one of our German neighbors who lives down the street. She is a marvel. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and explores the world fearlessly. Her tales of travel, food, and people she has met along the way have enthralled and delighted us. We want to be just like Gudrun when we grow up. So when she asked if we would like to join her for lunch in Alsace along with her daughter Katarina, who was taking a holiday break from her Master’s Program, we heartily answered, “Yes!”

A meal to savor

Being able to go to places like France in a matter of a couple of hours is one of the aspects of living overseas that we love. So lunch in Alsace it was—and what a lunch! We arrived in the small village of Roppenheim at a quaint restaurant named Auberge à l’Agneau. The half-timbered building welcomed us with flower boxes overflowing with pink and red geraniums. The interior was the model of cozy comfort that decorators can only imitate. Its dark wood paneling and brightly painted yellow walls were adorned with vintage farm tools, enameled pots, and grapes hanging from the weathered beams. This, folks, was the real thing, and we prepared ourselves for a special meal.

Heaven on a plate

We were not disappointed. Our lunch began with a small tasting-sized bowl of cream of mussel soup to whet our appetites.  We opted for the bean soup for our starter with thick slabs of crusty bread. Our main course was tournedos of beef in a rich, savory sauce with Roquefort cheese crumbled over the top. This was served with the sweetest carrots I have ever eaten and lightly fried patties of grated zucchini. A large communal dish of French fries was served up, as well as a garden-fresh salad. The meal was one of the best we’ve eaten in a very long time. We finished up with espresso and dessert. I had the homemade chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Bill had the sour cherry ice cream served with a vanilla cream sauce and whole marinated cherries. Truly a wonderful lunch.

roppenheim-8aWe went for a small walk through the tiny village after our feast and something caught our eye from across the street. It was a farmer’s version of an automat. It stood beneath a sort of lean-to structure and had a series of little glass doors with signs boasting that their “ATM farm products” were available 24/7! Sure enough, we saw farm fresh eggs, bunches of newly picked garlic, bags of onions, potatoes, bottles of hand pressed canola oil, and more. The prices were handwritten on each selection with a small number to identify them. Pop your coins in the slot, key in the number on the central keypad and presto! the door opens and the item is yours. But instead of the piece of pie or sandwich of yesteryear, it was fresh produce to fix dinner with.

New potatoes

Europe has not quite been overrun by the retail 24/7 phenomenon, and we like it that way. Stores are closed on Sundays, but we can feel the slow infiltration of longer opening hours. Yes, it makes life a bit more convenient, but I hate to see everything being turned into an all day, all night, everyday shopper’s wonderland. This produce automat seems the perfect compromise. For a minute, I felt like I did when I was a very little girl on a trip back east when my parents took me to one of the last surviving automats for lunch. It made an impression on me and for a moment, I was transported back to the time I gazed up transfixed at all those little glass doors with wonderful surprises behind each one.

Who the Heck drives 2½ Hours for a Sandwich?

Okay, it wasn’t only for the sandwich, but that was the moving force behind the day’s journey a month or so back. The sandwich in question was in Strasbourg, France and it really was that good. Just before Christmas two years ago, we took a day trip to Strasbourg with our dear friends and former neighbors from Würzburg, David and Daniela. Strasbourg always has a really nice Christmas market and it was as good an excuse as any to re-visit this lovely (and conveniently nearby) Alsatian city. The drive was pretty uneventful but when we got there, our usual parking garage was full. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze our Honda Odyssey into a Smart-Car-sized space in another garage with a bit of backing and filling, and we set off to find Yuletide treasures.

Aladdin's Cave?
Aladdin’s Cave?

As morning turned to afternoon, David and I wanted to grab a bite. Daniela and Mary weren’t interested so we decided we would just grab a sandwich on the run. Luckily, we found ourselves in front of a very small and inconspicuous boulangerie called Panette in the city’s “Petite France” district. They had an assortment of freshly made sandwiches under the counter and David and I selected a couple that looked likely to keep body and soul together for the rest of the afternoon. The woman behind the counter popped them into a small oven for a couple of minutes (definitely not a microwave!), then handed them over, nicely toasted. Since there was no seating, we took them with us to enjoy as we walked. We both took a bite and immediately looked at each other wide-eyed to see if we were both having the same experience. This was the best sandwich I could remember eating in my life—and anyone who knows me knows I’ve had more than a few! David was apparently having the same reaction.

A Library of Bread

It’s hard to say what made it so special. As sandwiches go, it wasn’t elaborate and there were no exotic ingredients. It started with a small baguette, baked fresh and topped with sesame seeds. This was spread with butter (Breton, I suspect) but no mayonnaise or other spreads. To this was added ham (definitely not from the refrigerator section), some local Munster cheese, fresh leaf lettuce, and finally, a light sprinkling of fresh herbs. Nothing fancy and nothing odd—just the very best ingredients working in perfect combination. My taste buds danced a can-can in celebration! I made a mental note of the bakery’s location and we vowed we would come back to Strasbourg, if only to prove to ourselves we weren’t over-reacting.

Petite France

Fast forward to July of this year. We went to Würzburg for the opening day of the Kiliani Fest, an annual celebration to honor St. Kilian, an Irish monk who introduced Christianity to the city in A.D. 686. As we sat in the fest tent enjoying the fruits of the vintners’ art from the local Franconian wine district, I asked David if he would be interested in going to Strasbourg a couple of weeks hence to grab a sandwich. “Of course!” he replied, without hesitation. Our calendars were open so we set the date.

It really is this pretty…

I won’t go into most of the details of our visit, except to say that the sandwiches did not disappoint the second time. We found the boulangerie without incident and stood in the street under our umbrellas, savoring every bite in the pouring rain. Daniela and Mary had made sure they brought their appetites with them this time and were able to provide independent confirmation that these were something more than your typical run-of-the-mill ham and cheese. We did notice that the bakery had won several quality awards since our last visit. This is no small achievement in France; the competition is stiff. Just this morning, we drove home from our latest French adventure in Troyes. We picked up a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches for the road. They were on brioche rolls rather than baguettes, but still absolutely delicious. Were they as good as the ones we got in Strasbourg? I’m not sure. But I think I’ll probably need to make several more visits to Panette before I can be really certain.