Thursday, July 16, 2009

It'll cure what ails ya: the Cave de Hospices de Strasbourg

The day I learned that Strasbourg’s Civic Hospital employed its own sommelier, I knew I had to visit. It was just so quintessentially French - where else but here would a medical institution employ a full-time wine expert?

Strasbourg’s main hospital was founded in 1395, and now occupies a campus with dozens of buildings that date from the Middle Ages to the most recent, completed in 2007. The oldest complete structure dates from 1537, and serves as the hospital pharmacy, which should silence Canadians accustomed to complaining about how outdated our medical infrastructure is. I used to joke, as I led visitors onto the hospital’s huge campus by the Porte d’Hopital, that the hospital has built up considerable facility in its historic strengths – being in possession of a state of the art eucrasia scanner. I also understand their bloodletting department is second to none.

It is in the oldest part of the hospital where my wine-expert question would be answered. The building that used to be the main hospital dates from the 1700s – the original was destroyed in a fire. But the basement underneath is the 14th century original. It’s accessible from an outdoor staircase, which leads into a store that sells wines from all over France, including several varieties branded with the hospital’s own label (example of their cremant in the photo above, and yes, I scattered rose-petals around it for this picture).

OK, so there’s a wine-store in the hospital. Strange. But it gets stranger. The Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg came into existence at around the same time as the hospital itself. The fourteenth century was not entirely a cash economy, and so peasants and farmers would pay the doctors that ran the place in whatever in goods they had, thus leaving the hospital richly stocked in the local specialties of pig, wheat and wine. In addition, as the hospital was run by the church, eventually it came into possession of a lot of land in Alsace, including several vineyards. Visitors who go to the back of the store can push through what appears to be a storage area. But past the old boxes, and you come into this:

The hospital cellar, fortunately, proved to be ideal for aging wine – it is always 17-18 degrees Celsius, no matter the temperature outside. They don’t make their own these days – the barrels in the cave are aging wines from Alsatian vintners chosen by a select committee of local oenophiles, which meets once a year.

It wasn’t uncommon for hospitals of this vintage in France to own their own cellar, but Strasbourg is the only still-functioning hospital in the country – and probably the world – where the wine is aged in the hospital itself, rather than off-site. This accounts for the site’s obscurity – as a public facility, they aren’t allowed to advertise their wares.

The hospital can claim another superlative: the oldest wine in France, which is also the oldest barrel-aged wine in the world. It dates from 1472, and has been opened only three times: the first in 1574, when the city was rescued from barbarian assault by the city of Zurich. The next was in the 1700s, to lay the cornerstone of the replacement of the original building over the cave, which had burned down. The tap would remain closed for another 200 years, until 1944, when a celebratory glass was poured for General LeClerc after the liberation of the city from the Nazis.

The 1472 wine is second from the left. It had been in the big central barrel until the Swiss got at it.

If you happen to be accompanied by a charming Canadian, who also happens to be a friend-of-a-friend of Christophe, one of the Cave’s employees, you may be in for a special treat. If Christophe is not too occupied, he can sometimes be convinced to open the gate and remove the plug atop the barrel that contains the wine, which visitors can then smell. After 500 years the wine is barely potable – the oak barrel and centuries of evaporation have left the wine extremely acidic and strong smelling. In 2001, the French State did a chemical analysis of it (yes, there is a government office responsible fro such things), comparing it to a modern Riesling. The old stuff didn’t hold up well. My last guest thought it smelled like rum.

The Cave has a small display in the back of dedicated to the winemaker’s craft: an old press shares space with giant, ornately-carved barrels. The largest of these was designed to hold 26,000 liters of wine. Which is a good start.

But it behind this area where we return to the building’s original function: on the other side of the wall was a hidden room, accessible only through a concealed gap in the wall. This was the hospital’s dissection chamber.

In the Middle Ages it was taboo to dissect human bodies: Catholic belief held that the elect would be raised bodily on Judgement Day, so it was a crime to desecrate a corpse. But the doctors needed to learn, and teach their apprentices. And so, the formed a secret society: by bribing Strasbourg’s assorted executioners, torturers and prison wardens, they assured themselves of a supply of bodies that would not be buried in consecrated ground (and presumably gaining considerable expertise in the pathology of drowning in the process). Under cover of darkness, they would smuggle their specimens into the hospital, and then into the dissection chamber, where they would conduct their experiments in the damp, torch-lit gloom. After the Reformation the rules governing these practices were relaxed, and an above ground anatomy theatre was added to the hospital: its rounded shape and large windows give it the appearance of a chapel (as seen in the previous post’s photo. A skull and femur excavated from this area are on display next to a murky bottle of the 1472 wine.

But wait! There’s more! The world’s oldest wine and a secret society of grave-robbers is not all the Super Secret Location has to offer. Indeed, there is a Secret Location within the Super Secret Location!

The very first time I visited this place with my friend Jon, I paused to try to decipher one of the explanatory signs littering the place. My French was awful at the time, so I only got as far as “Le souterrain medieval” which seemed a little obvious, given that I was already in a basement dating from the 1300s. A grizzled old guy stacking boxes spotted me, and said, “Go on in!” and flipped a light switch next to me.

Suddenly visible in the shadows in front of me was a doorway. I hadn’t realized, but in fact I had been standing at the entrance to an underground tunnel. As I mentioned in the previous post, the city walls ran by the hospital. For those frequent occasions when the city was besieged, they needed a way to get men and material in and out of the city without the enemy spotting them. So they made themselves an escape hatch, burrowing under the wall from the hospital basement.

Today it doesn’t go anywhere – it’s sealed off after forty meters, so I’ve no idea where it reached the surface. I don’t know how much use the Medieval Strasbourgeois got out of it, but it did come in handy in 1944 when the city was being bombed by Allied forces: apparently, lacking proper bomb shelters, doctors moved their patients here, using it as a dimly lit, dripping, mold-ridden operating theatre.

And here, as a reward for sticking with me this long, I present to you a video of me in full tour-fascist mode, showing my friends Tim and Joçelyn the tunnel, extracting a promise from them to keep it a secret from our mutual friends. Mock away!


JC Martin and the Underworldists said...

You should have gotten the "no-tell" promises written in blood. It's the most secure way of assurance.

headbang8 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
headbang8 said...

The relationship between the French medical establishment and the church is fascinating. Have you been to Beaune?

Mark Reynolds said...

JCM: As far as a know no one told - then again, that might be because no one thought it was worth the hullabaloo in the first place.

headbang8: I was supposed to last month, but ran out of time. I'm told wine is supposed to among the best in France, and the pictures I've seen look extremely cool.

Mark said...

Great piece Mark. Long live the Alsatian rum!

Natalie Joan said...

Ah! Now I really, really wish we'd made it to Strasbourg for a visit. Dave would have gone nuts over the super secret spot. You'd never have gotten him out of the tunnel.
(Catching up after a long internet absence.)