Part Three: THE TEXAS HILL COUNTRY
The Texas wine industry has come a ways in the last couple of centuries and the Texas hill country north of San Antonio (and west of Austin) is considered the heart of wine production. For more Texas Wine Trail Information, call 866.621.9463. The 22 wineries claim some 5 million visitors a year and many have not only tasting rooms that offer sales of their wines but lots of examples of other Texas products as well. Three wineries were all that we could squeeze (no pun intended) into our schedule. Two of the vineyards are open to the public, while the other is one of our Avanti Savoia suppliers of wine oriented products.
Leaning Oaks Vineyards located in Spring Branch, is owned by Anthony and Leatine Fasano. Leaning Oaks is responsible for a line of excellent wine conserves, sauces and marinades and their newest addition, a cocoa / spice rub. These are all- natural products made with wine but containing no alcohol or refined sugar. These are delicious sauces and conserves, not as sweet as you might imagine and so perfect with meats, cheeses and other savory combinations. On our recent visit with the Fasano’s, they made sure that we had an ample opportunity to sample their products with an assortment of cheese and crackers. We particularly enjoyed their newest sauce, Chardonnay Dressing and Marinade as a dip with fresh snow peas. The springtime weather was made even nicer by sitting amid their rows of grapevines sharing a glass of Leaning Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve 2006. This was one of the better red wines that we tasted on our trip, so it is even more of a shame that it is not yet available commercially.
Not far “up the road”, between the towns of Stonewall and Fredericksburg, we made a stop at the tasting room of Becker Vineyards. The tasting room is situated in reproduction of a 19 century German style barn at which visitors can sample the various wines made at the winery. They also boast a 3 acre field of lavender that is available for sale in potpourris, sachets, soaps, oils and other products. Overnight accommodations can be arranged on premise at their Homestead Bed and Breakfast.
The next stop was the charming town of Fredericksburg in Gillespie County. The hill country west of Austin and north of San Antonio has been the home of prosperous German settlers since the 1840’s. A fact reflected by the classic stone masonry and hearty German cuisine. I always enjoy hearing “Willkommen!” spoken with a Texas accent Founded by 19th century German emigrants, this picturesque community is home to wineries, bakeries, restaurants, museums, shops, a vibrant art scene and some 350 Bed and Breakfasts.. It is well worth a visitor’s time just to explore the historic neighborhoods to appreciate the wealth of German influenced architecture. The “doll house” like appearance of the Sunday Houses is especially appealing.
Our first stop was the Fredericksburg Winery located on Main St., in the middle of the “downtown” business district. There at the tasting bar a member of the Switzer family will guide you through sampling of their extensive wines. They will answer your questions and insist that you taste the wines from the dry to the sweet in order to fairly evaluate each. Their line of jellies and other condiments are worth tasting, we really liked the Mesquite Smoked Mustard.
Main Street in Fredericksburg is notable for its impressive width, a leftover from the days in which the settlers had to have room in which to turn around their teams of animals. Now, as then it is the center of the town’s business life and a good bit of it can be reached by walking. We enjoyed a stop at Fromage du Monde, where it seemed only natural to shop for a bit of delicious cheese to go with one of the wines we had purchased earlier. There are a number of restaurants to choose from, including several German. At the recommendation of a couple of business people with whom we had spoken, we choose Der Lindenbaum.
Der Lindenbaum Restaurant is located in an historic (and beautiful) limestone building. The interior is cozy and comfortable. We settled into a table and over a glass of Riesling and a German beer decided on the Jagger Schnitzel and the Pfeffersteak, which were both quite good. The entrees were accompanied by German potato salad, sauerkraut and a spiced red cabbage. We particularly enjoyed the red cabbage and noticed a framed letter on the wall from Ladybird Johnson expressing her appreciation of the dish as well. Although there were definitely mixed reviews on the web, we had a very pleasant experience with their take on Texas-German cuisine.
As we prepared to make an early departure the next morning we did not take the time to eat a real breakfast. Instead, we grabbed a couple of pastries and a loaf of Dark Bread at the Old German Bakery. Checking the web we again found mixed reviews but we must say that even though we did not order from the menu, our pastries were really good!
Our early departure from Fredericksburg that morning was in order to visit one the truly spectacular sights in all of the hill country, Enchanted Rock. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is located north of Fredericksburg on the border between Gillespie and Llano counties. It was acquired by the state of Texas in 1984; although I had been exploring the area some 10 years before that when it was still in private hands. The “Rock” is a pink granite batholith covering 640 acres and rising 425 feet above ground. In the old days the only paths were footpaths unlike the marked paths now provided by the state. It was following one of these “marked” paths that eventually delivered us to a deer path going wherever it is that deer go and had the effect of turning a projected 1 ½ hour walk into a 4 ½ hour trip that included some fairly serious climbing. We weren’t exactly lost, but it was a long and hot adventure to say the least. It was also a fantastic opportunity to see the remarkable rock formations and plant life up close.
Our plan was to visit Enchanted Rock in the morning and then drive to the Ft. Worth/Dallas area and have dinner with my Aunt and Uncle early that evening. We had hoped to have a relaxed and scenic ride from the hill country to the Metroplex area. Our timing was disrupted by our extra hours hiking and we found ourselves trying to make the journey simply as quickly as possible. Lunch became a matter of practicality, and while zooming along looking for something quick and easy we happened onto to Ma & Pa’s Diner (325.372.4035) in out of the way San Saba, Texas. Because of the hundreds of acres devoted to growing pecans, the area is known as the “Pecan Capitol of the World” and we found that reflected in the awesome pecan pies offered at Ma & Pa’s.
My wife, Gail noticed the sign for the diner first and her intuition told her “this is the place”. It is definitely an unremarkable building, but Gail was sure it was the kind of authentic local cooking that we so much enjoy finding. She was right. We had our hearts set for a cheeseburger; we had been in Texas for over a week and had not yet had the chance to indulge ourselves. The description of the burger on Ma and Pa’s menu caught my eye immediately. The promise of a Jalapeno Sourdough Bun was the kicker. We placed our order, out they came and wonder of wonders, the promise was fulfilled. Big delicious buns; huge, juicy, irregular, hand shaped patties all added up to a loaded cheese burger full of fresh flavor. We were so pleased to find food so honest and so good.
A peak into the kitchen continued our delight in the cooking at our unpretentious little find. We spied a counter full of enticing pies cooling from the oven. “Mile-high” is certainly an over worked term, but these pies were indeed big, tall and beautiful. They also have a exceptional line of Jams, Jellies, Preserves, Spreads and other goodies made by Larry’s sister Sylvia Daves of Pflugerville, Texas (Treasures Past & Present.) By now, it was time to introduce ourselves to Larry Daniel, the owner. After accepting our compliments, Larry went on to share with us the story and history of the diner owned by him and his wife, Charlene.
Larry explained that the “Ma and Pa” were his parents, the late J. Lee and Lorene “Kewpie” Daniel. Kewpie raised 6 children and like so many of her generation, was known for her “table laden with delicious food and desserts.” The family has even published a cookbook of their Mother’s favorites, entitled Kewpie’s Recipes & More. “Kewpie” was the nickname given to Mrs. Daniel because of her interest in collecting the famous dolls. Her legacy is ably carried on in her family’s food business and commitment to quality. We did purchase one of those beautiful Pecan pies to share later with more members of my family and were gifted by Larry with several of his miniature pies for the road. Ma and Pa’s Diner was such a happy way to wind down a very happy vacation.
We did finally make it to My Aunt Betty and Uncle Ray’s for dinner that evening, although very late. Graciously, they waited for us and we enjoyed two very short days in their family’s company before at last it was time to return home. Beautiful weather, great food, amazing geography, Texas hospitality and the genuine warmth of my relatives’ affectation made us so grateful that we had “Gone to Texas!”