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On the Road: Farm Stands of Chester County, PA

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This past fall Christina and I spent a wonderful birthday weekend in southern Chester County that included a number of excellent meals including two lunches at Tulula's Table in Kennett Square. It had been my first visit to Chester County in years.

Chester County is a sprawling expanse that stretches from Delaware and Maryland on the south, Lancaster County on the west, Berks and Montgomery Counties to the north, and the western Main Line's Delaware County on the east. It is the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania and 24th wealthiest in the United States. Nearly 500,000 people live in Chester County -- about 60% more folks than lived there just 20 years ago. By virtue of this influx of new residents, it's political leanings have altered with Barack Obama the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the county since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964. With a population density of 217 per square mile, it is on average, vastly closer in feel to Salem County's 190 than Mercer County's 1,552. But you don't drive through "averages." Southern Chester County feels far more congested than the delightfully spare northern stretches.

The area around Kennett Square is dubbed "the mushroom capital of the world." But my quest was not mushrooms grown in dark rooms, but produce grown on sun-drenched fields.

Long ago, Route 1, aka Baltimore Pike, was the main road connecting Philadelphia to Baltimore.

If I did this tour again, I would not try to do both southern and northern Chester County in one day. Actually, but for the excuse to visit Tulula's Table, I would confine my visit to the north. The north seemed far less congested and more physically beautiful. Once I got past the congestion of the south, roads narrowed and shaded and wound through hills, along ridges overlooking lush valleys and passing many large and classic Pennsylvania farms.

Wide fields, dense woods and distant hills.

In addition to farm country, Chester County is also horse country.

Here is a seemingly blind-folded white horse with a braided tail. The "blindfold" is actually a light mesh that only restricts the horse's vision and is sometimes used to calm horses.

A principle farm product is hay -- here stored in a barn along the side of the road.

Serendipity plays a large role in what provides the lasting images of a drive...or walk for that matter. A spontaneous decision to see "what was up that road to the left?" brought me to a long expanse of a stunning bamboo grove. Bamboo is one of my favorite things. I have many books on bamboo. Of course, pictures -- these included -- are no substitute for being there. It was a breezy day that caused the bamboo to gently sway and make a rustling sound.

It's not Madison County, but here's an old covered bridge crossing one of the many creeks that through the county. In northern Chester County is French Creek State Park.

Here is a link to the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. It includes information about the trust's activities and a helpful guide to local foods in and around norther Chester County. Look for the PDF link to this guide at the bottom of the Trust's homepage. There is also information about what looks like a wonderful culinary event this Saturday, July 31st -- the annual Homegrown Harvest Supper and Hoedown.

Highland Orchards

A large commercial orchard was home to a fairly conventional "produce shop" that featured just-picked orchard fruits, local produce and produce from far away. There was also a bakery.

Pete's Produce Farm at the Westtown School

Pete's 170 acre farm is on the grounds of the Westtown School, a Quaker secondary school.

Pete's carries a wide variety of produce -- most of which is raised on the farm, but also includes produce from places far away from Chester

Here are gourds hanging from an arbor adjacent to the parking lot. They have a long wait to their fall harvest.

I have been looking for garlic scapes all summer and finally found them at Pete's. They are the mild shoots that grow out of the tops of the in-ground heads of garlic. They have a delicate garlic taste. I added blanched, chopped garlic scrapes to the new potato from tiny Wynnorr Farm potatoes (following) dressed with a fresh lemon-tarragon mayonnaise made with olive oil. Scapes are also excellent simply sauteed or grilled.

Stratton's Wynnorr Farm

You can tell a lot about a farm from its sign.

You just had a sense that this farm was lovingly tendered by hand.

While the tables were not overflowing, they had crates of potatoes that put the "new" in New Potatoes. It occurred to me at the start of this drive that I had been over-looking the humble potato in favor of their more glamorous relatives and I made a mental note to try local potatoes. Wynnmorr Farm also offered three varieties of corn -- yellow, bi-color and white. I asked which they reccommeded and was told they were known for their yellow. I added to my basket a small block of local Conebella Farm Horseradish Cheddar.

Sugartown Strawberries

Strawberry season is a June memory at Sugartown Strawberries but an honor system farm table offered eggplant, peppers and squash and some of the biggest, fattest sunflowers around.

J. Maki Winery

Some of J. Maki's 16 acres of vineyards occupy a gentle slope that leads down to the winery.

Tending the shop was Janet Maki, vineyard keeper and wine maker. Maki began J. Maki Winery in the early 90's after a twenty-plus year career with IBM. In selecting the location, she was struck by similarities in climate, soil and topography to many of France's great wine growing regions. Unlike the more modestly aspiring and priced wines of Unionville Vineyards from New Jersey's Hunterdon County that I purchased at the Trenton Farmers' Market, Maki produces premium wines including a champagne that received a prestigious French award.

Nearly forty years ago, as I started visiting wineries from Napa to Bordeaux, I was always struck by how wine-making starts with farming and that wine is produce, in another form.

My sampling of j. Maki wine under the shade of Sugartown Strawberries' sunflowers from left to right, Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Viognier, Petite Verdot.

Amazing Acres

A call from winemaker Janet Maki to her neighbor Fred brought me to the basement door of Amazing Acres, makers of artisan goat cheeses.

Set high on a hill overlooking northern Chester County, here is the home of Amazing Acres twenty goats. What began as a 20-year love of their pet goats evolved into this mom and pop business a year ago. Fred is helper to his wife, Debbie. Fred and Debbie "retired" into the grueling but satisfying life of Chester County cheese makers. Amazing Acres cheeses are available in Philadelphia at DiBruno's 18th Street and 9th Street stores.

The Farmer's Daughter

Names conjure images and mine was a quaint little farm stand overseen by, who else?, the farmer's daughter. Instead, I pulled up to a mega-stand offering a library of produce that included a nice selection of locally grown.

Best was the right-off-the-back-of-the-truck white corn that Christina and I enjoyed several hours later -- as sweet and good as any corn either of us ever had that we enjoyed with some left-over grilled turkey flank steak with a little Green Tomato Ketchup from Tulula's Table and some heirloom tomatoes from Pete's Market dressed with my very best olive oil. The joys of summer...At Home.

Heading home from northern Chester County and looming in the distance is the vaguely menacing presence of the Limerick nuclear power plant. When you set-out on the road you don't know what memories you will bring back. In Salem County it was Mr. Tkach and his cucumbers. Mercer County a toss-up between the "bouquet" of turkeys in the air at Lee's Turkey Farm and the humble honesty of Kerr's Korn. I set-out in Chester County expecting to find lush farm stands around every turn in the road, but instead found two women farmers -- one a tender of grapes and winemaker -- and the other a tender of goats and a cheesemaker.

At Home. From left to right starting in first row: Wynnorr Farm's yellow corn, apricots, jalapeno, patty pan squash, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, Amazing Acres Crotin, baby eggplant, Tulula's Table lamb sausage, tiny golden tomatoes, lima beans, Jack's Farm honey, blackberries, more heirloom tomatoes, Tulula's Table Green Tomato Ketchup, Conebella Farms Horseradish Cheddar, Amazing Acres herb-covered goat cheese, sunflowers, cantaloupe, Amazing Acres fresh goat cheese, red watermelon, yellow watermelon, sugar plums, Maki wines -- Blanc de Blanc, Viognier, Petite Verdot, Ice Wine.

On the Table: Saturday Night Dinner at Home with Friends

A little supplemental shopping at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market added to my Chester County haul -- and assorted fresh sausages from DiBruno's made for a delicious summer's eve dinner with friends.

Our evening began with fresh Black Berry Spritzers -- made from pureed Chester County blackberries, simple syrup and seltzer. You can make your own fruit spritzers -- a fresh fruit "soda."

Our friends are beer lovers so the menu was beer-friendly. They "harvested" a wonderful selection of beers for our dinner.

Serious dining began with the last of my three pounds of Pimientos de Padron with grilled bread. I trued to place another order from La Tienda, but they are currently out of stock with more expected soon.

Pasta followed dressed with olive oil, sea salt, fresh black and a quick sauce made from assorted small tomatoes.

Dinner Buffet

Clockwise from six o'clock: Corn and lima bean salad with garlic scapes, tomato salad, new potato salad and grilled vegetables.

Corn and lima bean salad with garlic scapes included local purple scallions, sweet onion, cilantro, garlic, red wine and rice wine vinegars and olive oil.

Tomato salad with torpedo red onions, purple basil and miniature tomatillas served over butter lettuce and dressed with balsamic and olive oil.

Grilled garlic scapes, patty pan squash, baby zucchini and eggplant.

Our cheese course was three goat cheeses from Amazing Acres. A sweet ending came from Metropolitan Bakery's biscotti and flourless chocolate cake.

Everything was prepared in advance and almost everything served at room temperature. I just had to quickly saute the peppers, cook the pasta and warm the tomato sauce and grill the sausages. My "time in the kitchen away from guests" was minimal.

Next week -- On the Road: Farm Stands of Northern Chester County with a touch of Berks and Montgomery Counties

I found this week's trip a bit farm stand frustrating -- actual farm stands were few and very far between -- with the feeling that that there was more there than met my curious eyes. So I have a new plan to explore more of Northern Chester county and include bits of Berks and northwestern Montgomery Counties. I look forward to sharing the fruits and vegetables of my travels next week.

The following week I am heading out to the farm stands of Long Island's North Fork.

NB: Please be clear that my weekly drives through nearby "foreign lands" are meant only to be impressionistic. I start each drive having done some desktop internet exploring. This provides a general plan and a series of destinations. I plug these into Google Maps. I have figured out that once I have my destinations pin-pointed on Google Maps, it is simple to re-arrange and rationalize their order. I have some ambivalence regarding this function as it has the potential to provide a little too much intentional and not enough meandering. But given the vast expanse of Chester County, it would have been crazy to spend the day back-tracking from place to place. Once on the road, I plug my destinations into my trusty GPS so I can fearlessly get lost. My point here is that I am sure there are wonderful places I am missing. These are not definitive guides. Rather, they're just one curious guy's drive. I welcome reader's comments and suggestions regarding places I've missed.