Have jabs, will travel. That’s what I was feeling in late April, when I got my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It was as if the heavy tarp shrouding my lockdown brain was magically put into storage and my work-from-home slippers were propelled with rocket fuel. “Oh, the places we can go!” I said out loud to the tiny plants in my spring vegetable garden.
At long last, I thought, maybe I could get to know Lancaster County; we moved here just months before the world as we knew it changed forever. At the very least, I could get in the car and get lost, meeting the people who grow and make food and taste their handiwork.
To make up for lost time, I kept a tight schedule over the past eight months. I picked berries and brambles in all kinds of weather and loved every skin-stained moment. I drove to opposite ends of the county for persimmons, Concord grapes and heirloom apples. I tracked down kindred spirits who share my love for stinging nettles. I found watermelon so sweet it almost made me cry. I met pastured-pork people and the-hotter-the-better pepper people. I met a milking goat named Delilah and her daughter, Doris. I talked to a woman who’s still baking in her 90s and 30-something career changers learning to farm. I met farmers doing home delivery to keep the lights on and chefs embracing the flexibility of pop-ups and online preordering.
The list of everything I ate and drank (and the people who make it all possible) is longer than my arm, so what follows are the highlights. Although listed in no particular order, they do reflect time spent mostly outdoors. This spring, I made the decision to dine indoors only at restaurants that require proof of vaccination, which to my knowledge, means nowhere in Lancaster County. My husband and I did a lot of grab-and-go and dined al fresco in parking lots, on picnic benches and in our backyard.
— I learned of cardinal basil in 2020, thanks to Romaine Erb and Diana Stoltzfus of Brooklawn Farm Market (2325 Lititz Pike, Neffsville). I marveled at how well this hardy, aromatic variety holds up in pesto and how readily it roots in a glass jar. Last winter, I ordered a seed packet online that I sowed in June, gifting me with the most productive (and long-lasting) basil harvest ever.
— You know that feeling when the water is fine and you have nowhere else to be so you stay until your fingers become prunes? That’s what came over me when I took my first bite of the watermelon from Sunset Acres Produce (1651 Hunsecker Road, Upper Leacock Township), its fire engine red flesh glistening like a shooting star. Maybe I could stay like this for forever, I thought, slurping voraciously as if I had never before met a watermelon. (And maybe I had not.) Mark your calendars for late July, when these beauties make their annual debut.
— Confession: I made several cross-county treks throughout September just for the Concord grapes at A.B. Orchards (5754 White Oak Road, Paradise), which are hands down, the best I’ve ever had. I couldn’t believe my luck that grapes of this caliber were for the taking, which I turned into pie (yes, grape pie!), jelly and juice. (Mary Beiler, who runs the place with her husband, Amos, is pretty great, too.) If you go next year — and you should — be sure to load up on apple cider from the tap for the ride home.
— Exceptional ice cream made from Jersey cows plus a singularly unique pastoral view equals Lapp Valley Farms (244 Mentzer Road, New Holland). If you know, you know.
— I fell hard for the baked empanadas from Empanada Gourmet (46 N. Prince St.), which opened both a charming storefront and a stand at Lancaster Central Market this year. The all-kale, ham and cheese, black beans and rice options are among my favorites. The accompanying chimichurri sauce is in a class by itself (and should be bottled and sold separately).
— More than once this summer I felt as if I was in on a secret that no one else knew. And that secret is the precious bounty of raspberries from the pick-your-own fields at Shenk’s Berry Farm (911 Disston View Drive, Lititz). It’s true; bramble picking is not for everyone. There’s a lot of crouching. The vines are prickly. The sweat might get in your eyes as you work. But if you accept the challenge, the rubied reward is grand.
— The apple cider Bundt cake from Front Porch Baking Co. (513 Leaman Ave., Millersville) is one of my favorite bites of the year. Kristen Richards has hit this dairy- and egg-free version out of the park. (Her miso molasses gingersnaps are pretty dreamy, too.) Her latest community outreach is a pay-it-forward loaf program for neighbors in need.
— An avid kitchen gardener though I may be, I give up when fall comes and let the experts do the work. Enter the fall CSA from Fifth Month Farm, Devin and Kristi Barto’s organic project in Mount Joy. The 14-week subscription, which includes sweet potatoes, winter squash and an impressive variety of salad and cooking greens, has been a bright spot during the darkest time of the year. Extra add-ons include the best pastured eggs ever from Horseshoe Ranch.
— For more flexibility, Alex Wenger offers a no-subscription-necessary produce/pantry box from The Field’s Edge Research Farm. In addition to lesser-known and heirloom vegetables (sunchokes, Adirondack blue potatoes, for example), Wenger mills Floriani corn into polenta and grows his own Redeemer wheat berries. Right now, he’s flush with chicories, which make winter salads infinitely more interesting.
One night-only pop-ups
— I’m thinking of that August night, when the sky rumbled with thunder, and Lancaster city queued up 100-deep for Pranom, a nationally roving Thai noodle pop-up. It took about an hour to lay eyes on chef/mastermind Dream Kasestatad and his woks, set up among the brewing tanks at Cartel Brewing & Blending (928 N. Prince St.) but the patient crowd passed the time with beers in hand. Here’s hoping Kasestatad makes a return visit in 2022.
— Speaking of Cartel, the newly opened craft brew pub has been rocking the pop-up vibe this fall, including regular appearances from Corey Kuchinsky’s Pizza Tent and collaborations with Hot Box Barbecue.
— I’m still smiling from that night in early November when we hung out at the public library drinking beer. You read that right; the downtown branch of the Lancaster Public Library (125 N. Duke St.) hosted a groovy happy hour pop-up as a fundraiser. Springhouse Brewing slung its Pony Up hazy IPA, Pizza Tent made the pies and DJ Salinger spun the vinyl. More of this next year, please.
— We are already looking forward to the second season of the outdoor beer garden hosted by Wyndridge Farm (595 N. Charlotte St). It’s a smartly conceived play space with lots of room to spread out and let the kiddies roam and have a nosh from a local food truck. Don’t miss Wyndridge’s Apple and Oranges hard cider; it has become a new house favorite.
— While compiling the farm stand guide (which published in May; visit lanc.news/LNPFarmStandGuide), I sampled my share of Amish “chicken barbecue” that perfumes the county on Saturdays throughout the summer and early fall. Based on very unscientific research, my personal favorite comes from Stoltzfus Produce & Market Fare (96 South Groffdale Road, Leola), redolent of wood and doing just fine without a cloying layer of barbecue sauce. I like to bring a whole chicken home, pull some of the meat off the bone and add it to a giant salad of whatever is in ready in the garden.
— If you’ve ordered a bagel at Prince Street Café and other coffee shops in Lancaster city, it probably was the handiwork of Two Poodles Bakery. While they continue to work on a brick-and-mortar space (opening date to be determined), Two Poodles is hosting a “Lancaster bagel club,” a weekly preorder of a dozen bagels delivered on Saturday morning. The ordering link for the coming week goes live every Saturday night. Cream cheese schmears available, too. For more info: twopoodlesbagels.com.