A tour of Pennsylvania’s bountiful Chester County region
About a 45-minute drive west of Philadelphia or a little more than two hours from New York’s Penn Station by Amtrak, the hamlet of Downingtown, PA, along with nearby villages, is a gemlike enclave in western Chester County. Seemingly worlds away from the hustle of metropolitan life, the rolling hills traced by winding roads are shared with Amish buggies. No one seems hurried.
Spend a few days here and you’ll discover an inspiring spirit runs through the area. That term can apply to local merchants with a passionate dedication to their community, artisanal food and beverage producers who think outside the box for exceptional products, and others who have drawn on inner strength for renewal and reinvention after major setbacks.
I was fortunate to have Lee Smith, this magazine’s publisher, friend and a resident of the area, as my guide.
At Morgantown Coffee House, owner Dave Backhus and his staff welcome neighbors and visitors of all ages to this relaxed espresso house and café in the heart of Twin Valley. The popular meeting place is open from early morning to late afternoon, seven days a week.
A self-taught entrepreneur, Backhus prepares his creative seasonal fare from the best products available at nearby Chester and Lancaster County farms. In spring through late summer, he also grows many of his own vegetables, heirloom tomatoes and herbs.
Start with a bracing cup of coffee from Morgantown’s constantly changing selection of locally-roasted beans or perhaps order a chai with a shot of espresso. Whatever your beverage choice, you’ll find satisfying food at reasonable prices that appeals to all ages. This is the kind of place where no one pushes you out of your seat, and you may even befriend someone seated at your table in the front room, back room or outside in the front yard. Due to the growing number of fans, Backhus says they are expanding.
Some morning standouts include wild-caught Sockeye smoked salmon and local cream cheese with a New York-style bagel, capers and tangy pickled red onions. Others are swoon-worthy eggs Benedict with Green Meadow Farm pork belly topped with luscious hollandaise on English muffins, or slowly cooked brisket with fried eggs, red pepper emulsion and chimichurri sauce on toast. Both merit the indulgence. For the more health conscious, the café has options like an Acai smoothie bowl with bee pollen, honey granola, chia seeds, organic coconut and coconut milk.
Smith promised a great grilled cheese sandwich, and she didn’t disappoint. Simple but perfectly made, the Lancaster is a blend of organic Cheddar and Provolone grilled on locally-baked white or wheat bread. For lunch or later in the day, try Broadwing Farm organic lamb sliders with mint-dill tzatziki, kalamata olives and tomato confit, or a delicious avocado BLT with local bacon, over easy egg and zingy sriracha mayo.
Along with variations on coffee and tea drinks, non-alcoholic “Mocktails” include watermelon lemonade and pomegranate Palmer. You may want to be like many locals and drop by often.
Small Batch Artisinal Spirits
Aficionados of small batch artisanal spirits should add Brandywine Branch Distillers, in Elverson, Chester County, to their itinerary. Housed in a beautifully-restored, 100-year-old stone barn, the company produces five Revivalist gin Expressions based on the seasons: Equinox, Summertide, Harvest, Solstice and DragonDance as well as two small batch, cask strength bourbons.
Unlike many distilleries that purchase neutral grain spirits as a base for their gins, Revivalists ferments, distills and infuses theirs in-house from the grain to the bottle. In keeping with Brandywine’s green practices mission and community involvement, they send about 250 to 275 gallons a day of the used grain and water mixture, called “spent wash,” to local farmers, says Mike Higgins, one of Brandywine’s two distillers. He adds, “it makes for some very very happy cows.”
Along with the distillery, the barn includes a polished wood planked bar and bistro. The building is surrounded by eight open acres. Currently, they purchase both domestically-grown and imported botanicals, but they hope to grow some of their own on site in the future. Across the road is a huge swath of conservation farmland and French Creek State Park.
Brandywine Branch Distillers was launched in 2014 with Riannon Walsh as the managing director of production and master blender for owners Don and Scott Avellino of Philadelphia. Prior to discovering her passion for gin, Walsh spent more than 25 years as a professional “nose” and blender of privately-labeled high-end whiskies. Before leaving Brandywine earlier this year, distillers Mike Higgins and Gabe Barnard were already running the operations. Both have impressive backgrounds in the craft brewing industry, including brewing, fermenting, distilling, blending and bottling.
Visitors can see the handsome copper swan neck and spirit helmet alembic pot stills and Douglas fir casks from the tasting room, but an appointment is needed to tour the distillery (usually on Saturdays). Following the process with Gabe or Mike helps you appreciate that these are not your grandparents’ spirits. Although made using traditional methods and with malted and unmalted grains that reflect gin’s origins, each expression is infused with a unique blend of botanicals and spices. The process is complex and can’t be rushed. One batch of gin takes three distillations over the course of three weeks.
Revivalist’s Equinox for spring includes hints of citrus, mint, coriander and slightly sweet grains, along with the juniper that is essential for a spirit to be called “gin.” The Harvest Expression offers subtle tastes of orange and warm mulling spices, like clove and nutmeg, appropriate for cooler months of the year.
To better appreciate the nuances of each variety, sample them in concert with the bar’s well thought out platter of artisanal cheeses served with appropriate condiments and fruits. The pairings open your nose and palate to the many possibilities of these white spirits.
True to the farm-to-table movement here and elsewhere in the area, local cheeses are featured. For Equinox, it was handmade Birchrun Farm Blue made from the dairy’s Holstein cows. Summertide was paired with The Farm at Doe Run’s Riobiola-style Hummingbird. Nutty-earthy tones in Yellow Spring Farm’s award-winning Fieldstone cheese was an excellent choice to match winter’s chill as reflected in Solstice’s dried cherry, anise, orange peel and hint of ginger. Brandywine Branch Distillery is a unique experience to sip and savor.
A Victorian Gem
St. Peter’s Bakery and Café, in the minute Victorian village by the same name, is among a handful of repurposed historic buildings along the quarter-mile main street that includes an inn with a restaurant and liquor store. For 100 years, the bakery space housed a general store for local iron miners and granite quarry workers. When an investment group began restoring the village in the mid 2000’s, the bakery was targeted as a hub for the growing community.
After opening in 2007, area residents embraced the bakery, but the management was unable to make it profitable. They recruited Melanie Melle, the current owner and a 35-year veteran of the Philadelphia food industry. But her path to ownership wasn’t smooth; the economic downturn of 2008 and their differing viewpoints led to her termination.
“But I simply couldn’t let go of what I knew I could make work,” says Melle. “I got goose bumps on the back of my neck the very first time I entered this building and felt that all of my earlier experience was leading me here. The timing was right, but I had to have the courage to just do it.”
Melle and her husband Peter took over in 2009 and St. Peter’s became the community focal point she had envisioned; a meeting place for families, first dates, marriage proposals, baby showers and intimate weddings. She made a decision early on not to advertise but instead use those allocated funds to donate to local charities and nonprofit organizations. “This has proven successful, as it allowed us to meet many wonderful people and at the same time get the word out about our beautiful village and the wealth of recreational opportunities that surround us.”
“I’m passionate about life, my family and my business,” she adds. “Peter has supported me at every turn and downturn. He is not involved in the day-to-day operations but is the ying to my yang. I am grateful for the staff I work with every day. We work as a team and strive always to perfect our craft.”
Melle embraced a philosophy her husband once told her, “baking is like love; one should enter into it with abandon.” Everything, including the artisanal breads, pastries, desserts and quiches, is made daily on site from scratch and baked in their French steam injection ovens. They use only unbleached, chemical-free flour and a dough starter that dates back 100 years. There are no shortcuts or preservatives in any of the products, including the homemade soups and salads. As a fixture in the community, St. Peter’s stays open year around with adjusted hours in cooler weather. On Friday nights, they serve pizza and sometimes have live music.
By 9 a.m., a small crowd has already gathered at the counter, ready to order breakfast or buy breads to take home. Throughout the day, a steady flow of locals, tourists and hikers come along French Creek behind the café and stop in. In decent weather, seats on the wide back porch offer an expansive view of the woods and the boulders and water below.
St. Peter’s is that rare kind of eatery where everything that looks tempting in the cases often exceeds expectations. That was true of their bacon, ham, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese quiche with a perfect crust, and fresh peach cobbler with whipped dairy cream and caramel drizzle.
I returned with a bag of their granola. It’s generously laced with almonds, walnuts, dried cranberries, raisins, coconut and flax seeds then slowly roasted with a touch of maple syrup and brown sugar. I would have bought the sinful-looking brioche sticky buns, but couldn’t fit them in my luggage or stomach. Next time…
A Goat Farm Experience
People who love kids of the four-legged variety and cheese made from their milk should visit Amazing Acres Goat Dairy, the Elverson farm where co-owner Lynne Reid lavishes affection on her long-eared Nubian and Saanen animals. Will, her husband and fellow owner, transforms the milk into small batch, fresh and flavored chèvres, including herbs de Provence, cranberry and roasted garlic. The Reid’s French-style cheeses also include 2- to 4-week-old bloomy rind, creamy, soft-ripened cheeses like Sea Smoke layered with ash; brandy-soaked grape leaf-wrapped banons; and crottins, the celebrated Loire Valley goat cheese from the town of Chavignol. Achieving this level of recognition was a decade-long odyssey for the Reids. About six and a half years ago, they moved from near Havertown, PA, with minimal cheese-making experience, save for an occasional chèvre made in their kitchen. While both loved to cook and eat good food, a 10-week cheese tasting course inspired their dream of a new life as cheesemakers. Will was working as an Internet consultant; Lynne was and remains a graphic artist.
After 10 years researching the idea, that fantasy became a reality when they learned that an Elverson couple, Debbie Mikulak and Fred Bloom, was selling their goat farm to retire to Maine, and they quickly took the plunge. Will studied with Debbie for a few months to understand how her well-regarded cheeses were made, then attended the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese to further his technical knowledge about milk chemistry, food safety, state and federal regulations, and cheese quality.
Because the cheeses are aged for less than 60 days, they are all pasteurized by slowly heating the milk to 145 degrees F for 30 minutes. While many cheesemakers use rennet derived from animal sources, Will uses a microbial-produced rennet that allows his cheese to also be enjoyed by vegetarians and observant Jews.
After his short apprenticeship, Will dared to produce some of his own versions of Debbie’s cheeses, believing that American cheesemakers, like the new generation of craft beer makers or distillers, no longer need to stand in the shadow of French or Swiss or German originals. Excellent cheeses by any standard, Amazing Acres’ award-winning artisanal products are mostly sold at area farmers markets and to local restaurants, but may be purchased at the farm. Even today, Lynne and Will stay in touch with the former owners to discuss issues that arise.
On average, there are about 30 goats on the farm. “All of the kids born in the spring get to nurse from their mother for at least three months. That’s something that sets us apart from a lot of the dairy industry. After that time, many are sold to loving homes as pets, companion animals or homestead milkers,” says Lynne. While this reduces the farm’s cheese-making milk supply, it reflects Lynne’s commitment to her animals’ wellbeing. Nor does she milk them in the winter. Believing contented animals produce better quality milk and, by extension, superior cheeses, Lynne posted on Facebook that she was looking for volunteers to help socialize her goats. She quickly had 60 responses from people willing to spend an hour or so with them.
Today, Lynne manages the goats, including the early-morning milking. She feeds them hay throughout the year, along with vegetable and mineral treats as supplements. The dairy also posts recipes using their cheeses on the website. Even after long days, Will and Lynne seem to beam with contentment at their newfound passion.
PLACES TO VISIT
Morgantown Coffee House
4997 North Twin Valley Road
Elverson, PA 19520
Hours: Mon-Fri: 6-5pm; Sat: 7-5pm; Sun: 8-2:30pm
Brandywine Branch Distillers:
The Revivalist Spirits
350 Warwick Road
Elverson, PA 19520
Reservations and Bottle Sales (610) 901-3668
St. Peter’s Bakery
3441 Saint Peters Road,
St. Peters, PA 19520
Hours: Mon: closed; Tue: 9-4pm; Wed-Thurs: 9-5pm; Fri: 9-9pm, Sat-Sun: 9-5pm;
Amazing Acres Goat Dairy
Lynne and Will Reid
180 Grove Road
Elverson, PA 19520
Office: (610) 913-7002 (leave a message)
Mobile: (215) 847-0992 (Will) for all things cheese making related
Mobile: (610) 449-1987 (Lynne) for all things goat related