Lancaster County, PA, A Glimpse Of A Place Like No Other

FORTY YEARS AGO, when most Americans thought there was no better place to shop than the supermarket, Lancaster County promoted itself as a center of local foods and traditional dishes. Then, as the rest of the world became more and more interested in these things, Lancaster became less so. Amish families that had been farming for generations were suddenly working in retail stores and factories and their land gradually became subdivisions and shopping centers. Now, just when you thought that the area had been turned into an endless mall, a whole new generation of farmers is bringing back the idea of local food. Produce is organic, livestock is grass-fed, and a growing number of people are creating cheeses that are world-class.

Situated in Central Pennsylvania, less than a hundred miles from the cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. Lancaster County is sometimes rural, often suburban, and has the city of Lancaster in its dead center. Here, you can find a working tobacco farm down the street from a Starbucks shop, supermarkets with familiar brands alongside 10-pound tubs of lard and 50-pound sacks of sugar, and a hardware store stocking hand-cranked items for the Amish and cutting-edge, high-tech products under the same roof.

In this mix, you can find cheese: aged, fresh, soft and hard. There’s just one big difference between Lancaster and America’s other artisan cheese regions; you’re not likely to find ex-lawyers, back-to-the-landers or retired rock musicians farming. Here most of the farmers are Amish or Mennonite, people with deep religious convictions that keep pointing them towards working the land and living a very simple life. This is an inspiring place for those who seek out quality artisan foods and ingredients.

The local cheese plate served at The Waterfront restaurant.

Amos G. Miller, the Amish cheesemaker at Misty Creek Goat Dairy offers an interesting take on this. “I don’t appreciate my cheese being called Amish. I think it’s wrong. Rather, I want it sold for what it is … you wouldn’t call somebody else’s cheeses Presbyterian, would you?” What Miller creates is world-class cheese made by a man who practices the Amish faith.

Visiting is quite an adventure in itself. At Misty Creek, the shop is completely unstaffed. You can often find large quantities of high-end dairy products with nothing more than a sign that says “PAY HERE,” and an arrow pointing to a metal cash box. You can feel free to buy and go, or say hello to whomever you see working.

Food enthusiasts should start their shopping at the Central Market in downtown Lancaster. This classic red brick building has aisle after aisle of vendors. Besides the superb produce and grass-fed meats, look for the fresh goat cheeses and yogurt from Linden Dale Farms or the selections of farmstead cave-aged, raw milk cheeses at Green Circle Organics and Oasis at Bird-in-Hand.

Cappuccino And An Apple Fritter

For an amazing combination of continental elegance and downhome tasty, get a cappuccino at Mean Cup coffee and an apple fritter from the Shady Maple bakery. This combination gives a real sense of the culinary range Lancaster offers.

For those days when the Central Market is either closed or jam-packed, the small and quiet Lemon Street Market a few blocks away is the perfect choice. With a modest and very well curated selection of Lancaster County cheeses, produce, meats and baked goods, Lemon Street is an ideal place to see what local artisans are creating. There’s also a fine cafe that’s somehow folded into the tiny space.

For serious cooks, nothing beats the back roads, where small markets, stands and even just tables set up in farm driveways offer excellent local artisan foods. Take King’s Kreamery for example. There, right next to the freezer where teenage girls scoop homemade ice cream, is a collection of intense, cave-aged cheeses made by Eli King. Try the How Now Cow. It’s got a combination of freshness and assertiveness that a cheese that crossed an ocean just can’t match.

Another market with a great cheese selection is Oasis at Bird-in-Hand. There you’ll find what I’ve come to think of as the typical Lancaster mix; inexpensive brick cheeses with added flavors like chive and garlic along with more sophisticated aged varieties. At Oasis, all of it is made from certified organic raw milk and even those bricks of Cheddar, Gouda, and Jack can be put to good use in a grilled sandwich. Just save some room for their star; a delicately veined bleu.

The Sunday farmers market at Musser Park in downtown Lancaster.

As Oasis cheese guru Dale Stotzfus told me “I’m most impressed with the ones that are just plain cheese, even the bleu and the Alpine start with the same milk and they taste so different.” These aged cheeses are an art form.

Although local Amish and Mennonite farmers are often happy to talk to outsiders in social situations, it’s tough to find cheesemakers who welcome the general public. One such place is Hope Springs Farm in East Earl. There, the Weaver family crafts a firm, flavorful Appenzeller that they call Applezeller, thanks to the fact that they wash the rinds with cider. While their shop is primarily self-serve, a quick search will often turn up Loren or Anna Weaver, both of whom are ready to talk cheese with any and all comers. They also offer grass-fed raw milk, butter, and fresh eggs. You’ll be delighted to know that while their cheeses are offered in at least a few big-city markets, prices on the farm are far lower.

The Dining Scene Evolves

In years past, dining in Lancaster County was thought of as being more about quantity than quality with huge buffet restaurants dominating the scene. The buffets — often called “smorgasbords” — can still be found (and are worth seeking out if you have … say … a vanload of starving teenagers), but the dining possibilities have vastly expanded. The local cuisine, with dishes like chicken pot pie — actually a noodle and chicken stew, pepper cabbage — a sort of cole slaw with a vinegar dressing, and schnitz un knepp — a mixture of apples, ham, and dropped dumplings, are best sampled at small restaurants off the beaten tourist track.

Two favorite choices come to mind, The Town Hall Restaurant in Blue Ball and Katie’s Kitchen in Ronks. Besides dishes like the ones mentioned above, both restaurants offer great desserts. If you haven’t tried it before, have the sho-fly pie. It’s made with a molasses filling and crumb topping, or an apple dumpling — a whole apple that’s been seasoned, wrapped in pastry dough, baked, and served with warm milk or ice cream. Both are considered the region’s signature sweets.

If you have a passion for quality micro-brewed beers, The Lancaster Brewing Company is a pleasant stroll from many downtown hotels. Sit down at the bar with a glass of seasonal specialty ale and order a local cheese plate to go alongside it. With a bit of luck, you can find both their milk stout and a cheese with a beer-washed rind served together — it’s a thought-provoking match.

With its bounty of local ingredients, more chefs are choosing to open creative fine dining restaurants in Lancaster. At The Waterfront, a place with a breezy patio on the banks of the Conestoga River, Chef Bob Sidleck offers a cheese plate: four varieties of local cheese surrounding what Sidleck calls a “Fall Chutney.” It looks at first glance like a classic English chutney, and instead turns out to be a compote with Pennsylvania-Dutch style stewed apple — a charming local touch.

For something more casual; Lancaster’s warm welcome for refugees from all over the world has blessed it with more than a few immigrant restaurants. Try El Pueblito for Mexican, Addisu for Ethiopian, Burma Road for Burmese and Brisas Del Caribe for Puerto Rican. All are there to give people from very far away a taste of home and warmly welcome anyone else who wants to give these dishes a try.

A wedge of Dawn at Irishtown, a cave-aged semisoft cheese.

When you need a break from food and eating, be sure to visit the flagship store of Ten Thousand Villages, a Mennonite-sponsored fair trade organization in Akron, north and east of downtown Lancaster.

There, you’ll find a wide assortment of toys, housewares and fashion items from all over the globe. This is a great place to find a gift for people who are tough to impress. And of course, there’s a cafe with fair-trade coffee and chocolate — it’s Lancaster County after all.

Getting here isn’t that tough. Amtrak trains stop in Lancaster and highways reach it from just about every major city in the Northeast. It’s a pleasant day trip from Philadelphia or Baltimore, and a comfortable weekend from Washington D.C., New York City or New Haven, CT.

Lancaster County is most decidedly worth a visit — it’s a place where farmers and chefs are working diligently to create deliciousness and they’re eagerly awaiting visitors to share in their artistry. CC

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