Sisterdale

Hill Country Venture

by Celia Hayes

So, knowing that on Saturday, May 10, that we will be tied up all day in the hot-pink-and-zebra-striped booth in the Beall’s parking lot at 281 and Bulverde Crossing for the Bulverde Spring market – and that we had some projects to finish before then – my daughter and I declared Friday, May 2 to be our personal holiday, and embarked on a short road trip into the Hill Country. Yes, we love the Hill Country, especially when it appears to have been blessed with slightly more rain than we have had in San Antonio. I wanted to get some snaps that I could use for the cover of my next book, but alas – the bluebonnets were at their best last month.

We went up through the back-road between Boerne and Luckenbach, which leads through Sisterdale; home of the Sister Creek Winery, and the Sisterdale Market just across the street from it – a tiny market, eatery and weekend event venue, where Chico the Tiny Chihuahua returned miraculously on last New Years Day, after an absence of about three weeks. We had a nice chat with the owner and admiring Chico, who apparently survived by hiding out in armadillo holes and drinking from a tiny spring, where his even tinier footprints were later noted. The Sisterdale Market is a charming place, in an old house by the side of the road. During Prohibition days, there was an illicit still in operation in the cellar – whoa – a cellar, for real? The still itself was, according to the current owner, taken out and buried someplace out in back. You’d have thought that the metal parts would have been easily found … but between Sister Creeks, the soil is rich and deep, and easily-dug.

The Sister Creek Winery is another indicator of how steadily the Hill Country is progressing to a state where it might yet be mistaken for the south of France; not only have entrepreneurs experimented with producing goat cheese, olive oil and lavender over the last twenty years or so – there are also vineyards galore. Sister Creek is one of the longer-established; even on a non-holiday Friday there were cars outside – including a massive white stretch limo.

The show-room is an old cotton-gin, built of heavy oak beams, low-ceilinged and smelling of ancient wood. The newer part, where the heavy-lifting of making wine is done, has been added at the back; rooms where the grapes are processed and aged, first in huge stainless-steel tanks, and then in wooden barrels – rank after rank, each labeled with what they are and how long they have been sitting. Some of them are rather heavily stained around the massive wooden bung on top; and that lends another wonderful odor. When I was a very small child, I remember visiting a winery with my parents and grandparents; a wonderful place, set in a garden, and one huge wooden wine-vat, which must have measured at least thirty feet across, and two or three stories tall. It had been retired from active wine-ageing duty and converted into a kind of pavilion in the garden, but the smell of it inside was positively intoxicating in itself. I don’t know if any of the wineries here now age wine in huge wooden barrels like that any more – but it would be a landmark if they did. After all, everything in Texas is supposed to be bigger.

Old Town Helotes

Raising Heck in Helotes

by Celia Hayes

We ventured on a weekend outing to Helotes this last August for an art showing at a very pleasant little country venue, The Gardens in Old Town… which to our relief, turned out to be an indoors event. Frankly, mid-August in South Texas is just not one of those good times to be roaming around in the outdoors for very long. We prowled the art show, admired many of the paintings exhibited – a good few of which I would have bought for my own pleasure. I think that we were early enough in the day and the impromptu gallery was not so crowed that many of the artists had leisure and enthusiasm enough to talk to us as well. Ah, how well we know this routine; sitting by the table o’ stuff, waiting to strike up a conversation with anyone slowing by, in their drift through the room! I think most people visiting Helotes that weekend must have been at the art show, for the other little shops in old downtown Helotes were pretty empty.

We hadn’t been to Helotes in a while, and so when we had made a leisurely circuit, and the place became too crowded for my daughter’s taste, we roamed around the little bit that there is of Historic Old Helotes; mostly antique shops set up on old homes, barns and what we were told had been a grocery store at about the turn of the last century. Yes, time was when Helotes, twenty miles and a good day’s journey on horseback from San Antonio, was a separate and lively little town on the main road to Bandera. It was farming country, at first – the name comes from ‘elote’ – Spanish for corn on the cob. The eastern Apache tribe farmed along the waterways in that part of the Hill Country in the earliest times, growing corn for themselves until the Comanche roared down from the north and made it too dangerous. Like much of the Hill Country, Helotes was settled by German and European immigrants, and in the days after the Civil War, served as an assembly point for herds of cattle heading north to the railheads in Kansas, a feeder route to the great Chisholm Trail. It was a rather lively little town back then; there are two books about historical Helotes by local author Cynthia Leal Massey.

Now, of course, having turned into a suburban bedroom slipper of San Antonio, it is a much more sedate place, but still a very pleasant one, barely four or five miles outside the 1604 Loop. A clue as to how very quietly upscale Helotes has become is that the flagship HEB-Plus store – the largest store in the HEB chain was opened last year on Bandera Road, just inside the Loop. The store parking lot has nearly 1,200 parking spaces – and the store itself seems as large as a gargantuan aircraft hangar. 183,000 square feet of grocery and retail space; we walked in and my daughter said, “Wow!” Even though the parking lot was nearly full, the store itself didn’t feel crowded at all. We only came in for three things – which did seem rather a waste, considering the sheer variety of items in stock.

Jams and Preserves A Specialty Shop in Fredericksburg

A Little Local Home Grown Company

by Celia Hayes

So, I came to San Antonio for my final tour of Air Force duty in 1995 – but I think it took a little while for me to discover Fredericksburg, and the lovely, tasty specialty food products put out by Fischer and Wieser, of Fredericksburg in the Hill Country. It is in my mind that for the first couple of years, Fredericksburg was the only place that you could buy them anyway. Certainly all the little gourmet food outlets along Main Street had a good selection of Fischer & Wieser jams and preserves. There was an annex to Das Peach Haus in a teeny former residence near to the Nimitz Museum, which is where we usually bought those items which took our fancy.

Looking at the company website, it appears that was about the time that Case Fischer developed the Roasted Raspberry Chipotle sauce, which in movie parlance, was a tiny little local biasness’s First Big Break. Roasted Raspberry Chipotle is magnificent, by the way, but at first it must have seemed to be one of the weirdest concoctions ever proposed. Smoked Mexican chipotle peppers … and runny raspberry jam? Together? Hoooo-kay… But it put Fischer & Wieser – and chipotle peppers on the map. (For my money, the best thing on grilled shrimp is the ginger-habanero sauce, though. After driving past Das Peach Haus every time we came in to Fredericksburg by the road from Comfort – we finally stopped and went inside, and realized that – oh, my, it is bigger than it looks! There are little patches of landscaped garden all around, shaded by a grove of pine trees. And there are resident cats, too – always a good indication of quality, no matter if the product is books, garden stuff … or gourmet foods.

But the peach orchard which was the genesis of the company has been around since the Wieser family bought the property in the 1920s, and their son Mark opened a roadside fruit stand in 1969. There are a lot of seasonal roadside fruit stands on the main roads leading to Fredericksburg, and the Peach Haus was just one of them. The family sold fresh peaches, of course, and home-made peach preserves. Mark Wieser also taught school – and one of his students often helped out at peach harvesting time. Case Fischer was so keen on the possibilities of a specialty-food, development, marketing and entrepreneurship, that he went off to college and studied all that … and when he came home to Fredericksburg, he teamed up with his old teacher, and set about innovating, creating and producing quality foods; sauces for meats and pastas, mustards, jams and preserves, pie filling, salad dressing and dips.

And instead of just keeping it a local thing, Fischer & Wieser went national. Within a couple of years, I didn’t have to make the long drive up to Fredericksburg for some Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce – it and other products were on the shelves at the local HEB – even my own local, which usually is a little light on the gourmet goods. Even better – they are available in military commissaries and on Amazon.com. Not bad for a tiny local enterprise which started as a roadside fruit stand. Yes, indeedy – they did build that business.

But look out for the Ghost Pepper BBQ sauce … more than a quarter of a teaspoon can be lethal. I think it’s made for people who think straight Tabasco is just too darned bland.

Texas Barbeque…The Food of the Gods

Texas BBQ

It’s just one of those things – Texas should be so large a state as to have not one, but several different regional variants in barbeque stylings. Yes, in less-blessed climes, barbeque is done by just throwing your choice of animal flesh on the grill on the back porch and allowing it to char slowly over the coals or (byte ones tongue) propane flame. I have even run across *shudder* recipes for marinated and grilled slabs of tofu.

Sorry – barbeque here means mainly beef, although pork, turkey, chicken, sausages, and even cabrito – or goat and mutton – makes an appearance in the borderland Hispanic variant of barbecoa. There is the east Texas variant; marinated beef cooked slowly over hickory wood until the meat falls from the bone and served with a thick, tomato-based sauce, the central Texas option; beef or other meats rubbed with spices and cooked slowly over pecan or oak wood, and the south Texas style which features cooking over mesquite – an acquired taste. South Texas style preference is for a thick sauce and moist meat. A great many of the old established independent barbeque places began as meat markets, where the butcher – in the days before deep-freeze refrigeration – thriftily began to smoke and slow-cook all those leftover or unsellable bits at the end of the day, providing them as ready-to-eat morsels the next day. Waste not, want not, as the saying goes.

Frankly, to me, it’s all good, no matter what variant and the selection of commercial sauces available at the local HEB will prove that we love it here, either D-I-Y or from the local maestro of the pit. In the main, people here have high standards when it comes to making barbeque themselves, and adamant concerning the virtues of all those places which provide it; from chains like Bill Miller with outlets everywhere, through enormous single-standing locations like the Kreus Market in Lockhart, and then there are tiny and often locally famous places – like the Riverside Meat Market in Boerne (cunningly disguised as a meat market in the back of a corner Shell gas station) – and even the peripatetic Smoke Shack, a food truck which is usually, but not always to be found just inside the 410 Loop at Nacogdoches, parked in what used to be a gas station. Aficionados will drive any number of miles to sample the glories of an independent barbeque outlet … and many other aficionados will also pay interestingly substantial amounts for grills and smokers of every description, although I will note that to the hard-core, propane is frowned upon. It’s all in the wood and cooking it long and slow, in the flavored smoke. For a while, I had one of those inexpensive barrel-shaped cylindrical smoker-griller things, which did an amazing job for the price – save that I had to cook a huge lot at a time, which was only cost-effective if I was expecting to feed a small army on hickory-smoked chicken.

These days, I have to cheat, with my daughter’s propane grill from Lowe’s – which does the job – and I suspect that if I tinkered with it a bit, and figured out a way to put in a pan of soggy wood-chips and keep the heat really, really low – I might have some decently-flavored barbeque.

A couple of years ago, we had a celebration supper at our place, using a recipe for chicken, from the Barefoot Contessa cookbook. The sauce is sublime and hereby passed on.

Sauté until translucent in ½ cup oil: 1 ½ cups chopped onions and 1 Tbsp minced garlic. Add: 1 cup tomato paste, 1 cup cider vinegar, 1 cup honey, ½ cup Worcestershire sauce, 1 cup Dijon mustard, ½ cup soy sauce, 1 cup Hoisin sauce, 2 Tbsp chili powder, 1 Tbsp ground cumin, and ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes. Simmer uncovered, over low heat for half an hour.

Cut up 2 2½ -3 lb chickens, and marinate them overnight in 2/3rds of the sauce. Roast them over low heat for about 45 minutes, basting them with marinade. Serve with the reserved sauce on the side.

Texas Transportation Museum

The Steel Rails of Yore

by Celia Hayes

I have to admit that I have been driving past the Texas Transportation Museum ever since I moved to this city (ulp) nearly twenty years ago and discovered that Wetmore Road was an especially speedy means of getting from my home in the north-east quadrant to the area around the airport. I was just not sufficiently motivated to stop in and check it out – which since it is only open on Friday and weekends, and I was usually driving past during the week … well, I had no particular reason to visit until this weekend. I am currently scribbling the first draft of another historical novel set in Texas, this one in 1876-78, and with a large portion of it set in San Antonio. Those years were significant, for a couple of different reasons.

The United States celebrated the Centennial in 1876 – a whole hundred years as a nation, which at times had seemed like being a pretty close-run thing. The long and brutal Indian wars with the Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Apache had been briskly wrapped up, making large tracts of western land safe for settlement, the Civil War was eleven years in the past, although it would not be forgotten – and most importantly for San Antonio; it was finally connected to a railroad – the last large city of any size, east or west, to do so.

This led to a local boom in business and in transport, much of which is documented on the Transportation Museum website. In the bare space of those years, a bustling new neighborhood grew up around San Antonio’s first rail terminal, somewhat to the north of then-downtown. It was known as the Levee, for the way in which the tracks had to be laid on a strip of artificially built-up ground – just about where IH-35 cuts through Milam and Sherman Streets. The original terminal building is so long-gone that only a couple of pictures exist of it, as it was. But the railroad depot was also the impetus for a mule-drawn streetcar system, and very soon those streetcar lines formed a network … and the sleepy adobe-built frontier village was subsumed.

There are two birds-eye city maps of San Antonio, the first from the early 1870s, in which San Antonio is mostly green space and wide tan avenues surrounding a thicker cluster of buildings around Commerce, the twin plazas and Soledad, all tangled about with the blue-green ribbon of the river. In the second, from the 1880s, the railroad has arrived; the network of streets, all tightly packed with businesses and houses has spread and spread again, reaching nearly to the parade ground and the Quadrangle at Fort Sam. And it was the railroad arriving, which made all that difference.

The Transportation Museum documents much of that on their website – almost more thoroughly than in their current displays. The museum is entirely run by unpaid volunteers, and I would guess on a shoe-string budget. There are some neat old rail cars on display in the open air – gosh, that was the way to travel, back in the day, in a Pullman car, with nice little beds that pulled out, or down for the night, and with a restroom-lounge where one could change…There is also a large barn with more historical cars and carriages on display, as well as a huge model railway set-up. It’s all very much a work in progress, and candidly not a threat to the California Railway Museum in Sacramento … but then, California has other problems of its’ own. Still, it’s a great place for an hour or so, especially for kids, who would never have seen rail travel, save for in the movies.

IH35 Road Trip Part 1

IH-35 Road Trip Part 1

Find your new home on our San Antonio MLS Home Search

by Celia Hayes

Having a book event last Saturday in Belton – a very pleasant and prosperous town overtaken and reduced to mere suburb status by the mighty municipalities of Fort Worth on one side and Dallas on the other. Not having more than a day available to spend on this excursion, and depending on the takings from sales of books at it for any extraneous adventures, we did not take any scenic and exciting backcountry routes to and from. Instead, we took the simple and uncomplicated road – IH-35, at a consistent 60 to 70 MPH, except for twenty minutes on the return journey, stuck in Austin traffic at a slow crawl. How they can manage a total stand-still on a Saturday evening is beyond me; it must be some kind of special Austin gift.

But that simple, straight-forward jaunt took us right by a number of curious attractions conveniently located right off the highway, beginning with a stop at Buc-ees in New Braunfels. At an early hour on a Saturday, the joint does not precisely jump – but as a stop for gas, sandwiches, coffee and a visit to the princely and beautifully clean bathrooms – the place has no equal in Texas or the world. Believe me; I have experienced some of the vilest public bathrooms in Europe and Japan. In Europe, they built cathedrals – in North America, the finest bathrooms since Rome. At Buc-ees, the food is pricy, but excellent, and how many other choices do you have at 5 in the morning off the interstate, anyway?

The next curiosity going north would be just south of San Marcos at the San Marcos Retail Outlets. We used to spend a lot of money there; and it seems that a lot of other shoppers have done so too, — for they have expanded hugely. The outlet mall around Centerpoint/exit 200 is practically a tourist attraction in itself, although I don’t think the Venetian gondolas get all that much use.

Austin – oh, what can one say about Austin: It used to be a series of scattered farms and blockhouses, among the hills and woods by the upper Colorado River, until Mirabeau Lamar killed a buffalo near Congress and 8th street, and decided that henceforward, Austin would be the capital city of an independent Texas. And so it did – these days Austin is distinguished by a vibrant music and intellectual scene, astonishingly clogged traffic on the IH-35 even on weekends, a view of the capital building from the highway, and an incredibly large assortment of hotels along the stretch of IH-35 between Austin and Georgetown. Every hotel chain in America must have three or four outlets along that single stretch.

So does another commercial establishment; a single Ikea store. There it is, on the outskirts of Round Rock, a monument to spare modern Scandinavian design and flat-pack furniture, marooned in the middle of a country where elevated taste often runs to chairs contrived out of cattle horns and upholstered in cowhide with the fur on.

On northwards – to Waco, home to Dr Pepper, Baylor University and … most impressively to a lover of Texas history; the home of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, which is right off the I-35. It is so close that I would have squeezed in a brief and flying visit … if we had not been going past at 6:45 in the mornings, a tight schedule and a serious need to be in Belton by 9:30 at the very latest.

(But there were so many interesting places glimpsed as we flew past, so many bill-boards for places … another time, when time is not so pressing upon us. The rest of this journey is continued next week…)

Authentic Foods from Spain

More Flavors of Spain

by Celia Hayes

My mother just sent us a basket of gourmet foods from Spain as a Christmas present for us again, since last year’s basket from La Tienda was such a big hit. We loved living in Spain, loved the food, adored grazing from the little plates – the tapas – invitingly set out at bars, loved the fact that a ‘bar’ in Spain was usually not just a seamy joint serving spirituous liquors to an assortment of skeevey low-lives. A bar in Spain was much more likely to be a kind of café, coffee shop and neighborhood club-house, the place housing the pay phones, ATMs, video game machines, and clean bathrooms … and oh, yes – serving snacks and alcoholic drinks of every possible description. It also mildly freaked out many Americans upon discovering that many gas stations on the highway – or autopista – also had very well-stocked bars. Make of that what you will.

Mom’s Christmas basket again revived memories of some wonderful food, although it did not, for instance, include any jamon Serrano – that dried, cured ham which was available practically anywhere, and was a component of so many dishes. It was a rare rustic restaurant which didn’t have a couple of whole curing jamons hanging from the ceiling beams, and a rare bar that didn’t have one on hand for making the little tapas snacks from, with half the flesh shaved away in tissue-paper thin slices. The Spanish equivalent of Costco or Sam’s Club had them for sale in a special section … which it must be admitted, always smelt faintly of cheesy gym socks.
But there was one dish made with jamon Serrano which I loved, and only had once, in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate having followed the old pilgrim road from the Rioja to Asturias – and that was a dish of baby artichokes cooked with jamon. I went looking for recipes for it, and found one which calls for one lemon cut in half, 1 and ¾ pounds tiny baby artichokes – the ones barely the size of a small egg, before the chokes inside have gotten coarse and inedible, ¼ cup of olive oil, 3 Tbsp minced fresh parsley, 8 thin slices of jamon, also chopped, and salt and pepper.

Fill a large pan with cold water, and squeeze the lemons into it, adding the squeezed lemon halves. Trim the inedible stalk and tough outer leaves from each artichoke, and cut each in half, putting them into the lemon-water immediately; this will prevent them from turning brown. When finished processing the artichokes, put the pan on the stove, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, until the artichokes are tender. Drain, discarding water and lemon halves. Pat the artichokes dry. Heat the oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the artichokes in a single layer. Arrange the artichokes cut-side-down and fry for 5 minutes. Turn them over and fry the other side for two minutes, then add the jamon Serrano and fry for another four minutes, until the jamon is crispy. Place in a serving dish and top with the parsley and ground pepper. Oh, if it were only the season now for baby artichokes, and if Mom’s gift basked had only included jamon Serrano – I would definitely fix this for our Christmas Eve tapas supper!

Ye Kendall Inn

Boerne – Ye Kendall Inn

by Celia Hayes

So, we were off to Boerne again last Friday, rejoicing in the rain that had fallen the night before – this time so that I could do a talk on the Civil War in the Hill Country for a local chapter of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Quite a few of the members are transplanted Texans, courtesy of military service – so the series of events in the years 1860-65 in the Hill Country were new to them and interesting.

To me, the nice part of the meeting was that it took place at Ye Kendall Inn, in the modern-but-decorated-to- look-old Halle – the conference center, which is just one of the ramble of buildings – many of them historic and fascinating in themselves – in back of the pillared and porticoed main building. The Kendall Inn has been in the hospitality business since the earliest days of settlements in the Hill Country. It owes much to a convenient location; on a low eminence overlooking a particularly scenic bend of Cibolo Creek, right on Boerne’s pecan-tree lined central square, where a local market is held on the second Saturday of every month.

The oldest part of the Inn began as a private residence – a mansion, really – built by a family named Reed, in the 1850s. It was built of native stone, with walls twenty inches thick, and in the traditional Southern Colonial style, with a wide porch all across the front, and a long gallery on the second floor. The Reeds and other neighbors were in the habit of renting spare bedrooms to travelers and visitors, since there was no other accommodation for them. Some years after the Civil War, what became the structure was purchased by one Colonel Henry King, who served in the Texas state legislature, while his wife ran the Inn.

By then, Boerne was one of the places where local cattle ranchers assembled large herds for the long trek north to the rail-served stockyards in Kansas. After the Kings tenure, the original building was sold again, to a pair of hoteliers from Dallas, who renamed it the Boerne Hotel, and expanded the building, adding a pair of galleried wings on either side. They hoped to cater to those who came to restore their health in the mild climate of the Hill Country, and to wealthy San Antonio residents who came to escape the dreadful summer heat in those days before air conditioning. One of the biggest local boosters was a pair of doctors; William Kingsbury and Ferdinand Herff, who lauded the efficacy of the local hot springs and the clear air.

Before the San Antonio & Aransas Pass railroad line reached Boerne in 1887, those visitors arrived on the stage – which stopped at the hotel, after a seven-hour journey from San Antonio. For the remainder of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, Boerne was a mecca for those wanting to recover their health, or just to spend a lively and fashionable summer in the Hills. For all of that time, the Kendall Inn was one of the main centers of social activity. Now, having become one of what my daughter calls ‘a bedroom slipper of San Antonio’ the Kendall Inn is still a destination, with a wine shop, a very fine restaurant and grill, a spa … and of course, it is still a hotel.

The Cibolo Creek Flows Through Boerne

A River Flows Through It

Click photos to enlarge

 

As the Riverwalk of San Antonio is such an ornament to the city and such a popular tourist attraction (only second after the Alamo) that one of the nicknames for our fair town is ‘The River City’ you’d think that any municipal organization possessing the necessary attribute – a permanent body of water deeper than a puddle in, or flowing through downtown – would have been been seen as a gift and an opportunity to do something like it. Maybe not cheek by cheek eateries and boutiques – but at least a pleasant string park, paralleling the river bank can this be created, for the benefit of the residents, the enriching of those retail establishments lucky to overlook it, and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of visitors to such a blessed community.

And so has the community of Boerne done, for a number of blocks paralleling River Road, on either side of Main Street. There is a generous paved trail, some added landscaping and stone work, paralleling the northern bank of Cibolo Creek as it runs through town. It seems that back in the day, Cibolo Creek was just as prone to overflow its banks and flood out parts of Boerne – just as the San Antonio River did, although on a much grander scale. We had noticed the new construction being done on the park, once we discovered Route 46/River Road; the back way between San Antonio and Boerne. So, last weekend we took advantage of slightly cooler temperatures to make a return trip to Boerne, as my daughter had her eye on certain items at the Squirrel’s Nest Resale Shop. The Squirrel’s Nest benefits Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation – an organization that everyone in this part of Texas ought to know about and support, since they are the go-to people when you find an injured, distressed and otherwise out-of-place wild animal or bird.

We had lunch at the Bear Moon Café – which was quite good; everything is made in-house and the servings are generous. Then we walked around a bit, and checked out some of the shops. This was not so much for what was in them, a lot of which was terribly high-end and pricy, but rather to look at the buildings themselves, many of which are historic old houses and business premises, and enormously charming in that respect. They were built for Texas, in the days before air conditioning, and some of them even before electrification: small rooms which opened into other rooms, or a central hall, with high ceilings, and tall windows. Usually there was a wide, shaded porch across the front, and if two-storied, those rooms on the upper floor also opened onto a verandah..

The Riverside Park already seems to be popular; we saw one family eating a picnic lunch, and a number of others settled in with fishing gear, sending their hooks into the lazy green water. The ducks and geese had all sought out shady places, on the opposite bank, though. The only other water critters we saw were turtles; and we didn’t realize at first that they were turtles. I thought their heads sticking up above the surface were just lengths of broken branch, until the heads vanished below the water, and there was a soup-bowl sized turtle, just dimly seen, diving down into deeper water.

All in all, a lovely afternoon in the Hill Country. That was my Saturday – and yours?