Adventures in the Texas Hill Country

The Hill Country, that tract of rolling, lightly wooded hills north of San Antonio has always been South Texas' Lake District, our Berkshires, our Mackinac Island, or Yosemite; a cool, green refuge in the summer, a well-watered orchard oasis in the dusty barrens of the Southwest.. Rivers run through it--- the Guadalupe, the Pedernales--- and it is dotted with edibly charming small towns, like Wimberley, Johnson City, Kerrville, Comfort and Fredericksburg. Visitors like my mother often say it reminds them of rural Pennsylvania, a resemblance strengthened by the coincidence that large tracts of the Hill Country were settled in the mid 19th century by German immigrants, who built sturdy, two-storey houses out of native limestone blocks, houses adorned with deep windows and generous porches and galleries. Myself, I think it's more like Provence, that lovely, scenic and hilly bit of southern France, from which comes all sorts of good things to eat.

There have always been artists, and eccentrics, and hobby farmers - and while the Hill Country may not superficially look all that much like Provence,  the underlying geographic bones are similar, the climate is (at a squint) similar and the very same kind of things Provence is famous for (at least in popular imagination) are emerging from the Hill Country, even if we still have to catch up on the art. Alas, Vincent Van Gogh was a one-off.  But artisans, wine-makers, brewers and perfumers are catch up, everywhere else. All within an hours drive of San Antonio.

Starting with wine - and some very good wine at that, for all of that, at the Fredericksburg Winery. Even their labels are works of art - literally, and they are right on Main Street. More good Texas wine?  Try the Becker Vineyards, whose annual "Grape Stomp is coming up this weekend and next. Seriously, Texas wine is getting better and better all the time, and besides, it can be a heck of a lot of fun - prove it to yourself this weekend at the Grape Stomp, and even dress up like Lucy and the Italian women to stomp grapes. Seriously, how can you go wrong for an event whose motto is "Stomp me, crush me, make me wine?" But if you don't want to drive a long way, check out your local HEB grocery. Most of them will have a section for the local output - you don't necessarily have to go all the way to Fredericksburg.


More Provence food goodies? What about goat cheese, made from the real milk of real goats?   Try the Pure Luck Farm and Dairy, in Dripping Springs, the home of real, farmstead cheese. Well, all those hobby farmers, trying to find a useful outlet for what started as a herd of pets had to come up with something to do with all the milk. The Pure Luck Farm is not offering any more tours this year, but the cheese can be savored everywhere.

Olive oil, the gift of the Goddess Athena to the Greeks in ancient time, the staff of life and good cooking, all around Southern Europe and the Mediterranean? Got that at the Bella Vista Ranch - although they seem to have Tuscany in mind, not Provence.  It may take a bit, the odd couple of hundred years or so, but our descendents will have the benefits of acres of nicely gnarled, bearing olive trees - scenic and health-wise.

Lavender and perfume? Got it. Becker Vineyards also does lavender, but personally I love the scent of a perfume called St. Fiacre, made by The Fredericksburg Herb Farm;  it's in my perfume wardrobe, right next to the Chanel Number 5. They have a vast garden, plants for sale, a shop full of ornaments and goodies, a spa and even a little restaurant, and now they are getting ready to offer Bed and Breakfast accommodations.

If you don't care for wine, and all that and much prefer beer, don't pass up on the Fredericksburg Brewing Company - likewise on Main Street, which also offers all the good food to go with the beer. Including the desserts, which are perfectly splendid, but very rich; best split them between two diners, or get them to take away.

And finally, in the spring, in April and May the hillside pastures and highway verges are splashed with great vibrant sweeps of color--- red and gold Mexican Hat, pink primroses, and the deep, unearthly indigo of bluebonnets, acre after acre of them. Wildflower meadows are an ongoing enthusiasm in Texas, more notable here than any other Western state I have ever traveled in. A visit to Wildseed Farms may start you off on building your own wildflower meadow next spring - after all we are coming up on planting time.

Now, if we could only get Red McCombs, and a couple of other local millionaires to build some fortified villages and artistically ruinous castles on some strategic hilltops - the Texas Hill Country might really have a chance at being "The New Provence"