BIKING through undulating countryside, walking in the footsteps of iconic artists, picnicking in the shadow of gothic cathedrals, sampling wine from the barrel with the vintner, learning to prepare risotto from a famed chef – in previous summers I have enjoyed these adventures visiting Provence, the Cotswolds, Tuscany and Bavaria. Last summer, I did all this and more within a little more than an hour’s drive from Princeton.
To showcase this magnificent region, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation hosted a three-day “adult camp,” starting in the city and venturing out to Valley Forge and the Brandywine Valley. We stayed in charming inns with marble bathrooms, and not just a chocolate was placed on the pillow when the covers were tucked down, but an entire plate of chocolate-covered strawberries! In this magical land, I found wild raspberries, blueberries and passion fruit, taunting me, although unlike Tantalus, I could reach these delights and eat them to my heart’s content.
What better way to begin a summer vacation than aboard an historic boat moored in the Delaware, from where we could see the Ben Franklin Bridge and the sun setting over spires on the Philadelphia skyline. The Moshulu, first launched in 1904, is the largest four-mast sailing ship still afloat, and since 1974 has operated as a restaurant on Penn’s Landing. Despite its attraction to tourists, the floating restaurant offers fine food, from “Moshulu Mojitos,” tuna tartare and wild mushroom ravioli to salmon served in a Thai basil bouillabaisse.
After dinner, we took a sky tour with Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, atop the Fels Planetarium. There was a line to get a peek at Saturn and its ring, but the cityscape and kids excitedly pointing to the stars was the best view.
We enjoyed a restful night at the Penn’s View Hotel, a 52-room European-style hotel in Old City in a building that once served as a hardware store. Today, its murals of Italy blend with the many murals in Philadelphia, and convey the background of Lucca Sena, the Italian-born restaurateur who operates Ristorante Panorama within the hotel. En route to Valley Forge the next day, we were reminded of the importance arts play in Philadelphia, where Moore College of Arts, University of the Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts – the first art school in the nation – continue to mold artists. The city’s Mural Arts Program is celebrating its 25th anniversary – it boasts more than 3,000 murals, according to Donna Schorr, communications director for GPTMC: “1 percent of the total cost of new building goes to public art,” she says.
In Valley Forge, site of George Washington’s winter encampment of 1777-1778, we met up with Bailey Fucanan of Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau who took us on a six-mile bike ride through the park’s 3,600 acres. “History Loves Company” is the park’s motto, and a costumed interpreter took us to see the re-created huts of Gen. Peter Muhlenberg’s Brigade. Valley Forge is thus named because of the iron forge built along the Valley Creek in the 1740s. A sawmill and gristmill made it a supply base for Americans during the Revolutionary War, until the British destroyed the forge and mills. Although no battles were fought here, many soldiers died from hunger, disease and weather.
Along the way are Storytelling Benches, where trained tellers convey such tales as that of Gen. Friedrich Von Steuben who came to this country speaking no English, yet managed to train the Continental Army. The American Army was transformed from a rag-tag band of soldiers to a force that ultimately won the war.
We were excited to learn about additional biking trails to try, such as the 30-mile Schuylkill River Train that goes all the way to Boat House Row in Philadelphia, or connects to the 19-mile Perkiomen Trail to reach other historic sites, such as the home of John James Audubon. The park itself has 28 miles of trails for hikers, bikes and horses, traversing topography that is the same as it was more than two centuries ago.
The park has the largest tall grass meadow in Pennsylvania, habitat to 250 avian species. An overabundance of whitetail deer – seen resting around every corner – is being managed by wildlife experts in order to restore native plant communities that, in turn, feed native wildlife.
After we returned our bikes to the rental trailer, we walked to Washington Memorial Chapel, built as a tribute to the first president and the American Patriots of the Revolution. Although constructed in the 20th century, it is a gothic style with an English-style organ and stained glass windows depicting Washington’s life.
The Cabin Shop is owned and operated by the chapel to support the work of the church, and here we bought sandwiches for our picnic lunch in the shade. As souvenirs, we got “blubarb” jam and other preserves made by the chapel volunteers.
The afternoon was spent relaxing at Normandy Farm Hotel in Blue Bell, Pa. The pool was indoors, but a mural of the farm and countryside as it may have looked 150 years ago allows a swimmer to imagine being outdoors. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Normandy Farm began in 1730, and over the course of its history was a tavern, residence to the owner of the Philadelphia Record, and later was given as a wedding gift to the heir of the Singer Sewing Machine company. The couple honeymooned in Normandy, France, and thus named the farm. And, yes, George Washington slept here too. Its two-story banked barn is said to be one of the largest in the county.
After extensive renovation, Normandy Farm was turned into an inn in 2000, and as a WHYY-FM listener, I know of it as the site of Coleman Restaurant, where celebrity chef Jim Coleman, who hosts A Chef’s Table Saturdays at noon, presides over the kitchen. Mr. Coleman demonstrated his recipe for porcini-dusted sea scallops and risotto with wild mushrooms and radicchio. Never ruin good food with ordinary table salt, he admonished, and never sear meat just out of the fridge – let it come to room temperature.
Unlike on his radio show, where he interviews other food experts, in person the gracious chef talks non-stop in a giant run-on sentence. “They asked me to say a few words,” he says. “I can’t just say a few words, I have to say a lot of words.”
Later, we dined in Mr. Coleman’s restaurant, where he periodically came to check up on us. The dinner included a chipotle glazed baby quail breast served in a yellow corn jus, a trio of cold sake soups (tomato fennel, taro root coconut and English pea) and, as entrée, the pan-seared scallops with a butternut squash risotto enhanced with garlic nage.
The following day we toured historic West Chester, Pa., the county seat, a charming town that has seen a revival in the past five years with trendy restaurants and shops. We picked up gourmet takeout lunch at Carlino’s Market and brought it to the Kreutz Creek Vineyards Tasting Room, where BYO means bring your own food. After sampling the wines – and purchasing a bottle of the chocolate-cherry tasting port – we ventured out for a walk to A Taste of Olive, a specialty store that offers tastings of its olive oil and balsamic vinegars.
One taste of the Sicilian Lemon Balsamic Vinegar and I was stocking up on it for friends. When the owner offered me a taste of the espresso balsamic drizzle on fresh fig, I was hooked. From there, our hedonistic adventure took us to Eclat Chocolate, where master chocolatier Christopher Curtin, the first American to be awarded the honor of German Master Pastry Chef and Chocolatier in Cologne, Germany, told us how he uses artisan techniques he learned in Belgium, Switzerland, France, Germany and Japan, using only the finest ingredients. Tasting his heavenly truffles, we could not walk away without filling our shopping bags.
Drunk and in love, we stopped to rest at the Lincoln Room, a tea house in the basement of a federal-style building used to print the Chester County Times in the mid-19th century. The paper published Abraham Lincoln’s biographical sketch, which helped him win the presidency. Brewed loose-leaf teas served in pots included a Mutan White, Ali San Oolong and a blend of chamomile, rosebud, cornflower and orange peel. What more pleasing way to recover from an overdose of fine chocolate? Wickedly good tea sandwiches and pastries were offered, but I had to pass. The building still has the original tin ceiling and beadboard wainscot.
From there we escaped to the countryside of the Brandywine Valley, and after checking in to the Brandywine River Hotel ventured out to the 17th-century barn at the Chaddsford Winery where owners Eric and Lee Miller gave a tour of the barrel-aging cellars. “You’re from Princeton?” asked Mr. Miller. “I’ve enjoyed eating at Eno Terra (in Kingston).” Mr. Miller lived in Burgundy in 1964. “That was a good vintage,” says the wine-obsessed Mr. Miller of his boyhood, who admits to being a vintner because it’s a way of supporting his wine-collecting habit. “My father was an artist, and could work wherever he could set up his easel.” The elder Mr. Miller took his family to the Loire Valley and, by his son’s account, left the kids in a pensione while he took off with his wife. “We had wine with lunch every day,” he recollects.
The family returned to the U.S. and established a winery in upstate New York. When Mr. Miller grew up and went into the business with his father, he decided to start his own winery in Chadds Ford where the conditions were better for growing Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Barbera, Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah – although last year’s crop was lost to a freak hailstorm.
The soils in the Brandywine Valley were washed down from the Appalachian and are very complex, explains Mr. Miller, who is self-taught. Starting the winery in 1982, Mr. Miller’s philosophy is, Great wines are grown, not made. And he knows of what he speaks – magazines from Gourmet, Food & Wine and Wine Enthusiast, as well as The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, have given high praise to these wines. After the Millers established Chaddsford Winery, seven additional wineries formed and are now part of the Chaddsford Wine Trail.
We sampled a light fresh-tasting spring wine with a slight effervescence as the owners explained to us that spring wine’s fermentation is stopped by the cold, so it is slightly sweet and fruity, and should be drunk that season.
Barrel aging, on the other hand, is like making a great sauce, he says, comparing the time in the oak barrel to braising bones for stock. “It makes for earthy and complex wines,” he says.
Using a long thin glass tube with a bulb at one end, called a voleur (French for thief), he tapped a barrel and allowed us a sample of a cabernet. Mr. Miller demonstrated how we should suck in oxygen while tasting to appreciate the cherry and anise flavor. Because the tannins were not yet developed, it had a smoothish taste, tinged by the vanilla from the oak.
Later, we went upstairs to the tasting room to sample the fully developed cabernet.
After another hedonistic candlelit dinner at the Dilworthtown Inn, established in 1758 – ginger crisp lobster in a Thai apricot sauce, soup from Kennett Square mushrooms – we rested up, then the following morning I awoke in dire need of some exercise and went for a walk.
I realized, here we were in Andrew Wyeth’s country, and at least this trip, wouldn’t have a chance to visit the Brandywine River Museum, known for its unparalleled collection of works by three generations of Wyeths.
On my walk, I discovered the 1725 stone home of ferryman and farmer John Chads, for whom Chadds Ford was named. Just across the street was the Chadds Ford Historical Society, where an outdoor exhibit of birdhouses inspired by the houses in Andrew Wyeth’s paintings was on view, including the house in “Christina’s World.” As I walked along the road, ripe red raspberries presented themselves in abundance, a pre-breakfast snack. I also saw blueberry and passionflower vines, promising more fruit if I returned.
If You Go: The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. Web site offers complete information on the region: www.gophila.com. Valley Forge Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.valleyforge.org. Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau: www.brandywinevalley.com : Moshulu: www.moshulu.com; Coleman Restaurant: www.normandyfarm.com; Carlino’s Market: www.carlinosmarket.com; Lincoln Room: www.lincolnroomwestchester.com; Dilworthtown Inn: www.dilworthtowninn.com; Simon Pearce on the Brandywine: www.simonpearce.com : Penn’s View Hotel: www.pennsviewhotel.com; Normandy Farm Hotel: www.normandyfarm.com; Brandywine River Hotel: www.brandywineriverhotel.com : Brandywine Valley Wine Trail: www.bvwinetrail.com; Chaddsford Winery: www.chaddsford.com; Kreutz Creek Vineyards: www.kreutzcreekvineyards.com