QUAINT & QUIRKY BUTLER COUNTY PA
Hemingway famously described Paris as a moveable feast. Well, as birthplace of the Jeep, Butler County not only practises field to fork eating, but how to be moveable too. The county is a quaint and quirky 800 square miles or so of villages and towns 30 to 40 minutes’ drive north of Pittsburgh.
Agritourism is the fancy description for visiting places that produce what we eat; I call it farming, food and fun. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but basically enjoying edibles is the name of the game. Together with a small group of foodies I munched my way across the county for a couple days of research this summer. I didn't even get close to savoring every eatery in the county, but here are my experiences.
Zelienople is not exactly a household word — unless you live there — but it is one cute borough, and appropriately houses the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau office. Tel 866.856.8444. The borough's self description: “A Modern Place with Old Fashioned Grace!”
The adjacent community chip of Harmony has a unique Mosaic tablets stone cemetery gate weighing more than one ton yet perfectly balanced to swing open effortlessly. It’s standing testament to the serious philosophy of life practised by early 19th century German Mennonite settlers who belonged to the Harmony Society.
The Harmonists, a Christian religious group, practised celibacy to achieve purity — a practice which, not surprisingly, led to their demise. In 1753 George Washington nearly met his own demise near here in an early skirmish of the French and Indian Wars. These days things are pretty quiet; a cannon ball shot down the main street would merely disturb the peace.
First up to bat was Double Wide Grill in Mars/Canberry. It's a vintage gas station (gulp, I'm dating myself; I remember them) turned design award restaurant. The first indication I wasn't dealing with reality was the price of gas on the old pumps flanking the entrance: 44 cents/gallon. The interior decor almost had me asking for an oil and lube instead of pancakes. But what really gave me double shocks was that my breakfast actually looked like the picture on the menu!
The main street, Harmony
Heather Sprague & owner Sherry Cepek at The Enchanted Olive where it's try before buying
Setting up for the day at The Exchange
After sauntering around Harmony we were off like a shot to see the retail store of Con Yeager Spice in Evans City. Rodney Shaffer met and showed us around while we nibbled.
The company processes venison, cures meats and sells spices — LOTS of spices. Business is brisk during deer hunting season.
Wine maker Gary Matson used to be an electrical engineer. "I hated my job real bad." He's much happier creating wines with grapes from the Lake Erie region for local customers at Rustic Acres Winery.
The Farm Kings currently air on the Great American Country cable TV network. We stopped by their local market store in Butler before heading off for Dinner in the Field, one of several summer and autumn Freedom Farm dinners. For the King family, it’s all about ‘sustainable living and eating local’.
It wasn't until the end of the day that we finally checked into our hotel, the Candlewood Suites, for a quiet night's rest.
As the dream child of owner Bill Atkinson, The Chop Shop takes a sharp right turn with ‘American fare’, serving up some unusual creations ranging from Hare Tacos to Backfire Chicken inside an open space with a home reno atmosphere. Eclectic might be too tame a word to describe the menu.
In past years Butler County was often referred to as “Buckwheat County” due to the prevalence of this grain in the region. Family-owned Zanella Milling continues a tradition by milling buckwheat in a great flourish of dust, lathes and noise inside a 117-year old wooden building beside the food store.
Unofficial greeter Sadie, a former stray, was adopted "after just showing up one day.”
(Top) Stacking bags of flour.
(Right) Matt Zanella
Rebellion Ciderworks (below) is a nice example of good things in small packages. It’s a single family business operating from a small renovated barn with a tasting room in Slippery Rock. By dint of passion, Derek Kellogg uses a traditional rack and cloth method to make artisanal English-style ciders. To insure quality, he’s also planted an orchard with English and French apple trees grafted from North American species. “What I was looking for was something I could control from beginning to end — that was me!”
The colonial tavern of North Country Brewing Company dates from 1805. Proudly rebuilt by current publicans Bob and Jodi McCafferty, it continues to brew craft beers and serve locally grown foods, including produce from neighbors plus Bob and Jodi’s own farm. Recycling everything and supporting local producers is their mantra. Sixty different preservative-free beers travel just a few feet further getting to your table than you will after enjoying them.
We stopped by the Jennings Environmental Education Center, a state park, for some background on the wild edibles that are trending in the restaurant business.
Ranger Miranda Crotsley described the underlying purpose of the Center as promoting good stewardship of the land. This includes eating invasive plants, for which the Center offers a recipe booklet. But most plants are friendly, and some are even wannabe cling ons.
The Snowman website relates the meandering trail this 13-foot fiberglass structure took before finding a home in Portersville. It’s a wonder it didn’t melt on the way. Maybe the interior air conditioning saved it.
Owner Brian Lachance and son Luc were serving up snow cones the afternoon we arrived. Ice cream, smoothies, slush and 21 flavors of shaved ice sweetened with natural cane sugar syrup had drivers slipping off the road in a steady stream — and it wasn't even a hot day!
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© 2014 by Gary Crallé
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