When the other half came up with the idea to do an overnight excursion to the Jersey Shore from New York, I struggled to get the idea of fake tans, bleached teeth, touristy boardwalks and a reality tv series out of my mind. Okay I know there’s probably a lot more to the Jersey Shore than eating hotdogs and riding roller coasters, but I had an idea of my own. Something that involved delving into a landscape filled with rolling green hills, farms, towns and Amish communities.
We’d already been to Philadelphia and got a very brief taste of what it has to offer, so it was back on the same train line from New York to Philly for this pair. Not all that far away is the city of Lancaster, a rather small city that so happens to be the country’s oldest inland city and home to the oldest Amish settlement in America.
Home for the night was the conveniently located Marriott at Penn Square, with lofty views over the city and just a minute from Central Market. But we weren’t there to lounge about a hotel room. Let’s hit the streets.
Ten to fifteen minutes walk away from the middle of town is the Lancaster Brewing Company. This micro brewer not only produces more than a dozen beers annually, but it abides by the historic German Reinheitsgebot law that mandates the use of just water, yeast, malt and hops. Folk can perch in the cosy bar and kick back with one of the crafted beers, or move on into the restaurant and sit beside the shiny vats whilst tucking into some good old American fare.
How about a beer braised bratwurst sandwich (8) with onions, mustard and chips? Not having a beer with this type of food would be criminal, right? Then there’s the house smoked pulled pork sandwich (8.5) overloaded with juicy meat, tangy bbq sauce, chips and coleslaw. With prices this low and servings this large, you sure need a big appetite at this joint.
There are many tours that visitors can do in an around Lancaster, but the best way to see the countryside is to have your own car and do it independently. Grab a map, focus on a region and get exploring. The information centre next to Central Market is a great place to start; with just about everything you need to choose for whatever activity you may be interested in.
One thing I wanted to see was a few of the covered bridges in Lancaster County, and thanks to a dedicated map we grabbed at the info centre, we knew where to go. Pennsylvania alone has almost 200 of them, 29 of which are in Lancaster County. So why are they covered? It was a way to extend the life of the timber truss bridges. They even have the nickname of “kissing bridges”, a place for young Amish couples to sneak one in without being seen.
Hunsecker’s Mill Bridge (above) is the longest in the county, crossing the Conestoga River with its 55 metre span. The current bridge is the replacement of one that was washed away in 1972; something that has happened several times since the original bridge was built in 1843.
Not all that far away is Zook’s Mill Bridge (below), spanning the Cocalico Creek at just 22 metres. This is still the original structure that was built in 1849; a survivor of rising flood waters.
About 10 km north of Lancaster is the small town of Lititz, somewhere that’s worth parking your car to explore and grab a bite to eat. The hamlet has all the offerings for tourists. Boutiques, galleries, cafe’s and antique shops. If that’s of no interest, then a walk along its tree-lined streets is a good way to see its beautiful old stone, log and brick buildings.
Heading back into Lancaster was a bit of a challenge as the traffic was ridiculously heavy. How could it be bumper-to-bumper in such a small city? We later learned that it was First Friday, a monthly event that invigorates and energises the city with a program of exhibitions, outdoor performances and a downtown that’s heaving with people soaking it all in.
Getting a table at a restaurant proved to be a challenge as almost everything was full. This place looked pretty good and had a few tables remaining. Pour is located along Lancaster’s Gallery Row and is a cool little spot to kick back with some vino and a few “social” plates and charcuterie boards.
Somehow we were forgotten about as we waited (and waited) at our sidewalk table, but management realised we were waiting far too long and gifted us with a complimentary bottle of French wine. Now that’s service! And much appreciated.
Elk tartar (12), anyone? It was things like this that made us gravitate to Pour. Two small mounds of finely diced elk rib eye, beautifully sweet charred corn, avocado, tomato and lime. It’s a dish that caused a bit of a head over heels moment, I tell you.
And then there’s the tasting of pork (18); some great hunks of smoked and braised belly, a caramelised pineapple risotto, baby squash and coconut cornbread. The pork belly is perfection and the pineapple risotto seemed to work, but it was the cornbread that caught me off-guard. This was my first encounter with American cornbread, something that’s more akin to highly sweetened cake than bread.
When something is called “tongue in cheek” (17) it’s a tad difficult to ignore. Tender slices of braised beef tongue join local tomatoes and baby carrots with parsnip purée and charred strawberries. Paper-thin slices of guanciale provide the cheek component; that beautifully fatty cured pork jowl that the Italians do so well. The rich braising reduction brought it all together nicely.
A free-standing ginger brûlée (7) comes at dessert time, served with strawberries, pineapple and a drizzle of sage-infused honey. All pretty good, despite the light-handed torching on the baked custard.
The chocolate pot de crème (7), also free-standing, has avocado incorporated through the custard. The avocado is only just noticeable, teaming well with crushed pistachio, a segment of orange, basil gel and thin slithers of dried red peppers.
Breakfast is always made easy if you’re staying at a hotel and there’s a buffet downstairs. We didn’t bother with that and instead hit the pavement in search of a breakfast venue.
Partners Julia Garber and Aussie-born Colin Morrell always dreamed of opening their own restaurant, and thanks to the partnership with her grandfather Frank Fox, Aussie and the Fox was born. An Australian feeling is evident in the menu, with a variety of sangers and an Aussie burger, barramundi and barbied prawns up for grabs at lunch or dinner time. As for breakfast, what we were there for, there’s a bunch of eggy offerings, plus pancakes and French toast.
Of the three French toast varieties, I asked for the chocolate with almonds & walnuts. Somehow I ended up being given the one stuffed with Nutella and almonds (8). At that point in time I couldn’t be bothered piping up and asking for what I had ordered, and struggled to get through the enormous portion of lightly pan-fried sandwich of chocolate and nuts. I swear there was about half a cup of Nutella in there. Way too much for this soul.
The coffee is pretty good here; with familiar sounding piccolo’s, flat whites, long black’s and short black’s for any homesick Australians. Adjacent to the restaurant is the Tucker Box, somewhere to grab a takeaway coffee or pastry. Love the name.
The main reason I wanted to see this part of Pennsylvania was to get a glimpse of the Amish. A community of people that turn their back on the way of life most of us have and depend on.
Lancaster County is a bit of a tourist hotspot for the Amish curious. Tours, buggy rides, quilt shops and fabricated shopping villages. Seeing the hoards of day-trippers stepping off buses was enough to turn us off, but I wanted to get past what people are offered in glossy travel brochures. Many of the “Amish lite”, as they’re referred to by locals, cash in on the tourist dollar and couldn’t care less if you lifted your camera and pointed it in their direction. This minority is possibly happier to see you pull your wallet out, as any business person would.
So where are the real Amish? The Old Order?
For a start, you won’t see them if you take an organised tour. Take your car and head off the main roads, and when you see an even smaller road, head down it. This is farming country. There’s corn, fruit and vegetables, even fields of tobacco, all grown and maintained by the Amish. By hand, by horse and by plough.
Road-side stalls can be seen all over the countryside. Pumpkins, dried corn, berries and apples; manned by a shy young Amish boy donning a big hat, or simply by an honesty box that you can leave your change in.
Many of the farms have their own shops, managed by family members that are quietly spoken, polite and very helpful. Rows of bright orange pumpkins at the Red Barn Farm Market caught my eye when we drove past in the car, so a quick u-turn and we were checking out what was on offer.
The usual fruit and veg, melons and fresh eggs plus baked goods, local honey, apple cider, maple and dairy products. A bottle of apple cider and one of the beautifully sweet apple dumplings came home with us. The dumplings are really nothing more than spiced and sweetened apple that’s baked in pastry. An apple pie, of sorts, that’s portioned for one. Loved that pastry! An adjacent building caught my attention with its plumes of bbq smoke. Ribs and chicken. Sadly none of it was ready yet.
Many tour buses drop people off at the small town of Intercourse, a place that can feel a little like Disneyland. We stumbled upon Kitchen Kettle Village, a strip of shops and restaurants geared towards folk that are there for a Lancaster/Amish experience without having to leave town for. Pony rides, candles, country crafts and Amish souvenirs. This pair couldn’t get out of there fast enough, but we did need to stop somewhere local for some lunch, and there isn’t much of a choice in Intercourse.
The Kling House Restaurant can be found in Kitchen Kettle Village. What was once a farmhouse that “nurtured three generations of Klings and Burnleys” is a bustling place to grab some simple, homely food and service with a smile. Inside, outside, they’ll squeeze you in wherever they can.
As a starting nibble, all guests get some crackers served with a cream cheese and Kitchen Kettle Village pepper jam. The “dip” caused a few excitable oohs and aahs at a neighbouring table, but we struggled with the excessive sweetness.
I could almost see the other half’s shoulders slump when his apple cheddar chicken salad (12.99) arrived. A plate of mixed leaves, slices of apple, cheese, walnuts and a clumsy ice cream scoop of shredded chicken mixed with mayo and tarragon. A plastic thimble of balsamic vinaigrette was there for a little more flavour.
I went for the macaroni & cheese (10.99), a decent serving of piping hot deliciousness topped with parmesan cheese. A leafy side salad comes with it, as well as a cup of highly sweetened “stewed tomatoes”.
Because I needed to end the experience with some more country goodies, I side-stepped the signature coconut cream pie and shoofly pie, and tried my hardest to get through the enormous wedge of Nutty Elsie’s pie (4.99). This thing was insane. Insanely sweet and insanely large. It’s like crossing a pecan pie with a warm and soft chocolate chip cookie. Interesting in theory, but in essence it was one big sugar rush.
The neighbouring township of Bird-in-Hand, 7 km west of Intercourse, is small in size and equally as popular with the visiting crowds. Many of its businesses have an Amish theme; from its bakery, to buggy rides and a place to grab another Amish doll to add to your collection.
Seeing the Farmers Market sign prompted us to battle the traffic and jostle amongst the throngs in some crafty and foodie excitement. Novelties and souvenirs, t-sirts, caps and bonnets, quilts, woven baskets and rocking chairs. It’s fun for all.
The food was more our scene. Vendors offering smoked meats and cheeses, fruit & veg, candy, sticky pastries, spices and burgers. It’s like a country fête under one roof. Pity we filled up at lunch time as there were many things I wanted to sample. But for this pair, it was time to head back to Lancaster, drop the car back at the depot, and train it back to Manhattan.