Today Cooksister is delighted to welcome guest blogger Ella Buchan, a freelance travel writer with 12 years of experience. Based between London and Paso Robles, California, she can usually be found seeking out local dining spots and/or drinking wine with llamas. Or at least that is what she was doing on her latest adventure which saw her drive the entire length of US Route 1, the epic Interstate freeway that serves the east coast of the USA and stretches an amazing 3,813km from Fort Kent, aine on the US/Canada border to Key West, Florida. Today we are catching up with Ella in North Carolina, a state probably best known as the place from where the Wright brothers took off on their first successful flight. Ela finds out there is a lot more besides aviation history to like about this state as she undertakes an edible journey through North Carolina.
I can’t think of anywhere more alluring than a vineyard. Not just because there tends to be wine on tap (or barrel). What other crops are more aesthetically pleasing than grapevines? From a distance they comb the landscape in perfect symmetry, like hair braided in cornrows but much prettier. Up close, the vines twist and dance like acrobats frozen mid-performance, clusters of teeny grapes a promise of what’s to come. In autumn, the green leaves deepen to maroon and ochre, a preview of how the wine might look in a glass. Because, yes, there is the wine too.
JW and Kristen Ray, owners of JOLO Winery & Vineyards in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, clearly agree. When JW ran a software company in Florida, the couple visited vineyards on every holiday, daydreaming of planting acres of pinot noir. It didn’t quite work out as they hoped – neighbouring vineyard owners warned against growing that particular grape, which can rot on the vine due to the humidity. Apart from that tiny detail, they have it all sussed out. They named the place after their sons, Joey and Logan, planting immaculate rows of vines and transforming a ramshackle family home into a sparkling tasting room and a restaurant, End Posts. Since buying the land in 2012, self-taught winemaker JW has won a glut of gold and silver medals.
But this isn’t California, and the challenges for growers are various. Humidity, wild deer, rain – “We get more rain in a day than California gets in a year,” says JW. While other producers have lost swathes of crops to the weather, sticking to French-American hybrids that can withstand these conditions has saved JW’s harvest. His consolation for abandoning pinot noir is the wonderful Crimson Creek, made with chambourcin, a grape often grown in the Loire Valley. The wine’s earthiness is balanced with herbs and that mushroomy taste pinot fans will recognise.
I sipped the wines on the sunny terrace, rows of vines running towards Pilot Mountain, its rocky pinnacle peeping like a capped forehead from a thick forest coat. JW put together a platter of creamy cheeses, many from the Yadkin Valley, and whipped up a mushroom risotto with perfectly caramelised scallops. I sampled Pilot Fog, made with native grape cynthiana – known as the ‘forgotten grape’, neglected in the aftermath of Prohibition. The wine is jammy and chocolatey, velvety with subtle spices.
We jumped in a red pick-up and rattled down dirt paths, me still clutching my glass, to the family home nestled in the valley below. A sinewy, taupe-hued Weimaraner (or ‘wine-maraner’, the Rays joke) named Chief bounded out of the house and obligingly posed by the vines. He clearly loves it here, too. Armed with a bottle of Jolotage – an elegant red blend with complex flavours of forest fruits and wintry spices – I settled in for the night in the adorable ‘Newlywed Chateau’, a lilac cottage with plush bed and a back porch jutting into woodland.
There are around two-dozen wineries in the Yadkin Valley, mostly boutique – and unique. Take Divine Llama Vineyards, opened in 2009 by two architect colleagues and their wives. I was met by co-owner Patricia West, and shortly afterwards by a pack of llamas. They stared at me with curious eyes under thick, fluttery lashes, teeth like pebbles and coats resembling tangles of tatty rope. Patricia and husband Michael bought their first llama because their daughter wanted to be a vet and, after becoming ‘addicted’ to the camelids, now have around 60. I only had a short time there but made a few friends – including three-week-old Merlina – and tasted delicious wines including In a Heartbeat, a merlot/cabernet franc blend with notes of dark fruit and tobacco.
I departed for a different flavour of North Carolina. The Moravians – a devoutly religious group originally from eastern Germany – settled in the area now known as Winston-Salem in 1753. Their simple style of home cooking has left a delicious legacy, particularly in Old Salem, where original Moravian buildings and gardens are staffed by costumed guides. Miksch Gardens is planted with crops known to have grown at the time (salsify, beetroot or ‘blood turnip’, walking onions that replant themselves in cartwheels), while the kitchen experiments with old recipes. At The Tavern, annexed to the original drinking hole (they weren’t so devout, perhaps), I tried the classic chicken pie. Packed with white meat, moist with a basic broth-based gravy in a golden, flaky pastry crust, its beauty is in its simplicity.
The same is true of gossamer-thin Moravian cookies and sugar cakes, whose deep pockets allow the butter, sugar and cinnamon to infuse the yeast cake with classic, comforting flavours. It’s said Moravian men prized women with bigger thumbs, the better for creating deeper crannies in the cakes, meaning more gooey goodness. I arrived at Winkler Bakery just as Bobby James, who has baked here for 15 years, drew a batch of cakes from the oven. I bit into a chunk, still warm and buttery, slightly crisp with sugar. Producing the Moravian treats since around 1800, this is America’s oldest continuously-operating bakery.
The next morning I called at Mary’s Gourmet Diner, in Winston-Salem’s Downtown Arts District. With eclectic work by local artists, murals on the walls and warm Southern service, it feels charmingly old school. But owner Mary Haglund was ahead of her time when she opened her first cafe, 17 years ago. Farm to table wasn’t a ‘thing’ when she focused on local ingredients, seeking out producers to provide the perfect maize for her grits (like a porridge), asking local dairies to supply her milk. I ordered gritz ‘n’ greenz, with rich seasonal greens, feta and lightly-seasoned grits (just a little butter, salt and pepper) topped with a fried egg.
In downtown Raleigh, a 45-minute drive away, I sampled traditional Southern food at Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, run by James Beard award-winning chef Ashley Christensen. The signature fried chicken is succulent under the crunchy batter, sweet with honey. Throw in a hunk of the mac ‘n’ cheese custard and you have the ultimate comfort supper. It also helped soak up the craft brews at Raleigh Beer Garden, which has a staggering 378 beers on tap – holding the Guinness World Record. With 144 of those from North Carolina, owner Niall Hanley has created a homage to the state’s burgeoning craft beer scene. I loved Appalachian Mountain Boone Creek, a honey-infused blonde ale.
La Farm Bakery in Cary, just outside Raleigh, is a cosy cafe tucked away in a small shopping plaza. The expertise that goes into the bread comes from further afield, with master baker Lionel Vatinet bringing experience from France and incorporating North Carolina traditions into his loaves. Vatinet works with local suppliers to source cold-stone milled, organic, heirloom flours. Seasonal produce on the menu comes from the sprawling State Farmers Market.
One thing I definitely didn’t expect to discover in North Carolina – an English Village. Between cute Chapel Hill and university town Durham, Fearrington has a Relais & Châteaux inn with cottage-style suites, shops, cafes and residential properties set on a historic farm. The fields are grazed by Belted Galloway cows and fainting goats, so-named because they stiffen and play dead when frightened. This idyllic hideaway also boasts fabulous food at The Fearrington House Restaurant.
Overnight guests are treated to afternoon tea with tiers of delicate finger sandwiches, scones and monochrome ‘Beltie’ cakes, in honour of the cows. Executive chef Colin Bedford, from Yeovil in Somerset, changes the dinner menu seasonally, the only constant being a chocolate souffle served since 1983. Ingredients come from local farms and Fearrington’s gardens (and no, they don’t cook the farm animals). I had zingy scallop ceviche with twice-roasted tomatoes, exploding with intense, concentrated flavour. My main, a swanky surf ‘n’ turf, was rare strip loin with lobster tail.
Chef Bedford is a regular customer at nearby Allen & Son. The simple diner-style interior belies how seriously North Carolinians take their BBQ. As Ethan Stubbs, who works under the tutelage of his pit-master father Jimmy, explains, there are two distinct types – tomato-based Western or ‘Lexington’ style, and the Eastern style found here, which uses a vinegar and pepper based sauce. Choosing your preferred style is akin to supporting a football team, with fans fiercely loyal to their side. People travel from all over the US to feast on mountains of tender pulled pork, served on simple platters with hush puppies, coleslaw and beans.
The culinary highlights of North Carolina may be as varied as the landscape, but they do have one thing in common. Whether it’s a glass of ruby-red cabernet franc, a utilitarian chicken pie, a chocolate soufflé or a plate of BBQ pork, each taste leaves you hungry for more.
Several airlines, including British Airways and Iberia, fly direct from London to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. A week’s car hire with Hertz, picking up from and dropping off at the airport, costs from around £180.
JOLO Winery & Vineyard
219 JOLO Winery Lane
Tel. 855 565 6946
Historic Brookstown Inn
200 Brookstown Ave
Tel. 336 714 1009
The Umstead Hotel & Spa
100 Woodland Pond Drive
Tel. 919 447 4000
The Fearrington House Inn
2000 Fearrington Village Center
Tel. 919 542 2121
GETTING FED & WATERED
The Tavern in Old Salem (permanently closed)736 South Main Street
Tel. 336 722 1227
Mary’s Gourmet Diner
723 Trade Street
Tel. 336 723 7239
Beasley’s Chicken + Honey
237 South Wilmington Street
Tel. 919 322 0127
Raleigh Beer Garden
614 Glenwood Avenue
Tel. 919 324 3415
La Farm Bakery
Preston Corners Shopping Center
4248 NW Cary Parkway
Tel. 919 657 0657
Allen & Son
5650 US 15-501
Tel. 919 542 2294
GOOD TO KNOW
DISCLOSURE: Ella’s time in North Carolina was sponsored by Visit North Carolina as part of the #DriveUS1 campaign with Captivate, road-tripping all the way down US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida. All opinions are her own.