Interview By Lisa Fain
Photography by Sandy Wilson
Texans have long known that the Hill Country is a gorgeous and fertile place—home to some of the best peaches, pecans, barbecue, cheeses and wines found in the state. And if you’re looking to explore the vast richness of the region, there’s no better guide than Terry Thompson-Anderson’s new book, The Hill Country: A Wine and Food Lover’s Paradise. Edible Austin recently chatted with Terry about her book, which is part cookbook, part travel guide—a tome that will be equally at home in the glove compartment as in the kitchen.
Edible Austin: Was your book as much fun to write as it was to read?
Terry Thompson-Anderson: We had so much fun and met such fascinating people. The Hill Country is a magnet for lively, eccentric people who decide one day, “I don’t want to be an investment banker anymore…I don’t want to be a pharmacist anymore…I want to be a winemaker!” People who just burn out and move here, then create a way to earn a living, which is amazing.
EA: What was your writing process?
TTA: My sister and I—my sister was the photographer for the book—spread out a big Texas Department of Transportation map on the floor. We wanted to include places where we knew there were cool things. I called on colleagues and checked the internet. And I would talk with one farmer or winery and ask, “Is there anything else really interesting?” Almost always they would say, “Oh, yeah, there’s a woman in her 70s who makes fabulous goat cheese.” We put in over 20-thousand miles of driving! Thank goodness it was at last year’s gas prices!
EA: What are your and your sister’s future plans? Or is that a secret?
TTA: We are still in the bubbling, forming stages but we want to do a coffee-table book on pairing food with Texas wine.
EA: Speaking of wine, what grape varieties are grown in the Hill Country?
TTA: Well, that’s been a painful process with the Texas wine industry because they started copying California and this ain’t California! So chardonnay is not one of the best grapes for the Hill Country, and a lot of the classic Rutherford-type wines just don’t work. They’re just now discovering that Mediterranean varietals, such as the sangioveses, the tempranillos, the pinot grigios and all of the Loire Valley whites, are doing fabulously. Then there are the native grapes that were planted by the early Spanish missions—the Lenoir. To use it will require a winemaker with a great deal of finesse as, on its own, it’s a pretty harsh grape. But we do have quite a few winemakers now that are experimenting with it.
EA: Lavender has also become a very big thing in the Hill Country. In the book you talk about its various uses. Can you share a few here?
TTA: You can use the leaves to infuse things. In the book there is a recipe for Onion Creek Kitchens’s lavender sangria and it’s just fabulous. A lot of the lavender farms are doing lavender honey, which is really good. They’re using it in recipes as well as just eating it on the Sunday morning biscuit.
EA: What does the future hold for the Hill Country? Do you think some of the Southeast Asian influence found in Houston will make its way there?
TTA: It already has. We can now find kaffir limes at the local produce market. We can also find lemongrass on a regular basis. But it’s still somewhat of a hard sell. I see the Hill Country as staying pretty much insulated. We have this influx of people who have the potential to forever change the face of the Hill Country, but what we’re seeing is that they seem to be mindful of the reasons they’ve moved there and are not changing it. They are blending in and becoming part of it.
EA: Who/what was your favorite character /story in the book?
TTA: I really think that’s a question I couldn’t answer fairly. We started out with over 200 possible venues that we initially talked to, and/or went to, for a sort of inquiry visit. We narrowed the list down to the venues that we finally selected for the book, so you could really say that the venues in the book are all my favorites! The people we met are doing so many diverse things and came from such varied backgrounds that it would be impossible to compare them. For instance, who would be the more unique, a guy who owns a great honky-tonk serving one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted and who turns out to be Willie Nelson’s road manager of 30 years and counting, or an 82-year-old woman who operates a bakery out in the country in Leaky with two employees, where people are lined up 25 deep at 7:30 in the morning to get her cinnamon rolls, donuts and kolaches…or to pick up their wedding cake or buy pies? Or the family who has built a cut-flower business on land they bought for a thousand dollars down and lived in a tent—building greenhouses before building a home—and raised four children who each have jobs within the business. I became very passionate about almost all of the people in the book and their stories. Each is unique.
The Texas Hill Country
A Wine and Food Lover’s Paradise
Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery (Tarpley)
When Mac & Ernie’s opened in 1999, the menu consisted of cabrito tacos, fajitas, sausage wraps, and beans. Business was good, so [owners Naylene Dillingham Stolzer and her husband Steve] bought a used fryer and started cooking catfish. The enterprise grew and the couple bought the present 10’-by-16’ building.... Naylene began to expand the menu, adding items like lamb, salmon, and quail dishes. She added steaks as soon as she could afford steak knives. Today Naylene’s upscale menu draws people from all over Texas to the tiny place. You buy your drinks (including beer and wine) at the Williams Creek Depot (they have a corkscrew at the counter), place your order at the window of Mac & Ernie’s, and stake out a seat at one of the picnic tables.
Blue Goat Gourmet (San Marcos)
The bakery features such international dishes as Castilian Hot Chocolate, English Cream Scones, sandwiches, and plates inspired by Greek, Spanish, French and other cuisines. Desserts are their specialty. In addition to serving food, [owners Jamie and David Shelton] host art shows every solstice and equinox. On Saturday afternoons the bakery becomes a gathering place for music fans who come to listen to live jazz and international music. Bookcases holding the bakery’s “lending library” collection line the walls.
Love Creek Orchards (Medina)
In 1981 Baxter and Carol purchased 1,863 acres along Love Creek in the Bandera Canyonlands west of Medina. The land was totally depleted, but they fell in love with its rugged beauty. Paying no heed to those who told him that apples wouldn’t grow in the Texas Hill Country, Baxter began experimenting with planting dwarf apple trees that produce full-size fruit and ripen early. His success gave rise to a flourishing apple-growing industry [in the area].... The Cider Mill and Country Store offers various varieties of apples picked fresh from the trees, fresh apple cider, and just about anything that can be made from apples. You can even buy the same kinds of apple trees and blackberry vines that are grown in the orchards as well as bigtooth maple trees, which Baxter helped bring back from near extinction in the Hill Country.
Certenberg Vineyard (Voca)
As a young boy, Houston native Alphonse Dotson was fascinated by a massive grape arbor at his grandfather’s house. He’d watch the grapes grow every year—big clusters of them hanging everywhere. For forty years Alphonse never forgot those grapes, even though he went on to become a star football player and eventually wound up as a defensive linebacker for the Oakland Raiders. He lived for some ten years in Acapulco, where he had met his wife, Martha, but in the early 1990s the pair decided to move to the United States. Then Alphonse remembered those grapes again.... Today Alphonse is affectionately referred to by fellow grape growers and winemakers as the state‘s “Celebrity Grape Grower.”