Revolutionary is a loaded term in the United States, especially in early July, but if the term can be said to have a single locus it’s perhaps the nation’s first capital and venue for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia. However, revolutions come in all shapes and sizes and in a variety of milieux, and nearby, South-east Pennsylvania’s Brandywine Valley has witnessed plenty of such: politically, in terms of fisticuffs between the rebellious colonials and the crown, and in developments that moved the country forward economically.
It was here in the early 18th-century that the docile, reliable currents of the Brandywine river enabled the world’s first known example of manufacturing automation, in Oliver Evan’s grain mill, a development that quite literally kicked off America’s industrial age. Following that example, a clan of gunpowder-manufacturing petty-aristocrat French immigrants who were to become one of the richest and most important families in American industry, the DuPonts, adopted the Brandywine’s lazy curves as their own recreational escape from their business operations in Wilmington, Delaware, and began building all manner of ornate riparian mansions and gardens.
Then in the mid-20th century, the region became associated with the evocatively bleak paintings of the Wyeth clan. Grand-father N.C., son Andrew and grandson Jamie’s work has captured the unique look of the Brandywine and its residents, particularly in winter, and popularized it among amateurs of art far and wide. Today, the increasingly suburban, though in large part still charmingly rural, Brandywine is again witness to ground-breaking developments. Completing its journey to the sea in the Delaware Bay, the river’s final miles cross the state boundary into Delaware into an area known as Woodlawn that is soon to become that state’s first national park, and the nation’s 100th.
Whether this latest development will prove to be a trigger for mass tourism remains to be seen. In spite of these charms and its famous doyens, the Brandywine is still largely ignored and unknown by the majority as they hurtle blythely past en route between Philadelphia and Baltimore, but, if for no other reason, the region’s growing status as a gourmet destination should warrant closer inspection.
Over the last six months, it has certainly become known to us as we’ve sought to immerse ourselves in our new environs. As we’ve mentioned in recent posts, buying a house has left us with few resources to spend a-vacationing, forcing us to appreciate our locale and its offerings in ways that we may otherwise have ignored. Now, we very definitely have not stumbled across a hidden Dordogne, but Kennett Square’s mushrooms and the chardonnays of the Brandywine Valley, and the myriad restaurants serving them and other excellent local produce, are reason enough to be cheerfully locavore just thirty miles from America’s fifth largest city.
In the depths of winter, afore nary the bravest crocus pushed itself from the frost-bitten earth, we spent a pair of nights at Sweetwater Farm near Glen Mills. Owned by scions of Philadelphian barons the Jones family, a clan made internationally famous through their marital interminglings with the little-known Raniers of Monte Carlo, Sweetwater’s rustic 18th century farmhouse was a charming late-winter getaway only 30 minutes drive from our front door. Surrounded by forest and several acres of vines, Sweetwater is home to Grace Winery, producers of not very many cases of several distinctly potable young wines named for Prince Albert’s late wife.
Following a cheek-reddening tramp around the lovely property guided by Brogan, an aging but engaging mutt, we enjoyed a tasting session led by the guy that made the wine himself. After a handshake made cold and stiff from a morning out pruning the vines, the former college sports coach warmed up, describing how he’d become an almost entirely self-taught winemaker after an extremely varied career. Congratulating him on his work and wishing him luck with the 2014 vintage, he pulled out his pruning sheers and headed back to his work, telling us with a wry smile that he was only a winemaker after all the grapes were harvested. The rest of the year, he was pruner, farm-hand, and decidedly less glamorous sounding jack-of-all-trades
Later that day, after visiting the wonderful greenhouse complex at Longwood Gardens, former home of Pierre Dupont, where we had an outstanding mushroom soup for lunch, we stopped in at the Chadds Ford Winery. More well-established than Grace, but hardly a prestige chateau, Chadds Ford is housed in a stately white Georgian pile, and offers a range of wines from the enjoyable to the revolting. Questioning why they still produced a range of cloying fruit-mix “wines” when they were clearly capable of crafting finer products, we were told that the volume game of keeping a Pennsylvania winery in business required them to appeal to as diverse a palate as possible. Stories of busloads intent on afternoon drunkenness piling in and gulping down bottles of sweet sangria seemed to convince us that the Brandywine is still, and may remain, some way short of a firm reputation as a gourmet destination.
That evening, over an excellent dinner featuring local meats, cheeses, and mushrooms, washed down with astonishingly good wines, one a 2011 Riesling from Galer Estates at Sovana Bistro near Kennett Square, we ate and drank to our good fortune at having uncovered, on little more than a cursory inspection, an exciting food and wine region that is finally living up to its name.