THE HILLTOP HERB FARM WAS begun in 1957 as a retirement project for Madalene and Jim Hill. They intended to grow gladiolas for market and herbs for fun. Before long, friends urged them to explain the use of their herbs and spices in cooking. What began as demonstrations for friends burgeoned into a $150,000 per year economic cornucopia (and you won't see any gladiolas). Devotees come from hundreds of miles away to sample Mrs. Hill's culinary masterpieces. Firms from throughout the United States and 57 foreign countries order her herbs and spices, condiments and preserves.
While the amenities are either down home or second-hand style (mismatched silverware, china), the food is extraordinary. Everything is fresh, down to the eggs and cream. Much of it comes from the Hill's gardens, and little of what arrives on the plate will be something you've had before. You'll experience new tastes, smells and combinations and will delight in most of them.
On Saturday night the appetizers are multiple, often including melon balls with sour cream and honey sauce, homemade pate, toast points, jalapeno jelly and artichokes scooped out to hold basil sauce. Spiced fruity May wine accompanies the appetizers. Soup follows and will not have come out of a can. On one occasion we had a mysterious delicious soup that turned out to be derived from turnips.
The main course includes a meat dish and several fresh vegetables—no canned carrots and peas. Homemade bread, butter and spicy iced tea come with the meal, all with interesting herbs added. (If you don't like much seasoning or think that meat and 'taters are the only way to go, this may not be the place for you.) Desserts are again surprising and original, like the sweet potato custard or the lemon ice. Tranquility tea is served hot after the meal to send you back onto the highway in reasonable condition.
Weekday luncheons are lighter versions of the Saturday night spread. Garden clubbers, civic groups and unaffiliated gastronomes relish Mrs. Hill's meal as well as her postprandial discussions, which usually include the recipes from lunch as well as seasonal demonstrations of kitchen herb wreath-making and potted herb cultivation.
The Sunday buffet evolved from the requests of guests for a daylight meal in the soup and sandwich line. The Hill buffet is not the usual fried chicken, cold roast beef, mashed potato and three colors of jello fare, but a four table offering which includes a soup course (maybe chili or Cuban black bean soup with corn bread); a meat course of pate, cheese, and something sliceable like roast (sandwich these onto the homemade bread): a salad course starring marinates, molds and the greenest and the freshest combinations of the seasons; and a dessert including a della robbian layering of fruit, cheese and homemade cookies.
The farm is also open for you to explore from noon to 5 P.M. on Sundays; the sampling of the wares will stimulate the budding tastes of the littlest angels in your family.
The Hills themselves are always on the spot—supervising the cooking, serving more tea, taking you through the greenhouses. You are the guests and as such should keep some facts in mind when dining with the Hills in the green-house:
-Reservations are mandatory. The Herb Farm is usually booked up weeks in advance for the luncheons and dinners, although buffet reservations may often be made the day before. Twenty-four hour notice is required for cancellations.
-Meals are served promptly and at only one seating with the exception of the Sunday buffet. The appetizer time insures that those people lost in Sam Houston National Forest will find the Herb Farm in time for the main course.
Mrs. Hill is a creative spirit who eagerly shares her cooking secrets. If anything, she is a subtle proselytizer, eager to answer questions regarding ingredients, proportions, etc. Some of her recipes are for sale in the country store, although she says she has never had time to compile a book of them.
Also in the company country store is a potpourri of homemade, homegrown and handmade items. If you've conquered Smuckers and Bama and want to broaden your perspective, we recommend Mrs. Hill's jams, jellies, preserves, relishes, mayonnaise, mustard, salad dressings, teas and tisanes. Made in the farm kitchen with the help of neighboring ladies, these delicacies are without equal, especially the jalapeno jelly (give some to your Yankee friends for Christmas).
Also tempting is a positively medieval selection of spices and herbs both growing and dried. Thyme, marjoram, basil, camomile (highly recommend by Peter Rabbit's mother for the fevers), rose geranium, frankincense and myrrh, St. John's worts and thousands of herbs and spices to satisfy the most discriminating herbalist or wiseman.
Sachets, pomanders, sunbonnets (sewn locally and beautifully in both adult and children's sizes) are good local color gifts. Finally, fill your arms with hanging baskets and potted specimens from the greenhouse. Anything you can't eat or carry, Mrs. Hill will mail to you. Most of the cars leaving the Herb Farm ride low to the ground laden with preserved goods, plants and satisfied customers.
The Hilltop Herb Farm
Box 866, Cleveland, Texas
Directions: Highway 59 to Cleveland; West on Highway 105; then right on Farm Road 1725 for ten miles; Hilltop Herb Farm is on the left. Driving time from Houston is one and one-half hours.
Luncheon: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at noon ($4.50).
Dinner: Saturday nights only: appetizer at 7:15 P.M., dinner at 8 P.M. First Saturday in month, gourmet dinner ($8.75). Second Saturday in month, regular dinner ($7). Fifth Saturday in month, seafood dinner ($8.75).
Sunday buffet: each Sunday afternoon, 1 P.M.-3 P. M. ($3.50) adults, ($2) children
No plastic money. Cash only.
Pastures of free parking.
Reservations absolutely necessary.
Sunday buffets only in January and February. Closed entirely in August. Make March reservations NOW!