What are the farms in The Hill Country like? After visiting three on a recent Sunday, I discovered they're anything but ordinary.
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I was still somewhat reluctantly pulling myself out of the sticky dregs of dreams when I climbed into the car with a friend early on a Sunday morning to find rural Texas. Having spent my out-of-state college years claiming to be “just a little country girl from Texas” (tongue planted firmly in cheek), I wanted to discover what the farms in the Hill Country around Austin were really like.
It had turned into a glorious blue Central Texas day, miraculously not too hot and brimming with the hiss of insects and the ca-ca calls of birds by the time we arrived at the Pure Luck Farm, just outside Dripping Springs. The place looked still and empty in the buzzing light and gave no hint of the busy production that lie within its rough-and-tumble fences. Sara Sweetser Bolton bought the land with the old farmhouse on it in 1979, and since then, she and her husband, Denny Bolton, have built up an award-winning goat cheese business. Pure Luck chèvre can be found at Central Market stores and Whole Foods Markets all around Texas, and over the years, the cheeses have been awarded 21 prizes at the annual American Cheese Society competition, including four first-place ribbons. But on this Sunday morning, the farm seemed more like a home than a business, and we had to be led to the unobtrusive farm stand by one of the couple’s teenage daughters. There we found a few delicious cheeses to sample (the basil chèvre was our favorite), some bunches of homegrown flowers, handpicked and assembled by the daughters of the house, and a little box in which to leave our money after we had made our selections. We wandered around the small farmstead, past the laundry hung up to dry on the fence and the spade sticking out of a mound of earth, and passed under the crooked basketball hoop into the rows of blooming flowers. Sprawling cacti and scraggly mesquite assured us that we were still in Texas, and we got back into the car thinking more of how nice it must be to grow up in the country than of a thriving cheese business.
We drove the short distance back to Drippings Springs along U.S. 290 and hung a right on Ranch Road 12, headed south. After a little confusion we found our way to our next destination, Bella Vista Ranch, just north of Wimberley. But if you take a right off Ranch Road 12 onto CO 182 (Jacob's Well Road) and another right on Mt. Sharpe Road, you'll find the ranch on your left. A lovely iron gate with an olive tree design on it will let you know you're in the right place. The ranch produces its own olives and olive oil in the fall (the pressing is open to the public) and becomes a pick-your-own berries attraction during the summer. We arrived at the tail end of blackberry season, but there were still enough of the sweet-tart berries, hanging protected in their thorny cages of branches, for us to overfill our three-box minimum. We browsed around the ranch's orchard, where the blackberry bushes were interspersed with little olive trees, and enjoyed the Hill Country views. The ranch is completely organic and uses no insecticides, which means that the berries are safe to eat right off the bush but also that insects enjoy the same freedom of consumption. The occasional four-inch grasshopper would startle us as we worked. Armed with bamboo rods against the thorns, we poked our way through the scratchy tangle to the black jewels of the fruits, emerging victorious, though not unscathed, with happy heaps of berries. We went back to buy our harvest in the tasting room, our guilty hands and mouths stained with the red juices of the picking. Inside was a welcoming cool, as well as jams, oils and vinegars from Italy and California, Bella Vista's own olive oil, and a tempting tapenade of capers and olives to taste (we promptly bought a jar), along with plenty of bread for dipping. And we didn't leave without owner Jack Dougherty's recipe for vanilla ice cream with blackberries and Grand Marnier.
Tired from our efforts, we munched on blackberries and nursed a few of the more severe scratches as we drove back to Wimberley. We ignored the urge to do a little antiquing and drove straight on to the next farm on our list. We followed Ranch Road 12 to San Marcos, where we got on Interstate 35 and headed toward New Braunfels. This time we were on our way to a different kind of farm. The Snake Farm, at exit 182 just south of New Braunfels, breeds close to one thousand snakes a year and is also home to a variety of monkeys, gators, turtles, exotic birds, and other creepy-crawlies. While the front of the main building is colorful and bright with exotic plants and murals of animals, inside the atmosphere changes. After the golden warmth of Bella Vista and Pure Luck, we felt a little strange wandering past the silent coils in the rows upon rows of dusty tanks. In addition to snakes there were tarantulas, oversized cockroaches, scorpions, bats, and lizards of all shapes and sizes. The snakes themselves were beautiful: massive pythons of an improbable shade of yellow, as if they were colored in with a Crayola by a child's hand; slim, quick slitherers with brash, threatening rings of red and black; beautiful green snakes, hanging in neat folds from their branches. There were also crocodiles, dinosaurian in their appearance, and dangerous snapping turtles. We returned—blinking—to the outside, where there were stir-crazy monkeys leaping somewhat pathetically around their cages, zebras grazing in a large pen, and some gators lazing in an artificial lake. A small petting zoo held some gentle goats for the children. The farm's shop peddled a large and rather strange collection of things: fake snakes, children's toys, native American artifacts , books on reptiles, and a few vaguely collectible old comic books. We returned to the car pleased with our visit but also rather ready to hit the open road.
It was a quick dash back up I-35 to Austin, and we were happy to get back home, where we made ourselves a quick and tasty snack. What can be better than a farm-fresh goat cheese sandwich with olive-caper tapenade and fresh organic blackberries for dessert?