Archive for the ‘Farms’ Category

St. Croix gets under your skin

January 18, 2013

Sitting here in North Carolina on this dreary, wet, chilly evening makes me yearn for St. Croix, where we were a few weeks ago. We chose the lesser-known US Virgin Island because it has so much variety, which means we were going nonstop to see everything, but that’s us. Below is the story I wrote for the Boston Globe, along with photographer Lina’s favorite photos. I couldn’t believe the paper didn’t use one of the iconic sugar mill. We spent more than an hour there shooting. And so it goes. I received several notes of appreciation from Crucians, who are so proud of their island.

By Diane  Daniel

Ruins of a sugar mill near Cane Bay

Ruins of a sugar mill near Cane Bay

CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix — Even before I was able to see daylight’s gift a sea shimmering in a crayon box of blues from turquoise to midnight my hands told me I’d made it to the Caribbean the night before, their rough, wrinkled winter skin showing just a hint of the smoothness to come.

My partner, Lina, and I decided to visit the largest of the US Virgin Islands (84 square miles) because it offered a little bit of everything: plentiful beaches, green hills, lively town centers, and historic sites. St. Croix has the reputation of being the poor relation to glitzier St. Thomas and lusher St. John, but we found a rich culture here, born of the island’s Danish past, its once-mighty sugar trade, and its cordial Crucians, as the native islanders are called. Add to that pristine islands to visit, water sports, and even a rain forest to explore and you can see why we were hard-pressed to squeeze everything into a week’s stay last month.

A rooster wanders the grounds of Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted, built in 1738

A rooster wanders the grounds of Fort Christiansvaern in Christiansted

We based ourselves in a centrally located, budget-friendly waterfront apartment along “condo row” in Christiansted, the larger and more tourist-driven of the island’s two towns. With hens and roosters wandering all over, the countryside never felt out of reach. Our street, lined with palm trees and a rainbow of bougainvilleas, also led to working-class neighborhoods and public-housing developments, daily reminders of the poverty here. We never felt unwelcome or unsafe, but for those who prefer more upscale and tropical settings, mid-level to pricey beachfront resorts and villas cover the island.

Strike up a conversation with a local or a fellow tourist and you’ll immediately be asked, “Have you been to Buck Island yet?” Put St. Croix’s jewel on top of your list. Surrounding the uninhabited island, a 30-minute boat ride from Christiansted, lies the underwater Buck Island Reef National Monument, a protected reef system that includes a short marked trail. While some of the coral is in tough shape, the clear water nonetheless offers the area’s best snorkeling. Unless you have access to a private boat, you’ll need to use one of the National Park Service’s six concessionaires. Unfortunately, no outfitter allows enough opportunity to also experience the island’s hiking trails.

A sailboat departs Turtle Beach at Buck Island

A sailboat departs Buck Island

After an hour in the water, we climbed back aboard and compared notes. I sought out Oliver Martin, 15, from Marion, Pa., who, with his dad, were the only people near me when I witnessed a heart-stopping sight.

“I knew it was a shark right away,” Oliver said proudly. “It had that fin on top. I was a little nervous, but not too much.”

I agreed. With the help of a deckhand, we concluded it was a lemon shark, probably about 5 feet long. We also were treated to sightings of a large school of shiny blue tang, iridescent parrotfish, long-bodied trumpetfish, and camouflaged Nassau grouper. Apparently I was the only one to see a barracuda flash its teeth.



Restaurants not to be missed in the NC mountains

October 9, 2012

If you love going to the North Carolina mountains and good eatin’ (and who doesn’t?), you need this book: “Chefs of the Mountains: Restaurants & Recipes from Western North Carolina” (John F. Blair, $19.95), by food critic John E. Batchelor. John doesn’t know it, but he helped me with researching my guidebook, “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” because I learned about tons of restaurants in the Triad region from his stories in the Greensboro and Winston-Salem papers. Thank you, John!

The book came at the right time for me, as I’ll be in Boone in a month and haven’t been there for several years. I think I’ve picked out the place, thanks to John: Vidalia. We’ll see. If you happen to be in the state already, John will be promoting the book – with chefs in tow – at several bookstores around the state. Check out the schedule here and keep in mind you’ll probably be treated to some nibbles, too, but no guarantee.

Author John E. Batchelor

 “Chefs of the Mountains” is part of a series started by my friend Ann Prospero, who wrote “Chefs of the Triangle.” Like Ann did, John gives us tasty morsels about each chef’s personal and professional life, followed by several recipes. There is a big difference: color photographs grace this book. Lucky John! The only thing missing is a price key. Maybe next edition?

John says all 40 chefs use fresh, local ingredients, and in sidebars in highlights some of the farmers and artisanal producers, such as Imladris Farm in Fairview and Sunburst Trout Farms in Canton. You can learn more about visiting those farms in my guidebook. Geez, we’re so complimentary and complementary!

My one word of warning: don’t traverse the twisting, turning NC mountain roads on too full of a stomach!


Vollmer Farm returns with fall festivities

September 30, 2012

Happy fall, y’all! … One of my favorite photos taken for my “Farm Fresh North Carolina” guidebook is this one, of a boy we spotted at Vollmer Farm in Bunn, NC, carrying a load of pumpkins. It might look staged, but it’s not. And the big news this week is that Vollmer’s “Back Forty” just opened for its fall festivities, which it has expanded to include a puppet play tent. You might want to go later on a Saturday afternoon for the 5 p.m. bonfire and marshmallow roast, followed by a family movie at dusk. Not only does the former tobacco farm, 45 minutes northeast of Raleigh, have loads of activities for families, it has become an fully organic farm and has the largest you-pick organic strawberry field in the state. I’m a big fan! I also want to mention that the farm lost its matriarch this past summer. Betty Vollmer was an integral part of the farm, and her generous spirit still prevails.

Here’s my entry from the book: Few in the state (LET ME ADD HERE: PERHAPS THE COUNTRY!) do agritourism at the level Vollmer Farm does. What’s most admirable is that the Vollmers operate a working farm, having made the switch from tobacco to produce, while also attracting thousands of visitors a year to their “Back Forty” entertainment complex. In the spring and summer, certified organic strawberries and blueberries are ripe for the picking, while some farm produce, snacks, and ice cream are for sale in the large gift shop. Starting in mid-September, the action really picks up. Tractor rides take hundreds of visitors and school groups a day to the “back forty” acres, filled with games, playgrounds, mazes, and other agriculturally themed attractions. Address: 677 Highway 98 East, Bunn (Franklin County), 919-496-3076, Open April to October.

Llamas, alpacas and tigers, oh my!

June 14, 2012

Diane and alpaca get nose to nose at Bedford Falls Alpaca Farm

With school out, it’s time to take the family to FARMS! Children of all ages (as they say) love llamas and alpacas. (I was just kidding about the tigers in the headline.) Below are three of my favorite fiber stops in North Carolina, taken from my guidebook Farm Fresh North Carolina. While I was researching the book, Lina captured this lovely image of me at Bedford Falls Alpaca Farm in Warne. Note the similar hairdos. Love that!

Apple Hill Farm

Lee Rankin gives one of her llamas treats

The logo for Apple Hill Farm in Valle Crucis, near Boone, shows an apple flanked by a donkey and a goat, with an alpaca on top. Owner Lee Rankin planned to have only alpacas on the forty-three acres she bought in 2001. But after an animal she thinks was a mountain lion killed several of her alpacas, she got llamas to guard the alpacas, donkeys to bray warnings, and goats as a sacrificial meal. Since those additions, life on this lovely farm in the mountains has been peaceful but busy. In 2009 Lee opened the farm seasonally on Saturdays for tours, and she arranges private visits other days. Her setting and setup are superb. Even the barn is beautiful enough to live in. The tour includes a look at the naturally grown produce garden, berries, apple orchard, and, of course, the alpacas. A lovely shop in the barn carries goods made from alpaca fleece, goat-milk soap, and other handmade products. “What we really like is teaching people about the animals,” Lee said. “If a child learns that animals have feelings, then I’ve done my job.”

Hills and Hollows Farm and Museum

Guerrant Tredway feeds his llamas

Guerrant and Janet Tredway started out buying a few llamas for their own enjoyment in 2005, “and it’s just sort of grown from there,” said Guerrant, who goes by “G. A.” In 2009 the couple started to open their 100-acre farm, west of Eden and near the Virginia border, to visitors. Not only can people touch and feed llamas and see how their fiber is processed, they’re invited to a fascinating show. G. A. will put a llama through an obstacle course, an activity for which some of their fifteen or so animals have won medals. G. A. and Janet are avid collectors of country and farm antiques, including household items, toys, and tools, which they present in two buildings, one loosely set up as a general store. G. A. also restored a sharecropper’s cabin. “We want people to see how things used to be,” said G. A., who grew up on the family land, used first for a dairy and then for a tobacco farm. “If anybody wants to donate anything, just let us know.”

Divine Llama Vineyards

Divine Llama Vineyards combines a llama farm with a winery

With dozens of wineries in the state, it doesn’t hurt to offer something different. Perhaps the most unusual twist can be found at Divine Llama Vineyards in East Bend, which combines a llama farm with a winery. With only a parking lot between pasture and tasting room, visitors sipping their merlots can watch llamas cavort. “Ninety percent of people go to the pasture before coming to the tasting room,” said co-owner Michael West. “The llamas are people magnets, for sure.” West and his wife, Julia, co-own the farm (called Four Ladies and Me), while they and longtime friends Thomas and Julia Hughes own the winery. Together they bought seventy-seven acres in 2006, planted five acres of vinifera grapes, and opened the winery in 2009. The Wests and their three daughters have raised llamas since 2004, and they now keep a herd of about thirty-five. On most Saturdays and by appointment, the Wests will give winery customers a tour of the farm. During the grape harvest, the llamas are put to work, Michael said. “They wear packs with five-gallon buckets for the grapes, and we have fields full of volunteers who want to help them out.”

Cool stops in Hot Springs and Asheville, NC

July 27, 2011

My Farm Fresh farmers’ market tour is traveling geographically with the harvest, starting in the Coast and Piedmont in the spring, moving to the Triad. Finally I’ve reached the mountains, just in time to cool off from the heat of summer.

Honda gets royal treatment at Biltmore

Here’s the report from recent stops in Hot Springs and Asheville.

My tour started with a book signing outside of the Carriage House gift shop at the Biltmore Estate, where the highlight was taking back roads to enter the estate and parking just behind the “house.” That’s what I call VIP treatment.

Meanwhile, parking at Restaurant Solace at the Haywood Park Hotel in downtown Asheville wasn’t VIP, but the complimentary lunch was, and was so yummy too. Chef owner Bryan Kimmett has really spruced up the place and focuses on local ingredients, to the point that he’s opened a tiny market in the lobby. Great idea! The cafe is upstairs and fancy-schmancy dining is downstairs. Favorite dish? Warm crab and foraged mushrooms cheesecake (kinda like a soft quiche). Delish.

That evening I headed north to Hot Springs, one of the coolest (and tiniest) towns in the state and one of a handful that the Appalachian Trail runs right through. I was invited by the Friends of the Hot Springs Library, a group of fascinating folks, including Dave Penrose and Mary Dixon, who with her husband runs Broadwing Farm Cabins. The gang even treated me to a nice cold tall one after my scintillating presentation.

Asheville City Market woos kids with its DIY bicycle-blended smoothies.

I spent Saturday morning at one of my favorite farmers’ markets, the downtown Asheville City Market, operated by my friends at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Loved the kids’ corner, where volunteers were inviting young visitors to mix smoothies using a bicycle-operated blender. My very favorite baker was there, too, Farm and Sparrow (if only they shipped….), a fantastic bluegrass band was performing near my table, and I chatted with the most interesting folks. Fun morning!

Venezia Dream owner Starr Cash (left) chats with visitors to her alpaca farm.

My last stops were at the Family Farm Tour, another ASAP program, where I hung out one day at Venezia Dream Farm (alpacas!) and the next at Imladris Farm (berries! bunnies!). At Imladris, one of my customers was none other than Mark Rosenstein, former longtime chef at Market Place and the man who brought locally sourced dining to Asheville. Yes, the father of Foodtopia! Thanks, Mark, for all you’ve done and still do. Thanks, too, to your friend who gifted you my book!

Is there ever a slow time at French Broad Chocolate?

A final word on Asheville dining. I didn’t have much time to explore, but I did find nirvana at Table — lima bean soup with fennel and lavender. Seriously, ridiculously amazing. Must return for seconds. I was hoping to have a chocolate nightcap at French Broad Chocolate Lounge, but there was a line out the door at 10 p.m. just as there had been at 8 p.m. Wow. So I had a brew instead, at hot spot Green Man Brewery. They were out of the double IPA (waaaaaah), but the single was sweet.

Wilmington, NC, wakes up to good food

June 26, 2011

The last time I was in Wilmington, dining options were mostly pretty standard fare. What a difference a few years make.

The only restaurant I have from there in my book is Catch, but here are the ones I’d add now for their attention to local sourcing: Deluxe, Circa 1922, Caffe Phoenix, and Crow Hill. There may be others but those are the ones that I’m confident are committed. Feel free to disagree and/or add others.

Diane felt tiny next to chef Keith Rhodes

Friday night we ate at Catch, and I finally got to meet chef Keith Rhodes. Catch has two locations, a tiny one downtown open only for lunch weekdays and a larger, but still fairly small, restaurant in a strip mall six miles away from town. We started with beers – OBX, a Kolsch style ale from Weeping Radish Brewery, and a salad with diced sweet potatoes that were perfectly grilled. For dinner I had tender black grouper with sweet potato mash and succotash (which seems to be all the rage this year). Lina loved her perfectly blackened amberjack, cheese grits and sautéed spinach. We also admired the artwork on the walls, metal fish by Matt Davis.

Diane at Riverfront Farmers` Market

Saturday started with book promotion at the Riverfront Farmers’ Market, which shares best-view title with the Elizabeth City market, as both overlook rivers. There I met Jane Steigerwald with the very impressive local-food program FeastDownEast, aka Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Program. Projects include farm-to-chef distribution and a farm-fresh restaurant branding program. My next stops were Costco, where, despite the big-box location, I signed 20 books to enthusiastic fans, and then the cute Pomegranate Books, featuring nibbles from farms my book. Yummy!

Liz Biro leads a group of Culinary Adventurers

We dashed back downtown to meet up with Liz Biro for the last 90 minutes of one of her three-hour “Culinary Adventures.” I’ve been on several food tours in several cities, and Liz’s ranks as one of the best. She makes an impressive EIGHT stops, guests are well fed (not always the case on food tours, believe it or not) and Liz knows her stuff. She also does a good job of posing leading questions to owners and chefs. Liz is well known around town for her food stories and reviews in the Wilmington Star-News. Thanks, Liz, for letting us drop in!

Saturday night I was excited to eat at Crow Hill, which I’d heard about from a few sources. It’s near the riverfront, which really heats up on weekends when gaggles of twentysomethings flock there. Crow Hill sports a sophisticated uptown look, but in a warm way, in part thanks to the salvaged river-wood tables and yard-tool-inspired sculptures on the walls. I could have used a lower volume on the dance club music, but maybe that’s my age talking.

Crow Hill is a new arrival on the scene

I didn’t have a full appetite thanks to the food tour, so ordered two appetizers, while Lina had an app and entrée. Our server (Sarah!) was memorable — fun and on the ball and she really knew the menu. Food, too, was amazing. I started with a smoked trout salad topped with a deep friend poached egg. Lina’s fish stew starter was too spicy for me but perfect for her. The outer edges of her lighly smoked pork loin (with creamy grits) were a little dry, she said, but the interior was just right. My “entrée” was heavenly – herb-garlic roasted mushrooms over creamy polenta.

Got to get back to Wilmington soon!

A deluxe Farm Fresh NC mountain tour

June 15, 2011

I wrote this very detailed story with lovely photographs for Blue Ridge Country magazine. It’s in the current (July/August) issue. The four-night roadtrip, with itinerary, takes you from Asheville to Ashe County, with great sights and food stops in between. Check it out and hit the road!

Find dining in Asheville, NC

June 6, 2011

Wrote this little ditty below for a Boston Globe summer-fun roundup that ran last weekend.

Freshly sautéed wild ramps, an Appalachian specialty. Photo by Kevin Gregory.

With farm-to-table dining practically de rigueur, farmers are starting to share the menu with foragers. In what is billed as a ‘‘forest-to-table’’ dinner series, ‘‘No Taste Like Home’’ in Asheville shows guests how to reduce their food miles to the ground under their feet, and a bit beyond. Diners, led by veteran wild crafters, will stalk the Appalachian woods and meadows for such ingredients as sunchokes, chickweed, and even the much-maligned kudzu. After a few hours of hiking and hunting, foragers will retire to the kitchen, where a visiting chef will whip up earthy delights that might include chickweed salad with persimmon vinaigrette, stinging nettle pesto, and morel and ramp ragout.Sounds wild.

Locally harvested bamboo shoots ready for cooking. Photo by Kevin Gregory.

Details: held monthly on a Saturday from 3 to 9 p.m., $125 includes foraging, cooking demo, live music, and five-course dinner with local wine. 828-774-1922,

Asheville’s Tupelo Honey Cafe puts out cookbook

May 25, 2011

Tupelo Honey Café is one of those landmark dining spots that actually deserves its popularity. Tourists and locals alike go to the Asheville restaurant for Southern comfort food with a modern twist. It’s a high-volume place (and a second location was added last year), so I don’t know what the local-sourcing ratio is, but for sure it’s there. You can read a little more about that below in the entry I wrote on them in my book.

Longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy their just-out cookbook, “Tupelo Honey Café: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $29.99), written by Asheville writer Elizabeth Sims with Tupelo chef Brian Sonoskus. (For you local readers, the pair will be doing signings and tastings at A Southern Season on June 5 from noon to 2, and The Regulator Bookshop on June 6 at 7 p.m. I can’t get to either, dangit.)

Asheville writer Elizabeth Sims with Tupelo chef Brian Sonoskus

The hardcover book is highly stylized, heavy on the design side and filled with fantastic photos of both mouth-watering dishes and Asheville scenes, past and present. Recipes (they all look fairly simple) include Green Tomato Salsa, Cheesy Mashed Cauliflower, Nutty Fried Chicken, Mondo Mushroom Ragout, and Goat Cheese Basil Grits. The beer pairings for each main dish are my favorite touch (don’t worry, there are wine pairings too), a nod to the city’s numerous breweries and brewpubs.

Here’s my Tupelo entry in “Farm Fresh North Carolina”:

Tupelo Honey Cafe in downtown Asheville (Photo by Andrew Collins,

Tupelo Honey Café opened in downtown Asheville in 2000 as a laid-back breakfast and lunch spot for southern comfort food with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients. In its first decade, it grew into a tourist mainstay, adding dinner hours and a line of merchandise. In 2008 new owner Stephen Frabitore stepped things up even more, opening a second location and arranging a deal for a Tupelo Honey cookbook, to be published in 2011. Throughout this time, chef Brian Sonoskus has continued to draw customers with his creative, affordable dishes, many relying on area farmers. Much of the produce comes from Sonoskus’s own Sunshot Organics, a twelve-acre farm he started in 2007. He grows vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, loads of blueberries, and even raises some laying hens. As for the Tupelo honey found on every table? That’s from Florida, but we’ll let it slide.

12 College Street, 828-255-4863; 1829 Hendersonville Road, 828-505-7676; Asheville (Buncombe County),

‘Farm Fresh North Carolina’ has arrived!

March 6, 2011

Alpaca nuzzles Diane at Bedford Falls Alpaca Farm in Warne, Clay County.

So it’s finally here! “Farm Fresh North Carolina,” my farm-travel guidebook to my home state, is now out, Both my hometown papers, the Durham Herald-Sun and the News & Observer, have written it up this week, with more articles across the state to follow! The N&O piece used one of my favorite photos — me being nuzzled by an alpaca at the state’s first alpaca farm, Bedford Falls. What a fun day that was, way, way west in Clay County, a part of North Carolina that often gets relegated to an annex on state maps. I fell in love with alpacas during my research, and included a few alpaca farms in the book.

As for sales outlets, it’s available at the usual online spots and of course in stores all across North Carolina. Even NC Costco stores will start carrying the book in April! That is nuts (in a great way!) and a testament to how crazed the local-food movement has become. I pitched the idea for this book in 2007, the same year that “locavore” was named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year. My, how times have changed.

In case you’re wondering what the heck a farm-travel guidebook includes, the subtitle says it all: “The Go-To Guide to Great Farmers’ Markets, Farm Stands, Farms, Apple Orchards, U-Picks, Kids’ Activities, Lodging, Dining, Choose-and-Cut Christmas Trees, Vineyards and Wineries, and More.”

If you want to know more about it, visit my “Farm Fresh North Carolina” website. And remember: Keep it Fresh in NC!