It’s no secret that Philadelphia’s food scene is a thriving one: venerable institutions like Reading Market and the Italian Market sidle up against trendy farm-to-table spots and starred culinary establishments. What visitors may not realize is that much of the bounty on Philly’s splendid tables comes from right next door in Chester County.
Just a few miles outside the City of Brotherly Love, a bucolic network of small towns and winding roads harbors some truly outstanding foodie finds. The region takes pride in its terroir of rolling green hills dotted with early American stone houses and barns. From delights to tempt the appetite to treasures to dress your table, discover a few of the reasons that Chester County is one of the country’s best culinary destinations.
Meet your makers
It’s impossible to cross the green hills of Chester County without stumbling on a cheese maker...and in many cases, an award-winning one. There are so many, in fact, that Anna Juhl chose Philadelphia and Chester County as the first domestic trip for her five-year-old culinary tour company, Cheese Journeys. ‘The beautiful farms and rolling hills of Chester County remind me of the rural countryside where I grew up in the Midwest,’ says Juhl. ‘It was an obvious choice for an American Cheese Journey.’
Among the many standouts is The Farm at Doe Run, just outside of Unionville. Husband-and-wife team Sam and Stacy Kennedy, along with cheesemaker Matthew Hettlinger, have been turning out expertly calibrated cheeses here since 2010. The aged, crumbly and slightly salty St Malachai Reserve won a World Cheese Award Gold Medal in 2017, but those who like their cheeses soft and stinky shouldn’t miss the silky, unctuous Hummingbird, made with a blend of cow and goat milk.
Sue Miller’s Birchrun Hills Farm is another family-run establishment with an eye for good cheeses. Launched in 2006, Birchrun Hills Farm was one of the first independent cheese makers in the region, and Miller is considered a linchpin of the local food movement. At Birchrun Hills, the 80-odd cows are all given names and encouraged to imprint on the family after they are born, a technique that Miller's two sons (who now both take a hand in the family business) suggested after watching Fly Away Home. It makes introducing the cows to the automatic milking machines easier, says Miller.
Birchrun Blue, a washed-rind blue cheese with a perfectly balanced level of funk, is one of the many prize-winning cheeses Miller has created. Another favorite is Fat Cat, a semisoft cheese with an earthy, tangy flavor that melts like a dream in a grilled cheese sandwich. Miller often draws on local inspiration for her cheeses, like the recently released ‘Tomme Molé’ – its rind was washed with coffee from Philadelphia’s La Colombe.
The artisans of Chester County aren’t only known for making good food; they’re also interested in making it look terrific on your table. Few do that better than John Luttman, founder and chief craftsman at Artifaqt in Phoenixville. An accomplished woodworker, Luttman has created custom interiors for Walt Disney World restaurants and resorts, and designed the serveware used in many Michelin-starred restaurants. Now, he’s bringing his craft into home kitchens. ‘Our goal is to bring what we’ve developed in collaboration with Eric Ripert at Le Bernardin, and other notable chefs, to the home chef or food enthusiast for use in their own events and at the family table,’ says Luttman.
Phoenixville is the perfect location for his small business, with New York City just two hours away and many major metro areas within short shipping distance. Working in ‘Penn’s Woods’ has another advantage for a woodworking studio, notes Luttman: ‘a plethora of hardwoods’ from shimmering, silvery quilted maple to deep, dark cherry and walnut.
Mushrooms and more in Kennett Square
Cheese isn’t the only game in town. Chester County is also home to Kennett Square, the self-professed ‘mushroom capital of the world.’ More than half of the mushrooms sold in the US originate here, and a significant number come from Phillips Mushroom Farms, in business since 1927. Phillips sold 55 million pounds of mushrooms in 2016 alone, according to manager Jim Angelucci. The farm cultivates just about every variety of mushroom imaginable, with the exception of morels, porcini and chanterelles, which cannot be commercially grown.
While white button mushrooms are still the #1 item, there is increasing interest in exotic mushrooms, both for their depth of flavor and reputed medicinal properties. Pom-pom mushrooms have beneficial effects on the stomach and digestive tract; shiitake and maitake mushrooms have been shown to lower blood pressure. Angelucci has seen anecdotal and scientific studies to prove both, but jokes that eating mushrooms is ‘like going to church. May not help you, but it can’t hurt.’
The working farm spaces are not open to visitors, but you can learn about the mushroom industry and see a selection of growing mushrooms at the small ‘mushroom museum.’ Fresh mushrooms and mushroom-based products like teas, dips, soups and more are available at the gift shop nearby.
Kennett Square hosts an annual mushroom festival each September – in 2017, it was attended by nearly 100,000 visitors from around the world.
Talula’s Farm Table dinners
An unassuming storefront in Kennett Square’s historic downtown hides another of the region’s culinary gems, Talula’s Table. A gourmet market by day, it turns into the region’s hottest reservation by night, and for good reason: there’s only one table. If you’re lucky enough to secure a reservation (by phone only, available one year in advance), you’re responsible for filling the table with a minimum of 10 guests, who pay $108 each for the eight-course, seasonal chef’s menu. A kitchen table in the back is available for 4-8 guests, by invitation only.
Most nights, Talula’s Table is filled with Pennsylvania’s bounty. Melt-in-your-mouth lamb belly from Happy Valley, with roasted baba ganoush and piquant harissa-peach jam, was a standout on a recent harvest menu, which also featured cheeses from Shellbark Hollow Farms and The Farm at Doe Run. It’s BYOB, but the restaurant can recommend local wine shops to help you match selections to the menu.
A gathering place for creatives
For a broad sampling of the culinary delights that Chester County has to offer, look no further than the Artisan Exchange in West Chester. Here, a warehouse space has been transformed into a facility to help the area's entrepreneurs break into the food preparation business at an affordable price.
‘If you want to make a hot sauce and bring it to market, you’ve got to spend $75 grand on plumbing before you can even sell a bottle,’ explains Joe Stratten, who co-founded Artisan Exchange with Frank Baldassarre. ‘So what we did was create an environment where this expense is shared by multiple people.’
The tenants at Artisan Exchange have shared sanitation stations, access to a full commercial kitchen (rentable by the hour) and an option to add in sales and distribution services. The covered loading dock is the staging area for a weekly Saturday market that draws crowds, rain or shine. The market is often themed seasonally, with Oktoberfest and Christmas Market celebrations that draw crowds each year.
‘For early stage companies, [the weekly market] gives them access to consumers and it gives them a steady source of cash flow to really start their businesses,’ says Stratten. Lowering the barriers to bringing a product to market allows for more creativity and experimentation, as well as a wider range of vendors. From pure, golden olive oil made by Greek Americans, to piping-hot empanadas, to authentic German breads and sugary apple cider doughnuts, Artisan Exchange's offerings are diverse and delicious – a perfect way to describe Chester County.
Make it happen
Chester County is an easy day trip from Philadelphia, but B&Bs and chain hotels can also be found in West Chester and Kennett Square. For those looking for a foodie-friendly sleep outside the city, the Inn at Grace Winery in Glen Mills is a top choice.
Trisha Ping visited Philadelphia and Chester County with the support of VisitPhilly. Lonely Planet contributors never accept freebies in exchange for coverage.