A Peachy Slice of Cowboy Country
Texas: the big one, the lone star state. For most people, it conjures up visions of huge multi-lane freeways and big city skylines full of towering skyscrapers. But there’s a part of America’s second largest state, nestled away up north amongst the peach tree orchards and vineyards of what is often called “the cowboy capital of the world”, that offers a smaller and sweeter slice of Texas pie.
by Russell Higham
Just a ninety minute drive from the state capital of Austin, famous for its South by Southwest and City Limits festivals and reachable via a direct flight from London, Fredericksburg is a small town of less than twelve thousand people that punches well above its weight when it comes to good food, wine and — its speciality of the house — live music. Founded by German settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, a lot of its Teutonic heritage is still very much in evidence today. As well as holding its very own Oktoberfest each year (micro-breweries are BIG in Texas), many of the roads bear names such as Schubert, Kristofer and Ufer Street. There’s also a Bowie Street and whilst that probably owes more to Davy Crockett (who helped defend the Alamo with a Bowie knife) than Ziggy Stardust, it could be taken as a hint that, behind the chichi restaurants, art galleries and smart boutique shops of Main Street, a vibrant music scene is at the heart of what this place is all about.
I arrived in downtown Fredericksburg just in time for a hearty dinner at Otto’s German Bistro. After washing down my Frickadellen and Schnitzel with a hefty stein of Franconia beer (prosit, y’all!), I headed out into the balmy evening (temperatures average around 30 celsius in the summer) in search of the source of the blisteringly good blues I could hear wafting down the street. I found it at Silver Creek, a bar and grill set in a fabulous Victorian-style house on East Main Street. Its huge beer garden was literally jumping to the sounds coming from Ben Beckendorf and his band who were playing a mix of Ben’s own tunes and covers of jazz and blues standards from Muddy Waters to the Rolling Stones. Ordering myself a Peach-a-Rita (a version of the Mexican tequila cocktail made with the ubiquitous local fruit), I took a scan of the cheerful regulars who were also enjoying the show. Seeing how so many of them were wearing proper ‘ten gallon’ Stetson hats, stirrup-boots and suede-patched “cattle-rustler” shirts, I began to realise that I’d either stumbled into a Village People themed leather bar, or that these were, in fact, the real deal and that I was kicking back with a bunch of rootin’ tootin’ bona fide cowboys!
I headed merrily back to my bed for the night at Hoffman House Hotel with the sound of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ still ringing in my ears. Just a few minutes walk from all the best bars and restaurants in town yet nestled quietly amongst gardens of sweet-smelling Texas wildflowers, the Hoffman is a gorgeous collection of premium rooms, suites and ‘rustic chic’ cottages — think a luxed-up version of ‘Little House on the Prairie’. My own accommodation boasted a gigantic bathroom with double basins, standalone roll-top bath and a walk-in shower big enough to hold a rodeo in. The following morning, a gentle knock on my door signalled the arrival of breakfast, delivered in a hamper which I laid out and ate on my verandah. Thoughtfully, two rocking chairs are provided for this very purpose and it was pure joy to chow down on home-made frittata and fruit scones whilst listening to the water gently burbling in the pond outside my cottage.
Having got the taste for nature, I jumped in my rental car and headed twenty minutes out of town to Enchanted Rock. It’s a glowing pink granite mountain, or to give it its official title — an inselberg, that rises 1825 feet above sea level and was believed by indigenous Apache and Comanche tribes to hold mysterious magical powers and of even being a portal to other worlds. Nowadays, it’s a state natural park that is frequented by hikers, backpackers, rock climbers and, in my case, yogis. I’d arranged to be joined by local yoga teacher Leigh Dempsey on a plateau at the rock’s summit, surprisingly reachable by a twenty minute climb (strenuous but no equipment required other than walking shoes or trainers) for a couple of salutations to the sun as it came over the horizon. The glorious 360 degree views out across Texas Hill Country below were just awe-inspiring and certainly beat the paint-chipped walls of the yoga studio that I normally look at through my legs as I try to get my ‘downward-dog’ on.
After that healthy dose of mind and body realignment, it was time to turn my attention to therapies of the retail kind. Fredericksburg’s Main Street — which is incidentally one of the few in the USA that you’re allowed to walk down with a glass of wine in your hand (try doing that in New York and you’ll get arrested!) — with its more than 150 shops, boutiques and galleries, would not look out of place in any of Europe’s chic capital cities. I found Vaudeville to be the most elegant joint on the strip (if not the whole state) and it will tempt you with enough covetable home furnishings, accessories and exquisite jewellery to give you palpitations about your baggage allowance for the flight home. You’ll also find a bistro downstairs that serves locally sourced, health-conscious food that tastes as good as the boutique upstairs looks.
Fredericksburg is often called the “Tuscanny of Texas”. Its wine industry is only about forty years old but in that short time it’s built up quite a reputation, thanks in part to its climate and terroir. In fact, Hill Country is now second only to California’s Napa Valley as a US wine destination. There are around fifty wineries and tasting rooms dotted around the town and outlying area where lovers of the grape can indulge their passion. I visited just two: 4.0 Cellars for a cheese and wine pairing, and Becker Vineyards whose forty-six acres of vineyards produce eight varietals including Malbec, Merlot, Syrah and a wonderful Viognier that has won awards and is deservedly their best-seller.
Continuing the vinicultural theme, I returned to town (by cab, I hasten to add, after ‘sampling’ all that lovely Viognier) for dinner at Cabernet Grill Texas Wine Country Restaurant. Named one of America’s top 100 restaurants by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is owned and run by chef Ross Burtwell and serves the state’s best seafood, Angus beef, wild game, ranch fare and ‘Q’ (Texas-speak for barbecue) along with a selection of over 75 wines from around the state. And here’s a tip for you when perusing the menu: when you see a dish described as “chicken fried” it has nothing to do with clucking poultry; it refers to the way in which the meat or fish is cooked, deep-fried like KFC. I started with the Jumbo Lump crab gratin then followed the waiter’s recommendation of grilled Texas quail, wrapped in bacon and stuffed with jalapeño, all washed down with the wine flight which turned out to be good value at $22 for three glasses of some of Texas’s finest.
Last stop of the evening was at Western Edge Kitchen & Cocktails back on Main Street. It serves breakfast lunch and dinner including, I was told by locals, some seriously great steaks but, having already eaten, I was there just for the music, dancing and maybe a nightcap or two. Local singer/guitarist Mike Blakely (who also, I later discovered, has published around twenty western novels) and his wife Annie were up on stage knocking out fine old country and western tunes for an appreciative audience who were throwing shapes on the dance floor, resplendent in their cowboy hats and cowgirl dresses. An elegant looking gentleman in a mightily impressive stetson who looked like he’d just stepped off the set of The Magnificent Seven came over to my table and, after first respectfully requesting my permission, asked my girlfriend in a husky southern drawl: “Excuse me ma’am but would you mind doing me the honour of this dance?”. It was all done graciously without offence (well, he was at least seventy-five anyway!) and rounded off a truly Texan night out.
It’s really worth spending a few days out here in Fredericksburg as part of your Texas experience. And on your drive back, you should find time to visit Luckenbach just a few miles outside town. This sleepy, rundown-looking farming village officially has a population of just three but literally thousands of people head here regularly to sit and drink beer around a makeshift wooden stage where chickens strut and scratch at hay-bales whilst major musicians like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Lyle Lovett hold impromptu gigs. If you’re lucky, you might just catch, as I did, one of two of America’s biggest country and western stars dropping by for a jamming session — I won’t say who I saw but one of them had a very very long beard!
Visit Fredericksburg: visitfredericksburgtx.com
Hoffman House Hotel: hoffmanhaus.com
Otto’s German Bistro: ottosfbg.com
Silver Creek pub: silvercreekfbg.com
Enchanted Rock: tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock
Vaudeville boutique & bistro: vaudeville-living.com
Beckers Vineyards: beckervineyards.com
Western Edge Kitchen & Cocktails: westernedgecellars.com
Mike Blakely (music & books): mikeblakely.com