Sunday, May 2, 2010

Weekend in Castroville

The Place
We took a mini-vacation in Castroville (west of San Antonio) this weekend. We had visited 5 years ago, and were pleasantly surprised--at the time, it had just seemed like a convenient and inexpensive place to stay near San Antonio. But the town was settled by Alsatians back in the 1840s, and is full of trim little Alsatian-style houses whose gardens are brim-full of deep blue larkspur and bright red poppies (California poppies, I think, but I'm not sure).

Also, we stumbled on this charming little Alsatian restaurant last time called The Normandie, which introduced us to the pleasures of jägerschnitzel and salade niçoise. Also, it offered a cheese course after one's dinner, so we rounded the occasion off with a lovely stilton.

So, back to Castroville we went, to wander the historic district, admire the poppies and larkspur, and reacquaint ourselves with jägerschnitzel.

The Poppies

Happily, we hit Peak Poppy once again.

A poppy at the Landmark Inn

I don't know why, but there seems to be a town-wide conspiracy to grow these guys. I'm not sure if the poppies/larkspur have some kind of Alsatian roots, or if that's just part of Castroville's branding effort, but they grow all over the historical district, and they look wonderfully crisp and bright against all those stuccoed fachwerk houses.

More poppies and larkspur

The Houses
And the houses are as idiosyncratic and adorable as I had remembered. Alsatian houses apparently had a very characteristic silhouette, which was employed both on little bitty houses...

Tiny Alsatian house
...and on great big ones.

Much bigger Alsatian house

I think most surviving colonial houses have since been embellished with front porches, which in this climate is the only sane thing to do. Because the original houses were often quite small--1 or 2 rooms downstairs plus a sleeping loft above--layers of additions have accumulated on to most of the buildings, in many cases adding to their whimsicality.

Alsatian house + porch

The B&B
As before, we stayed at the state-run Landmark Inn, which is a historic property itself and includes a colonial grist-mill-turned-electric-mill on the grounds.

The old mill and a 1920s-style light bulb it would have once helped to power

Mill parts. Way, way down there is the water that traveled several hundred feet underground to turn the mill wheel

The room was nice and antiquey (we stayed in #4, the "Ebro", which is their only en-suite), but we rather missed having a television. We don't get cable at home, so when we travel, we get very excited about watching the History Channel and the home improvement channel and the old movie channels. Especially now that, in our dotage, we've become addicted to having a nice, cool siesta during the hottest hours of the afternoon when we vacation. I also wasn't able to get wifi in our room, which rather shocked and appalled me. I forgot to inquire, however, so that may have just been a temporary snafu.

The Plants
Plant-wise, Castroville was also bursting with the orangey-coral blooming aloes, fruit-laden loquats (Eriobotrya japonica), and fragrant Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), as in this arbor on the grounds of the St. Louis cathedral.

Confederate jasmine

We took a hike at the Castroville Regional Park, which has a nice walk up to a scenic overlook (called, I think, "Cross Hill" because of the--frankly rather unattractive--cement cross at the top). The entire trail was lined with great bunches of coriopsis, and you had to press your way through them to follow the path.

The path. Somewhere in there.

It was really rather magical--I've never been so lavishly encased in flowers before. Above were blooming acacias, and mixed in with the coriopsis were Indian blankets, blue curls, purple lantana, scarlet flax, and a sort of centaurea/thistle-looking flower, among others we couldn't identify.

Matt amongst the coriopsis

Coriopsis bud and calyx

We also visited the local Medina Valley Greenhouses, a retail nursery in a really pleasant setting--in the valley right next to the Medina river, amongst mature pecans that have grown to giant heights in the river bottom. For some reason, they built a whole string of greenhouses into the hillside. They're low-roofed, cool, dim, and green, with an awesome rock wall built into the hill. Regulating temperature must be a doddle with all the rock and the insulation provided by the hill. It's one of those fertile, cool, and protected places that just feels good to be in. If I ever have the chance to build a greenhouse into a limestone hill, you better believe I'll take it.

A Medina Valley greenhouse

So, plant-wise, the trip was pretty satisfactory. We both bought various plants, and we enjoyed examining the local plant palette, which is a little more tropical than our own, despite the overall aridity of the region.

The Food
Culinarily, it was a mixed bag. We really enjoyed both the grounds and food the the Welfare Cafe on the way down (in the remnant of a settlement called Welfare, close to Boerne). Matt had a phenomenally good jägerschnitzel--cubed portobellos in a delectable--if rather rich--buttery sauce, and we shared some very good "kartoffelpfannekuchen" (potato pancakes--do smear with applesauce--it's remarkably tasty--much better than any potato pancake/applesauce combo I've ever had before).

But--and this is so very sad--The Normandie in Castroville closed down some years ago. Now there are two upscale-ish restaurants, called--with a peculiar lack of originality--The Alsatian and The Old Alsatian, which despite their names focus on Cajun and Italian food, respectively. WTF? We ate at TOF, which is walkable from Landmark Inn, and ordered from the few Alsatian items on the menu--a couple of local sausages, a noodle dish reminiscent of fettucine carbonara ("nouilles alsacienne"), and more
jägerschnitzel. The sausages and noodles were good, but the jägerschnitzel--drowned in a tasteless brown gravy--was really, really not. And there was no cheese course. :-(

It wasn't a complete wash, food-wise, however. We stopped at Dziuk's meat market (pronounced "jukes") and got some peppered bacon, pork-and-quail sausage, and bacon-and-jalapeño-wrapped quail breasts, all of which sound very enticing.

The Recipes
But best of all, the Landmark Inn sells a cookbook compiled by locals in 1977 called Old Favorite Receipts. It has a fair representation of the cream-of-mushroom-soup school of cookery, but it's mixed in with some seriously crazy shit--6 different versions of a sort of steak tartare ("parisa"), all made with Velveeta cheese, wine made from jalapeños, wine made from parsnips, several recipes calling specifically for Pearl beer, a recipe for moonshine, 2 blood sausage recipes, a recipe for beef ragout for 50 people, "potato fluff," flapjacks made from cattail flowers, fried rattlesnake, and even--heaven help me--stuffed armadillo. It's awesome.

A window in the old mill at the Landmark Inn

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