Bill Kearney
Bill Kearney
Oct 2020

Sometimes being overshadowed is a blessing. The Brandywine Valley, in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, sits between the bustle of Philadelphia and the tourist-trap folksiness of Amish country. As a result, its bucolic hills, which have been home to artistic and industrial family dynasties, have remained relatively unscathed, at least for now. Meanwhile, a new crop of culinary entrepreneurs is reaping the benefit of the rich soil.

Brandywine River Museum of Art exterior / Credit: Mark Gormel

Just 20 miles from the airport, suburbia gives way to knolls of farmland and forests that seem ripe for a landscape painting. Fittingly, the area was the home of Andrew Wyeth, a titan of 20th-century American art. Today, the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford houses one of the most significant collections of his work, which captured mid-century rural life in the area. Key paintings include Pennsylvania Landscape, depicting a contorted buttonwood tree under tumultuous skies, and Adam, showing a Black farmer in cold winter light bracing against the wind, a mob of crows blown asunder in the background. Also on display are works of Andrew’s father, N.C. Wyeth, whose vibrant early-20th-century illustrations of children’s books such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe enchanted many a reader, and pieces by Andrew’s son Jamie, who famously exchanged portraits with another Pennsylvania son (and artistic opposite), Andy Warhol.

The building itself is lovely, a modernist revamp of an 1864 grist mill perched on the lush banks of the river. On any given afternoon, the museum’s massive windows offer views of canoeists paddling by, or great blue herons stalking frogs and fish. The museum is part of the Brandywine Conservancy, which works to protect open space in the watershed and offers more than five miles of hiking trails along the creeks and hills of the area.

The expansive Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens / Courtesy of Chester County's Brandywine Valley

Have you ever witnessed a “Decisive Dynamo” orchid face-to-face? Or a six-foot-wide lily pad? Head another 10 miles west on Route 1 and you can, at Longwood Gardens, a 1,050-acre botanical garden that houses 11,000 varieties of plants from across the globe. A century ago, the property was the estate of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont, whose obsession with gardening led to his preservation of the land. The massive greenhouse consists of dozens of microclimates offering ideal conditions for plants ranging from desert cacti to rainforest ferns to bonsai.

You can also stroll the grounds, including three miles of trails through the 86-acre Meadow Garden, which uses ecological landscaping and sustainable practices to preserve open space, resulting in vistas not unlike those in a Wyeth painting. Longwood offers lunch options at the spacious Café and Beer Garden, with family-friendly grill items and beers such as Dogfish Head Seaquench ale or Summer Love Draft, which is citrusy with a hint of pine.

Va La winery / Courtesy of Chester County's Brandywine Valley

One of the best ways to view the Brandywine Valley is from the river, which winds gently through idyllic farmland and forests. Most rental companies, such as Wilderness Canoe Trips and Northbrook Canoe Co., operate tours through October, and will drop you off or pick you up at specific spots on the river.

If you’re looking to imbibe something created in all this pastoral beauty, there’s a string of wineries in the area, including Va La in Avondale, which Philadelphia magazine says is producing “some of the region’s most fascinating bottles.” The land was once a mushroom farm (the entire area is known as “The Mushroom Capital of the World,” growing 65 percent of the mushrooms consumed in the U.S.), and that earthiness echoes through their Northern Italian varietals aged in barrels made from Pennsylvania oak. A reservation-only garden seating area offers small-batch wines by the bottle, along with local cheese pairings. Bring your own glass or buy one of theirs.

Courtesy of Galer Estate

For a more traditional wine tasting experience, hit Galer Estate in Kennett Square: Their 2018 albariño won gold in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and their 2017 cabernet franc won silver. Farther afield, on a narrow country road down by the Maryland border, you’ll find a big red barn housing Old Stone Cider, which uses heirloom apples from their orchard to produce five hard ciders, including Gold Rush (tart with a crisp, clean finish) and Ashmead’s Kernel (notes of apricot and cloves), as well as seasonal experiments such as Cherry Bounce, made by smoking local cherries and aging them in cider. Tasting room hours are limited to Fridays and Saturdays.

Food in the region reflects its agricultural heritage. You can take to the fields at Highland Orchards in West Chester, where at different times of the year you can pick your own strawberries, cherries, peaches, pumpkins and apples. All that bounty gets put to good use at their bakery, full of various fruit pies and corpulent apple cider doughnuts.

Courtesy of Talula's Table

The most coveted restaurant reservation in the area, possibly even the state, is at Talula’s Table in Kennett Square. By day it’s a gourmet market showing off local goods, but at night the space becomes home to farm-driven tasting dinners run by Aimee Olexy, whose work here led her to partner with renowned restaurateur Stephen Starr for his beloved downtown Philadelphia spot Talula’s Garden. The current menu at Talula’s Table includes scallop ceviche with late-season heirloom tomatoes and aguachile, and duck with miso maitake puree and blackberries.

Also serving regional farm-focused cuisine in Kennett Square is The Stone Barn’s Foxfire restaurant, where you’re welcome to bring your own bottle from one of the surrounding vineyards. Highlights include the mushroom chowder, sourced from the area, and a cheese board from local cheesemaker The Farm at Doe Run paired with house charcuterie. For a more refined, white-table-cloth experience, head back to Longwood Gardens for the reservation-only prix fixe restaurant 1906 (named for the year du Pont purchased the property), offering four-course seasonal dinners that currently include Waygu beef short rib with Parmesan whipped potato, maitake mushrooms and heirloom carrot.

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