Highlands, North Carolina, has an impressive eating scene, including an annual food and wine festival each November that floods the tiny town with hungry visitors. Wine dinners, a farm party, and sip-and-stroll wine-tastings in Main Street’s classy shops are just a few of the Highlands Culinary Weekend’s popular events. The 2014 event took place last weekend. Here’s what you need to know before you go next year.
1. This chic little hamlet only has about 1,500 full-time residents, but it’s home to six Wine Spectator award-winning restaurants.
2. It is possible to outshine Mother Nature. At an altitude of 4,118 feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Highlands boasts some of the most awe-inspiring natural beauty in Western North Carolina: thundering waterfalls, jaw-dropping views, forests ablaze in jewel hues. But the many eating offerings make it easy to ignore for local craft beer, wine, fresh farm-to-table cuisine, pub grub, and more. (Writer's Note: While the Carolina sky might induce a desire to fly through the tree tops, on the morning after a 5-course meal paired with of some of the country’s best wines at Lakeside restaurant, a pulse-pounding (and tummy-turning) ride on the appropriately named Screaming Mare zip line is not for the weak-of-stomach. If you must do it--it really is a thrill--a few pre-flight swigs of Pepto are highly advised.)
3. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. They’re not just the lyrics of a Simon and Garfunkel song. They’re also ingredients in Satulah Mountain Brewery’s Sunset Saison. This refreshing wheat beer from the town’s only craft-beer creators hits each herbaceous note perfectly.
4. You know you’re in a food fantasyland when the town’s grocery store (Mountain Fresh) offers lunch specials prepared by James-Beard-Award-winning Chef Louis Osteen. Clear your afternoon calendar though: Indulging in his crispy crusted duck on a cathead biscuit (drowned in hearty gravy) with a perfectly fried hen’s egg on the side requires a long winter’s nap.
5. The Ghost chili (one of the world’s most tongue-torching peppers) is not only edible, it’s incredible when done the Kilwin’s way. This confectionery recently fired up its famous dark chocolate by adding just a hint of the chili’s heat and a sprinkling of sea salt.
6. Wine reps are suckers for social media mentions. If you tell them to “keep it coming” so you can get the perfect Instagram pic, you’ll gain a pour two to three times the standard sampling size.
7. The legendary Shadow of the Bear, which appears in the valley below Whiteside Mountain outside of Highlands for only 30 minutes a day a few weeks each year, does not, in fact, look like a bear. It looks like fat cat melting into the trees, especially if you forget about the time change and arrive to see it when the phenomenon is ending. (Oops!)
8. Your idea of a barn is not the same as Old Edwards Inn’s idea of a barn. Unless the word makes you think of a massive building with a stacked-stone fireplace, a three-tiered iron chandelier, and floor-to-ceiling window walls. This setting is the site of the Inn’s annual Harvest Farm dinner that will seriously test your stomach capacity with an enticing spread of all-local ingredients produced under the direction of Chef Johannes Klapdohr. Proof that presentation matters: Mac ’n cheese spooned warm and gooey out of a hollowed-out round of Parmigiano Reggiano tastes about 100 times better than the same dish served out of an ordinary bowl.
9. With their colorful sides all a-shimmer, fresh-from-the-stream rainbow trout are almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
10. Each Culinary Weekend event sells out quickly, so watch for 2015 dates and don’t wait to grab your seat at the table.
Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a freelance writer in Montgomery, Alabama. Check out some of her work, her children’s book, and her blog, “Chew on This,” at jenniferkornegay.com.