There’s one other little place – so far – that Marie and I love to visit up in Rabun County, although I’m sad to say that this one tries my daughter’s patience just a little. Between Tallulah Falls and Clayton, there’s apparently a little town called Tiger. We haven’t found the town itself – it’s allegedly a stop sign and a post office somewhere along Old US 441 – but a few miles south of where that town is said to be, in an unincorporated community called Lakemont, you can find just about the best roadside jam-n-cider operation I’ve ever discovered. There are a few signs, but it’s still easy to miss. It’s called Hillside Orchard Farms, and if you’re driving north from Tallulah Falls up US 23, look for the signs and you’ll turn to the left and then make an immediate right and go about half a mile.
I think I like this place so much not just because of the quality of the canned and bottled treats, which I’ll get to in just a moment, but because of its isolation and ever-so-brief feeling of peace and absolute tranquility. It’s a very old-fashioned tourist stop, the sort that I imagine might have been common in the pre-interstate days. Apart from the sales room, there is a small restaurant which we have not tried yet, a cornfield maze, a nice little walk up to a petting zoo, a lazy little river that borders the property, and a “gold mine” for the kiddies complete with a little prospector mannequin. In the fall, there are some additional stands where locals sell some arts and crafts and occasionally, like this past Saturday, a bluegrass band plays for the visitors. If you think that there’s anything nicer than sitting back on one of the last warm weekends of the year enjoying some beautiful scenery and bluegrass in Marie’s company, you’d be mistaken.
All of this, however, bores my daughter silly. Well, she is only eleven.
Let’s be fair; plenty of roadside stands have jars of jams and preserves that have suspiciously similar and cautiously-worded labels about how they’re specially bottled for the operation in question. Short of an interrogation, you’re probably not going to know exactly for sure whether the bottle of “vidalia onion steak sauce” you can buy at A. Schwab’s in Memphis is all that different from the bottle whose label uses the same wording and the same font that you can buy at Hot Thomas in Watkinsville. It amuses me to think that there’s some outfit that makes house brand sauces for big grocery store chains four days a week, and then changes the packaging on Friday to ship out to all the roadside stands to con tourists.
I can’t speak for everything in Hillside Orchard’s inventory, but I do know for sure, now that I’ve seen it, that they do have a large canning and bottling facility about another half-mile up the road. And their sales room is sitting on a pretty big plot of farmland, so I’m comfortable believing that a fair chunk of their products are, genuinely, locally-made. Now maybe that “vidalia onion steak sauce” with that tan label and italic font isn’t, but when you’ve got a place offering all these fresh apples and other fruits along with bottles of these amazing ciders, I choose to believe the best.
The jams and preserves are all completely wonderful. We’ve tried quite a few as spreads for biscuits and loved every one. We have also tried a few of Hillside Orchard’s ciders and enjoy the spiced apple and the peach very much. My favorite, however, is the muscadine cider. A half-gallon of that is absolutely worth six bucks, but every once in a while, we have lucked on an inventory clearance and got a big bottle for three. I did kind of frustrate myself on the drive home, though, when I realized that I had intended to pick up a bottle of strawberry cider and give that a try, but plain forgot.
Fortunately, we’ll be going to Asheville again this month and will be driving right through this neck of the woods. I’m awfully curious about that strawberry cider. I wonder whether it might still be on sale?