Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Confederate Museum in Columbus, TX

One of the oddest looking museums is located on the county courthouse square in Columbus, Texas. Run by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, this tiny museum pays homage to those local veterans of the Civil War and to all veterans of war who followed. What makes this place special is that the museum was once a water tower built of home-made bricks in 1883 by the local Masons. Later, when the water tower was no longer needed, the 500 gallon water steel tank was removed. The end result was a brick building that looked like a castle turret.

When Suzanne and I entered the Museum, we were greeted by a very friendly lady eager to share her knowledge of the exhibits on hand. Confederate era artifacts were neatly staged along the circular walls of the museum.  A small room at the back housed more artifacts and the exterior of the water tower. In this room, we found a dated stone memorial honoring the Masons and their completion of the structure. 

A circular stairway led to the second floor exhibits where more civil war era artifacts resided. Old uniforms and other clothing, pictures and a variety of artifacts have all been carefully preserved. The highlight of the museum was viewing a three barrel shotgun. As a hunter and gun aficionado, I was really intrigued with this rarity.  I wished I could handle this odd-looking gun but unfortunately it was behind glass.

The museum may be small in size but the impact on me was enormous. The Castle in Columbus provided the backdrop for the most important chapter of my book “The Second Coming-The Republic of Texas” where the main character Rick Remington finds the lost Treaty of Vicissitude hidden in the museum. Once again Suzanne and I find ourselves amazed as we travel Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

World Class Chocolate in Texas

Chocolate aficionados, rejoice! Al and I have found the best chocolate truffles in the world here in the state of Texas. More precisely, here in Calvert, Texas. Calvert is a small town north of Bryan-College Station on Texas highway 6. Last Friday, Al and I were wondering how we should enjoy the incredible weather we were having here in Texas.  A few weeks ago, a dear friend of mine had pointed out that great handmade chocolate treats were available just north of Bryan, so I mentioned to Al that I thought it sounded like the perfect daytrip. What could possibly make a beautiful day any better than eating chocolate?  Fantastic rich chocolate that melts in your mouth like water from an oasis in the desert!  In my world, there’s absolutely nothing that can’t be made better by chocolate.  Al broke my train of thought with lewd words. “But what about our New Year’s Resolution to lose weight?” he asked. We looked at each other and started laughing. I knew we were headed to Calvert to find this emporium of chocolate called CocoaModa! 

Calvert is a little sleepy town with a large historical district situated along Texas 6 (Main Street). As we parked our car and scanned the businesses, we could see a few tourists like ourselves meandering along Main Street.  It was pretty clear that the primary destination for most of these tourists was CocoaModa, the Chocolate Boutique and French restaurant owned and operated by Chef Ken Wilkinson.  Walking into the beautifully restored Victorian building we were greeted by Chef Wilkinson himself.  A classically- trained British chef, he was gracious and energetic in classic British voice. It was clear that he had a passion for chocolate and willingness to share his knowledge with all.  Sharing a sample of his product didn’t hurt either!

As we mulled over our selections, Chef Wilkinson waited patiently with box in hand and a clear understanding of our frustration over the choices. We finally made our selections but needed one more to complete our box. Without hesitation, Chef Wilkinson picked up one of his favorites to complete our box, confident in his decision. We were as excited as two young children getting our Christmas gifts a day early! Knowing that he brings in the finest ingredients from all over the world to create incredible chocolate truffles in Texas added to our anticipation.  Later I learned that unlike many more traditional truffles, the centers of these fine confections are very liquid, creating a burst of fresh flavor in each delicious bite.  

I’m a bit of a chocolate connoisseur and I’ve had the privilege of having chocolate from the best of Belgium and Switzerland as well as many of the brands you find typically in the United States, but I have never had an experience quite like this.  These truffles are unquestionably the finest I’ve ever tasted. The CocoaModa goal is to put Texas on the map for great chocolate, and in my opinion, Ken Wilkinson has met that goal!

In addition to the chocolate boutique, CocoModa serves a multi-course dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings.  These French dinners are by reservation only and the menu is chosen by the Chef and published on the CocoaModa Facebook page.  Diners are encouraged to bring their own wine/liquor for dinner.  The great food and a lovely setting combined with the charming and energetic chef is sure to make for a memorable dining experience.

 So far, Al and I have enjoyed the raspberry, passion fruit, key lime, rum, and hazelnut truffles.   I’m saving the lavender and espresso for another day.  CocoaModa has made a lasting impression on us. Who knew that some of the best chocolate in the world could be found in Texas Thru My Back Door!

Note: Here's a link to a video with information on how these truffles are made: CocoaModa Video

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Kreische Brewery – “Frisch Auf”

On a hillside bluff overlooking the Colorado River near La Grange lays the ruins of one of the first commercial beer breweries in Texas. Built by a German immigrant, Heinrick Kreische, the brewery was ingeniously devised to utilize the principles of physics and bring his favorite brew to share with his fellow Texans. Heinrick was a prominent stone mason of his time. Walking through the ruins of his brewery, one can appreciate his skills and hard work. The brewery was carefully laid out in a manner to utilize gravity  to transfer the spring water at the top of the hill down through a nine-step process to brew his beer. When his beer was ready for consumption, he would raise a banner with the German words “Freisch Auf” which means “Freshen Up!” This was the sign for the people of La Grange to come and party and enjoy the latest batch of beer.

As Suzanne and I viewed the ruins from above, I could only imagine how much fun it must have been to gather at the brewery and drink the fresh brew. The close knit German and Czech families surely enjoyed the traditions of their homeland as they congregated. Since the site is now part of a Texas State Park, I won’t be able to drink a beer here and toast this remarkable achievement. The best I can do is to share the story.

You see, while Heinrich Kreische was a prominent stone mason and innovator, what I am most impressed with was his commitment to watch over and preserve a sandstone tomb at the top of the hill on his property. This was the burial grounds of the remains of the Texans who died in the Dawson Massacre as well as those of the failed Mier Expedition best known for the Black Bean Death Lottery. These heroes will be forever remembered here on “Monument Hill” as it is called today because a German immigrant to Texas cared.

Walking along the trails in the park and checking out Heinricks home and outbuildings, I got a sense of the pride in the early immigrants to Texas. The beauty of the countryside is spectacular but the labor of love of the land is what makes this a great place to visit as we see Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Texas-Made Cigars

Every once in a while you run across a small business that defies time. In 1893, Henry William Finck came to San Antonio and with $1000 started his own cigar factory. Back in those days there were as many as eighteen cigar factories in San Antonio. Cigars were hand rolled from tobacco brought in from Cuba, Honduras, Brazil and the eastern states. Cigar smoking was quite popular. As the years passed cigar smoking diminished. In the 60’s, the US surgeon general declared smoking was hazardous to our health and may cause cancer. Throughout these turbulent times for smoking, the Finck Cigar Company kept on trucking along, making high quality cigars for those who enjoyed the indulgence. 

While in San Antonio, Suzanne and I decided to visit the Finck Cigar Company. First we went to the factory itself. It was a nondescript warehouse type building with the entrance next to the loading docks. The folks at the office were very cordial and allowed us to peer into the working factory. Inside, one could see various cigar rolling machines. These old cigar rolling machines are one of a kind as these machines are no longer made. The company employs a machinist to make parts for the machines as needed. This sounds like something you would find in Cuba or other third world countries that doesn’t have access to modern technology.

Now it was time to visit a retail outlet. We were not expecting such a nice looking building. Once inside, we were greeted by an enthusiastic employee who was smoking a cigar behind the counter. We told him we were novices when it came to cigars and wanted to learn all we could. He showed us around the store and answered all our questions about cigars and the company. What a nice young man! There were so many brands and types to choose from. We were shown the Smoking Room where one could enjoy a cigar with other cigar aficionados. After soaking up all this new found information, we decided to buy a box of their “Travis Club” brand. “If you’re going to live in Texas, you should buy Texas products first.” That’s my motto! With my box of cigars in hand and thanking our host, it was time to head back to our hotel.

Today, I’m waiting for a special occasion to open my box of cigars and enjoy the fruits of labor from our fellow Texans. Will it be on my birthday or some other special holiday? Or will it just be a nice cold winter evening sitting out on the back porch watching a vibrant red sun set in the western sky as we see Texas Thru My Back Door!