Taste of the Lebanon Valley: A fresh take on old-world tradition
Wendy Royal Summer 2023
Every region of Pennsylvania has a food identity. Philly has the cheesesteak. Lancaster County is known for Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. When you visit the northeast and western parts of PA, you’ll most likely experience the Eastern European influence with foods like pierogies, haluski, and kielbasa. And, perhaps none more recognizable than Hershey’s chocolate legacy. It was German immigrants who gave the Lebanon Valley its distinctive flavor.
The star of any charcuterie board, Lebanon Bologna is the food most associated with the Lebanon Valley. You can’t easily compare Lebanon Bologna to other types of bolognas you might find in your neighborhood deli. It has a smoky, rustic flavor profile that comes from time-honored recipes.
Seltzer’s Smokehouse Meats in Palmyra has been making its bologna for over 120 years. According to Austin Wagoner, CEO and 4th generation of the Seltzer family, their process for making their Lebanon Bologna has changed very little in the last century. Seltzer’s smokemasters wood smoke the bologna in tall wooden smokehouses, creating the distinct flavor for which the Seltzer family is known.
Another treat that is a staple of Lebanon is Opera Fudge. Ironically, Opera fudge isn’t fudge at all. And why opera? Some say it was called that because it was sold at the opera during intermission. The confection has a rich, creamy, and sweet vanilla center dipped in chocolate liquor.
Wertz Candies of Lebanon is synonymous with opera fudge. Since 1931, the Wertz family has created sweet treats from their shop on Cumberland Street. They make a variety of handmade chocolate confections, caramels, and popcorn. Earlier this year, the owners of Wertz Candies decided it was time to retire and put the business up for sale, hoping little would change. As it turns out, the new owners, Rob and Lindsay Wertz, aren’t planning on making many changes. While three generations of Wertz’s owned the business before them, they are not the fourth. Although they share the same last name, the couple is unaware of any relation to the founders.
The fact that both Seltzer’s and Wertz’s have helped define the flavor of the Lebanon Valley hasn’t escaped the head brewer at Snitz Creek Brewery, Ryan Moncarz. The brewery offers Opera Fudge Stoudt, which highlights chocolate and vanilla, while Seltzer’s Smokehaus 7 uses grains smoked in Seltzer’s smokehouses. The brewery also has a restaurant where you’ll find traditional pub fare.
Fresh From the Farm
While longtime businesses have impacted the types of flavors we identify with Lebanon, the flavor identity of the area is more rooted in the earth than anything. The fertile farmlands that blanket the countryside of the Lebanon Valley, along with the soiled hands that tend the crops and animals, ensure fresh produce, meats, and cheeses are readily available to consumers and restauranteurs.
Farm-to-table values can be experienced in restaurants throughout the area. The Timeless Café has partnered with local farms, butchers, and creameries to create a fresh and flavorful menu. The café, which serves breakfast and lunch, is a go-to for many locals who enjoy artisan food and a welcoming atmosphere.
The Lebanon Farmers’ Market, in the heart of the city, is where you’ll find local produce, baked goods, and fresh meats every Thursday – Saturday. When the market is closed, you’re sure to find roadside stands with just a short drive to the country.
I would encourage you to get lost. Most of us have access to GPS, so go for a drive along the country roads of this fertile area. Stop, shop, and dine in the small towns of Mount Gretna, Annville, Myerstown, and Schaefferstown.
The heritage of the people who migrated from Germany comes through in the farmers’ hard work, the creative, entrepreneurial spirit, and the rich flavors of the Lebanon Valley. For accommodations and other dining experiences in the area, check out visitlebanonvalley.com.