By ATD’s Florida experts Susan & Simon Veness
Food tours have become big business in many parts of the Sunshine State. Miami has several, and you can also try them in Tampa, downtown Orlando and St Augustine. But little Sanford? We were intrigued.
Many British visitors will know the name but they may well not have seen the actual town, and that’s where Sanford Food Tours come in. Here’s where you can learn about central Florida history PD (Pre-Disney) AND discover some great tastes of the area.
Just to start with, all passengers with Thomson Airways (and, until recently, Thomas Cook, Monarch and Airtours) arrive in ‘Orlando’ at Sanford International Airport, which is the big charter gateway roughly 27 miles north of the actual city of Orlando.
Sanford itself is just a couple of miles north of the airport but is easy to miss as people head straight for the theme parks. Until recently, it has been a rather sleepy former port town on the St John’s River that enjoyed its hey-day in the 1880s, while it was also the Celery Capital of the World in the first half of the 20th century and a major Naval Air Station from 1942-67 (which explains the RA-5C Vigilante bomber on display at the entrance to the airport).
When Disney came along, Sanford slipped quietly into the background, a city of barely 17,000 people, or The Town That Time Forgot. Until the late 1990s. Since then, Sanford has slowly edged its way back into the central Florida scene, with much of the 1920s downtown core still intact and with a growing sense of being a vibrant community once more.
With great timing, the new Sanford Food Tours have linked the city’s 1870 origins to its growing modern foodie profile, and created a three-hour walking tour of the downtown area that tells a fascinating story of yesteryear and today, 19th century history and 21st century cuisine.
We met up with Steve, our guide, under the Sanford Clock in Magnolia Square, just off First Street. We thought we knew the Sanford Story reasonably well, but Steve had WAY more info and insight than we ever imagined possible.
Like the bank vault in the original Wells Fargo Bank building, on the corner of First Street and South Park Avenue that was used as a model for the vault in the film Ocean’s Eleven, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. “Go inside and check it out,” Steve urged us. So we did. As it turns out, the bank gets film fans coming in all the time, and the vault is open for a great photo opportunity. So Simon did.
While Steve conducted us around the town and revealed a non-stop welter of fascinating facts, we called in at six different restaurants, shops and cafes to get some genuine tastes of the new-look Sanford foodie scene (which also boasts several tasty micro-breweries, with more on the way).
We started at The Tennessee Truffle, a cute café that specialises in Southern food with a modern twist, where Chef Nat told us about his inspiration for a small, community-focused restaurant after working for years in Winter Park. Several of the recipes were handed down by his mother and grandmother – including one for macaroni and tomato – and we got to try his heavenly biscuits and gravy (think savoury scones in a light sausage sauce), all made in house every day, with the gravy featuring a touch of fennel, red pepper and sage.
Next up was the Park Avenue Popcorn Shoppe, where co-owner Heidi introduced us to a dazzling array of flavoured delicacies, which included Watermelon, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Snickers, Caramel Apple and Birthday Cake (yes, really – and it was delicious!). Heidi originally hails from LeClaire, Iowa, home of the downhome American Pickers TV programme, and the 'Shoppe' – which also sells ice cream, candy and sodas – is redolent with that lovely quirky, small-town America style. Definitely another winner with us.
Dreamycakes Bakery is a full-scale journey into Parisian café style – if French flair was mixed with old-school Southern hospitality. The interior is designed to feel like you’re dining at a pavement café and there is a highly individual touch with their service, with things like their Coffee Experience (a French press presentation) and fabulous mini cupcakes. Chef Angel is an award-winning chef in her own right and derived her love of French and other European culinary techniques from several visits to France. We sampled her Chicken Waldorf Croissant, with a Mojito Green Tea and Cannoli Mini-Cupcake and will definitely be back for more!
Back-tracking to where we started brought us to the Magnolia Square Market, a traditional German marketplace owned by Theo Hollerbach of the thoroughly German Willow Tree Café on First Street (which we have written about before). Here, kitchen specialist Nicky treated us to a demonstration of Apfel Strudel making and showed us how the Willow Tree makes the best apfel strudel west of Westphalia. After the demo, we got to try some, and can confirm it is as good as it looks (PS: we have the recipe, if anyone wants it – follow this link to the Forums).
It was clear we were in need of some liquid refreshment by this time, so Steve led us across downtown to Wop’s Hops Brewing Co, a great Italian-American owned brew-pub that claims to be the sixth-most haunted building in central Florida. We didn’t bump into any ghosts, but we did try several excellent beers, notably their Hail Caesar, a Belgian-style blond with a hint of lemongrass, and the Golden Stout, with its lovely coffee finish. There were another 13 beers on tap, including an excellent guava wheat beer, the Guava Goddess, while general manager Jason also served up tasty plates of their signature appetizer (and we’re not making this up!), the Wop-sicle, meatballs served with sauce and parmesan cheese on a stick. Again, we’ll be back for more here.
We finished our tour at Wondermade Marshmallows, a real local phenomenon that has become famous nationally after catching the attention of Oprah Winfrey. They now ship their amazing confectionery far and wide, all from their little high street shop here in Sanford, and these are no ordinary marshallows, let us tell you! No siree, Bob. With flavours running from key lime pie to bourbon, and including Fireball Whiskey, S’mores and Honey, these are not your grandmother’s ’mallows. The best thing was that we got to decorate our own selection, and take them home for some more sampling. Delicious? You bet! Even if you’re not on the Food Tour, you can stop by their storefront Café and try them for yourself, along with some terrific flavours of ice cream (Maple Bacon, anyone?).
It concluded our three-hour perambulation in high style and we were hugely impressed both with Sanford itself – with even more great reasons to visit than we could try in three hours – and the way Steve (who also owns the fabulous Sanford Limo-Cycle) conducted the tour. Every stop was well organised for our six-person group (and they can take up to 12 on any tour), and everything we tried was thoroughly worthwhile.
For more details, check out www.sanfordfoodtours.com or email [email protected]. They are $49/person and we think it’s pretty good value. Downtown Sanford is also easily found off junction 101A of I-4.
If you have questions about Sanford Food Tours – or anything else about the wonders of Florida – be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums.
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