After my Montgomery visit, I joined the group from Travel Media Showcase (TMS) that traveled north by bus to Birmingham. This city is a little larger than Montgomery proper, at about a 230,000 population, but the total Birmingham area has about a one million population. Its largest employer is the University of Alabama at Birmingham and several significant banks and life insurance companies are also headquartered there. Historically, Birmingham, the largest Alabama city, was noted as the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
During our Birmingham stay, our hotel was the Renaissance Ross Bridge Resort and Spa. This majestic hotel, on the city outskirts, was designed similar to the Fairmont of Banff, Canada. Due to its several outstanding golf courses, and resulting Scottish tie-in, Ross Bridge features in the late afternoon, just before sunset, a bagpipe player who tours the grounds, while serenading guests with unmistakable tones from his instrument. It is considered the golfers warning to finish their round.
Some of our group took a civil rights tour. Just as in Montgomery, Birmingham endured turmoil, violence and murder during the struggles that eventually ended racial segregation during the 1950s and 1960s. Several locations serve as reminders of these events and the ability today to focus on growth and progress for Birmingham.
The first phase of our culinary tour involved a series of stops at three vineyards, Ozan Vineyard and Cellars, Vizzini Farms Winery and Morgan Creek Vineyards. At these three establishments, we tasted a variety of wines, ranging from peach to red to dry red Muscadine.
Backgrounds of the three vineyard owners were quite interesting. For example, the Vizzini ancestors, emigrating from Sicily, but faced with Ellis Island overloads, were forced to enter the U.S. from New Orleans. As a result, Alabama eventually gained talent that would otherwise have been a plus for the Northeast. Ozan is owned by the Patrick family and Morgan Creek is owned by Mr. Brammer. Since all three are relatively small, they are able to produce quality wine with small staffs.
I especially enjoyed a chocolate raspberry wine offering at the Vizzini locale. As a result, we ordered ½ case of it as well as ½ case of the Paulina variety.
At Morgan Creek, it was pointed out to us that one of the vineyard’s prominent customers is actress Pauley Perrette, one of the stars of the TV series NCIS.
Later that night, our group enjoyed dinner at Frank Stitt’s Highland’s Bar & Grill. This establishment is highly rated, not only in Alabama, but nationwide. Chef Stitt has received the James Beard award as the top American chef. My dinner of braised pork shoulder, chowder and vanilla ice cream with a dash of Makers Mark, was preceded by an opening orange martini specialty drink that I thoroughly enjoyed.
On Saturday morning, our group started with breakfast at the Jones Valley Urban Farms. This location featured breakfast prepared by Chef Clayton Sherrod. Chef Sherrod is very personable and dynamic and serves as an able ambassador for Alabama cuisine around the world. He served breakfast highlighted by shrimp and grits and entertained us with a cooking demonstration.
Jones Valley Urban Farms is a nonprofit organization that utilizes vacant downtown property to grow organic produce and flowers.
After breakfast, we had two stops on the culinary tour. First was the Pepper Place Saturday Market. Booths showed off a variety of foods, such as peaches, fresh produce and very tasty cheese as well as arts and crafts. Next was the Peanut Depot, where traditional roasting methods produce thousands of pounds of peanuts each week. Although Virginia peanuts are used here, the establishment is part of an Alabama tradition. Some of the roasting equipment dates back more than 100 years.
We lunched at Niki’s West. It is renowned for its fast paced cafeteria line, featuring offerings such as pork barbecue, yams, grits and other good traditional Southern food.
Our Saturday culinary tour was topped off nicely by dinner at the Hot and Hot Fish Club, owned by Chef Chris Hastings and his wife Idie Hastings. Chris has also received a James Beard award as the top Southern chef. I started dinner with a chocolate martini. Following this drink, I selected chowder, shrimp and grits (well worth it, even after the same choice at breakfast) and dessert of apple ganauche and ice cream. Our waitress, Evelyn, was absolutely outstanding with her service and knowledge of every facet of the Fish Club menu.
On Sunday, our final day, we started with breakfast at Brock’s Restaurant in Ross Bridge. I ended the tour with a facial (yes, a man’s facial) at the Ross Bridge Spa. This was described to me as a “deep cleansing therapeutic facial…” that “…removes impurities.” After the treatment, I felt that this was a very accurate description.
The spa provides an interesting array of massages, related therapy and facials for both men and women.
In summary, we thoroughly enjoyed our Birmingham tour. We believe the city is an outstanding example of the forward-looking new South.