San Saba is a small community of about 3,000 people a bit north and west of Horseshoe Bay. You can get there in about an hour. Go west to Llano and head up picturesque Highway 16 through some rolling hills. Look at a map and you’ll see it is almost smack dab in the middle of the state.
Like many of the communities in central Texas, the town of San Saba can trace its roots to the mid 19th century. Various native cultures thrived before the European settlers arrived; following the signing of treaties with the Indians, the town itself was established in 1854. The post Civil War years were apparently violent ones for the area, but thanks to the Texas Rangers civic order was eventually restored.
A signal event in San Saba’s history was the arrival from England of a young cabinet maker by the name of E. E. Risien. Pecans are indigenous to San Saba county and have been a cash crop since as early as 1857. Risien, an amateur horticulturist who was en route to the goldfields of California, was intrigued with the soft shell pecans he found and decided to stay. He began propagating the so-called paper-shell pecans and marketing them literally world-wide. Thus San Saba came to be known as the “Pecan Capital of the World.” The pecan industry in San Saba is still thriving—despite what some of the literature calls “the brutal whims of our Texas weather.”
The proud heritage of the pecan industry was celebrated in Risien Park in October this year with the first San Saba River Pecan Jam festival. Over 14 months in the planning stages, this event brought together Texas pecans, Texas wines, Texas food and Texas entertainment.
Approaching from the highway, you would never have guessed what a lovely sight awaited you once you went through the gates of the park. As you arrived by car, you were routed to a parking area midway between the park and the San Saba golf course and then shuttled to the park entrance. A short walk brought you finally to the park itself, an ancient pecan grove bordered by the San Saba river. It’s a magical place, as one of the organizers told me, and it was a perfect fall day. (She told me the committee paid extra for the magnificent weather.)
Throughout the day, Go Texan vendors displayed and sold the best in Texas food and Texas products. I had a hard time deciding what to try. I had attended previous events where I had a chance to taste Leslie Horne’s delicious and spicy “Aurelia’s Chorizo” out of Boerne (if you find this product, grab it!), so I decided to try one of the other vendors, Tony’s Hill Country Smoked BBQ out of Bertram. It was great, but I wished I’d been able to try a few other places as well. So many stands, so little time!
I was tempted by many of the products I saw—some lovely beaded bags, for instance and some beautiful windchimes. I came home with a bottle of rich, golden extra virgin Texas Hill Country Olive Oil from Bill Cook’s company in Dripping Springs. It was a bit of a splurge, but well worth it.. I find it difficult to pass up community cookbooks and finally succumbed to a cookbook with a collection of prize-winning recipes from 54 years of the San Saba County Pecan Food Show. If you need a recipe that showcases pecans, just ask me!
The pecan vendors were out in force with beautiful and tempting displays of all kinds of treats, from sweet to savory. At one end of the park, there were activities for children in the Enchanted Orchard. At the other end were activities for the adults in the Wine Garden. For a modest fee you received tickets for wine tasting and a souvenir wine glass. Ten Texas wineries were represented, including some fairly close to home: Spicewood Vineyards, Perissos (in Hoover Valley off Park Road 4), and William Chris in Hye (just west of Johnson City).
In the middle of the park, a succession of Texas artists provided musical entertainment throughout the day and evening.
Finally, there was a culinary tent where some prominent chefs demonstrated recipes that featured pecans. Kevin Wenzel of Wiseman Chocolate House in Hico demonstrated techniques with chocolate and David Garrido, a highly-respected Austin chef was also on hand.
I was most interested in watching the demonstrations by Terry Thompson-Anderson, a chef and cookbook author who lives in Fredericksburg. A talented and prolific writer, she’s probably best known for her award-winning Texas on the Plate as well as the terrific travel guide/cookbook The Texas Hill Country, but she’s published many other books and she frequently writes for magazines. You may have seen her with her husband, Roger, at various local festivals. As a matter of local interest, she has also consulted on the menus at Wines Across Texas in Marble Falls.
Anderson prepared two dishes during the day. One was a roasted pork tenderloin with port wine glaze and port-glazed pecans. The other was her San Saba Texas Pecan Pie. She’s a wonderful teacher, so the techniques she demonstrated were as important as the recipes themselves. I highly recommend that you check out her website at
You’ll find a wealth of recipes, and, as she says, “all the gustatory pleasures of Texas—all in one place!”
Meanwhile, with her permission, here is her recipe for San Saba Texas Pecan Pie along with her commentary. The pie has a secret ingredient that makes it extra special. She also includes a recipe for a perfect pie crust you can make in minutes in a food processor. Forget the prepackaged and refrigerated stuff, she says. This is so much better. (You can make the pie crust ahead—or several of them. Keep them, well wrapped, in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.)
SAN SABA TEXAS
No doubt about it, Pecan Pie is a Texas institution. Nothing pairs better with barbecue than pecan pie. And no wonder Texans are prone to like desserts made from pecans. Some of the best pecans in the country are grown in the upper reaches of the Texas Hill Country around San Saba, known as the Pecan Capital of the World. I never liked pecan pie much as a kid because it was just too sweet and seemed to me to have a glue-like texture. I began to experiment with the standard corn syrup-based recipes, substituting other types of syrup in place of the corn syrup. When I hit upon agave nectar, it was a winner! Not as sweet and the texture is softer and looser. Adding the coffee-based tequila liqueur just took the pecan pie experience to a whole new plateau. Unfortunately, I now love the very thought of the pie!
Makes 1 (9-inch) pie.
1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons to ¼ cup ice water
3 eggs, well beaten
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup Agave Nectar
2 tablespoons Patron XO Café (tequila/coffee liqueur)
¼ cup melted unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-1/3 cups chopped San Saba pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make the pastry first. Combine the butter cubes, flour, sugar and salt in work bowl of food processor fitted with steel blade. Pulse on/off 3-4 times to break up the butter into pea-sized bits. With the machine running, add the water until a cohesive dough forms. Do not let the dough form a ball. Turn crumbly dough out onto work surface and gather the loose dough together. Knead by hand a couple of times, just long enough to make a smooth dough. (But it will still have lumps of unblended butter.) Pat dough into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 20 minutes before using.
Spray a 9-inch Pyrex pie dish with non-stick coating spray; set aside. Roll the dough out to a 1/8- to ¼-inch thick round and transfer to prepared pie dish. Flute the edges of the pastry as desired and place in freezer while you make the filling.
Make the filling by combining all ingredients except pecans. Whisk to blend well, then whisk for about 3 minutes until mixture is very smooth and frothy – no lumps or blobs. Scatter the pecans in the bottom of prepared pastry. Pour the batter over the pecans and bake in preheated oven for about 1 hour and 5 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and filling is almost set. The filling should jiggle in the center ever-so-slightly and there will be slight cracking on the top of the pie when it’s perfectly done. Do not bake until the filling is completely firm.
Cool on wire rack and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate pecan pie as it spoils the smooth, gooey texture.
©Terry Thompson-Anderson, 2010
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I was fortunate to be invited to a reception and dinner presented by the San Saba Festival Association on the evening before the festival. Ranchers, vintners, business men and women and festival participants from all over Texas gathered at the serene Mill Pond Park to enjoy a lovely evening. From the hors d’oeuvres served near the great mill wheel, to the dinner at the pavilion, each course featured San Saba pecans and was paired with wines from Alamosa Wine Cellars in Bend. Steven Krueger, the sommelier from the Westin La Cantera Resort, provided notes about the wine pairings as the evening progressed.
During the evening, I had a chance to meet a couple members of the festival board of directors, Mike McHenry, president, and Trish Fullerton, a graphics designer who also served as secretary on the board. I owe considerable thanks to both of them for their courtesy in providing information and assistance— and for allowing me to a hop a ride on their respective golf carts during the festival.
Some 2,500 people attended the Pecan Jam. The organizers pronounced the event a success that far exceeded their expectations. Plans for the next year are already underway and the event is scheduled for the third Saturday in October, on the 20th. I’m marking my calendar!
Happy Thanksgiving to all!