An unlikely Lidia Bastianich meeting in Hunterdon County

Growing up in a town with literally one traffic light and a rambunctious herd of cows at a neighboring farm which often made me late for work, I was always itching to escape the no-man’s-land that is western New Jersey.

About one year after I graduated college, I finally escaped for good – I got an apartment in a small city about 45 minutes away and a few years after that, I moved again to central Jersey, where I live now. Five years later, I still feel grateful every time I only have to drive five minutes to go to the grocery store or the mall, and a quick 30-minute Uber to the airport.

Yesterday, Mike and I made a visit to another where the heck am I region in Jersey – Hunterdon County, which may only be about 30 minutes from home but as we wound through back roads (I think they are main roads here????) surrounded by farms, open fields and not an itch of traffic in sight, it felt much further away.

However, unlike the nap-inducing town where I’m from, Hunterdon County actually has stuff located throughout its fields, such as tons of wineries, small, charming downtowns scattered about and other specialty destinations, such as Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, which we also checked out on our journey.

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Courtesy of Ironbound Hard Cider

Our main destination, though, was including Ironbound Hard Cider, a tasting room and farm in Asbury (no, not Asbury Park) which makes hard cider that puts Angry Orchard to shame with cider that contains no added sugar, no preservatives, no concentrate and no sulfites. Plus, they have a pretty intense outdoor open-flame cooking setup with a 26-foot-tall Argentinian grill.

Apparently, this outdoor cooking setup is so cool that it caught the attention of best-selling cookbook author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich, who chose Ironbound Farm as the locale of the celebration dinner she hosted and filmed yesterday alongside several food artisans she spotlighted in her upcoming PBS special Lidia Celebrates America: The Return of the Artisans which airs Dec. 20. Lucky journalist me, I got to tag along and interview Lidia and watch some filming. (And lucky Mike, who got to come along too, since he’s such a huge Lidia fan).

After my Lidia interview, I bugged the PR director of Ironbound Farm to let us take a photo with Lidia, which she happily obliged to, sweet little grandma that she is. I introduced her to Mike, who literally told her he loved her. To his credit, she then said, “Do you want one of these cookies? I baked them myself.” (We ate the cookies. And the seconds she offered us, too).

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Lidia gave me this cookie.

It’s really no surprise that Lidia chose Ironbound Farm as the locale for the culmination of her special. Ironbound Hard Cider loves its food artisans. The fare they serve in their tasting room is made from local farmers, such as their yak chili dog, lamb sausage and peppers and Ironbound burger. Their hard cider is made from apples from their 108 acres of apple orchards and that of other local orchards, with other ingredients from their own five-acre garden of heirloom vegetables, culinary herbs and native wildflowers. They frequently host events featuring Jersey chefs who have the same commitment to local fare as they do.

Another focus of Lidia’s upcoming special is food artisans that also give back to the community. So, making for a real match made in Lidia heaven, about 40 percent of Ironbound Hard Cider’s employees are the formerly incarcerated, veterans and immigrants and includes an on-the-job training program for its farm employees that focuses on areas such as identity value, communication skills and conflict resolution.

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Fare from Lidia’s celebration dinner

Plus, not for nothing, Ironbound Hard Cider is just a cool place to hang out. It’s housed in a 1700s-era barn and is surrounded by cooking sheds to shield open-flame cooking, where it has made fare using fish from its pond, mushrooms on its property and produce from its valley. And did I mention the cider is seriously delicious?

Destinations like this are the real hidden Jersey gems that you find not by wandering down Main Street by instead, by taking a drive out to a place where your cell phone doesn’t work. Yeah, you might just find a herd of cows cramping traffic. Or, you could find Lidia Bastianich. Who knows.

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Lidia’s celebration dinner.

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