Sweet (Hudson) Valley Highs
Published: May 2009
By Matt Lee, Ted Lee
Less than two hours north of Manhattan, the Hudson River valley is fast becoming New York's breadbasket—and a haven for food lovers. Matt Lee and Ted Lee comb its farms and villages to find artisanal cheeses and stellar heirloom vegetables, award-winning wines and boutique greens—not to mention a bumper crop of top-notch restaurants and inns
Inside: the Facts.
As we arrived at Sprout Creek Farm, a dairy just southeast of Poughkeepsie, on a warm May morning, the pastures were bathed in a soft, sparkling light that made every blade of grass and leaf look sheathed in glass. Cows grazed in the field, but besides the occasional swat of a tail or dip of the head, everything was at rest. We went knocking on the barn door, looking for someone to sell us some cheese, and Jonathan White appeared, wearing a hairnet, a long black apron, and rubber boots. "Sure, you can buy some," he said. "But the milk's just setting. Would you like to help make it instead?"
We'd come to the Hudson Valley because we sensed a quiet revolution afoot. The feeling had crept up on us over the last 10 years. First, bottles from Hudson Valley vineyards started turning up on wine lists. Then Coach Farm goat's-milk cheeses got serious attention around the country. Later, foie gras rivaling that of the Périgord made the scene, fattening restaurant menus from St. Louis to Sonoma. But it wasn't until we began to shop at Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket that we realized just how much the valley had become our breadbasket, our Loire. From the seemingly exotic red Jerusalem artichokes, corn sprouts, and micro-greens to staples like fingerling potatoes, farm-fresh eggs, and cider, the items in the fridge that set our pulses racing were consistently those from the Hudson Valley.
We felt we owed the valley a pilgrimage. But even as we neared the George Washington Bridge on our way out of Manhattan, we wondered: Could this really be like a vacation in the Loire?Or would it just be like the Hamptons with sheep?Could we actually get out in the country and feel a part of it?And if we could, how long would it take?
Exactly 1 hour and 40 minutes after leaving our apartment, we were in aprons, Wellingtons, and hairnets, scurrying to keep up as Jonathan White darted around his spartan cheese-making barn. One minute we were washing stainless-steel hoops; the next we were crouched inside a dank aging room, tickling ripening wheels of cheese to remove a fluffy gray mold that was about to engulf them. When the time came to drain the milk from the warming tank into the open cheese-making trough, White's puckish energy calmed, and he paused, beaming as the pristine liquid slowly filled the basin. "Smell that herbaceousness?" he asked. "That's grass!"
An aroma of green tea and herbs filled the room. The milk's faint shamrock tint might have seemed alarming if our noses hadn't prepared us for the revelation that fresh milk from cows that eat only grass (unlike the grain-fed type) looks and smells like the blades they had for breakfast. Sprout Creek Farm's cheeses—the mild, soft Ouray (named for a beloved barn cat) and the tangy, aged Barat—take on the nuanced flavors of the different grasses and herbs the cows eat over the course of the milking season. Since it was late spring, tender crabgrass was on the menu. Summer's bluegrass and vetch, White told us, would be even more fragrant. "And I can't wait for the bee balm," he said, rubbing his palms together.
Such excitement is rarely associated with modern farm life. In the Hudson Valley, especially, the story of agricultural land imperiled by shifting economics and encroaching suburbanization is a dog-eared classic. Painters of the Hudson River school often edited out of their romantic landscapes the factories and lumberyards that began to pepper the region in the 1800's. Our own great-grandfather, tempted by rising land prices, sold his Peekskill dairy herd back in 1929. But our recent, serpentine journey, which had us crossing the river as many as six times a day, confirmed our guess that there's a revolution taking place in the valley, and it's about more than just butterfat. What Sprout Creek is doing for dairy—creating an artisanal treasure out of what was once a commodity—other farmers on both sides of the Hudson are doing for their own products: grain-fed Belted Galloway beef, organic heirloom corn, fresh black currants. Though apples made the valley famous, today's pick-your-owns offer far more: in a single day, we harvested asparagus, sweet peas, sour cherries, and flowers, all within two hours of Times Square.
Hovering over the bounty is the presence of america's first and only residential cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America, known in food circles, without irony, as "the CIA." Since 1946, this CIA has sent its graduates to top kitchens in New York, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong. But a surprising number of alumni have stuck close to the river, and over the course of our journey we would find the school's influence everywhere. Since Hyde Park was near the site of our impromptu cheese-making internship (you can book a session at Sprout Creek in advance, and we highly recommend it), the CIA was one of our first stops.
Imagine a leafy campus where every student wears chef's whites and the college store sells cookbooks and high-quality kitchen knives. Roth Hall, the CIA's campus center, is a proud, porticoed brick building on a rise overlooking the river. The centerpiece of its interior is a main hall whose picture windows provide views into the school's enormous open kitchens and bakeries. We watched as students in toques hacked up roast chickens by the dozen. In another space, a baker cut a blanket of pastry into small squares. Where would they be in three or four years?Le Cirque?Tuscany?Or would they stay nearby—seduced by the riches of the valley?
There are four restaurants at the CIA, run by faculty and students and open to the public. In our flannel shirts and cheese-making jeans, we knew we weren't cut out for the Escoffier Restaurant, but we must have appeared too fresh-from-the-farm even for the American Bounty room. After a chilly reception and a hushed conference among two hosts and a headwaiter, we were told they were fully booked, though six deserted tables gaped longingly in plain view.
Our American Bounty experience seemed to corroborate the Hudson Valley sociology as explained to us by a Catskills-native friend in a terse e-mail that read, "Right Bank: Uptight, Hunters (the Red-Blazered kind). Left Bank: Laid-back, Backpackers, Hikers." The left bank is the gateway to Woodstock, while the right, with its manicured horse farms and antiquing towns, is ripe for city-bred country squires. For the record, the maître d's blazer was green.
Retreating to the west side of the river, we wove through the college town of New Paltz. The haze of patchouli lingering over the health-food store put us in a distinctly left-bank state of mind. In tiny Rosendale we ducked into Rosendale Wares, a vintage clothing store with a red and aqua façade that fairly pulses (though not as much as the gold lamé go-go boots on sale inside). Ravenous by now, we pressed on to High Falls, five miles away, and pulled into the parking lot of the first place we saw, an unassuming log roadhouse called the Clove Café. An empty stage and a collection of Bob Dylan memorabilia on the walls suggested that this was a cheeseburger kind of place. Then the menu arrived, and in an instant we were delivered of the right bank/left bank baggage we carried.
Here was exactly the kind of food you want when you're in the country: not precious or pretentious, but prepared with the strict resolve that no ingredient be unloved, out of season, or trucked in from afar. We shared a crisp-crust pizza with ramps, the garlicky relative of lily of the valley that's foraged in the spring months, followed by rare tenderloin medallions of locally raised rabbit, wrapped in gossamer house-cured prosciutto. The chef-owners, David and Donna Viertel, met at the CIA and opened the Clove Café in May 1999. Even their spring vegan navarin of seitan (wheat gluten) with minted basmati rice seemed appropriate, poised as we were within hitchhiking distance of the weediness of Woodstock and the refinement of Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller's Hudson River estate.
Kykuit, Clermont, Boscobel, Locust Grove, Montgomery Place, Olana. The Hudson Valley, like the Loire, has its own collection of stately riverside châteaux. Granted, New York State's manors lack the square footage of Chenonceau and Blois, but they are all stunning and well preserved. Nearly all of the estates are on the right bank, so, fortified by our meal at the Clove, we drove north (40 miles) to the town of Catskill and crossed the river at the Rip Van Winkle Bridge to see one of the most famous.
From the bridge, Olana's Technicolor turret is visible above the tree line: the first hint that an artist lived here. In fact, Frederic Church, of the Hudson River school, mixed the hues for Olana himself, very likely on the same palettes he used to paint his dazzling landscapes. Inspired by his travels to Beirut, Petra, and Jerusalem in the 1860's, Church hired Calvert Vaux, the architect and landscaper who, along with Frederick Law Olmsted, created Central Park, to design a Moorish villa. The result is by far the most architecturally delicious house museum in the valley. Windows and doors have gracefully pointed, minaret-like arches that frame slices of the expansive river landscape that lies beyond. On a clear day at Olana, you can see the Catskills in the distance and the river curving for miles toward Manhattan.
Just a quick drive south of Olana is the spunky river town Tivoli, which has the kind of energy that can come only from one source: college students. On weekend nights, the two short blocks of Broadway, Tivoli's main drag, are filled with students and professors from nearby Bard College. Ballerinas in residence at the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center hang here, as do a quorum of visual artists who display their work at the local gallery. All manner of creative spirits congregate in Tivoli: we saw a flier advertising a workshop titled "Making Friends with Plant Spirits." It seemed directly targeted at guys like us, who take trips to places our red artichokes tell us to go.
At nightfall, the orange Victorian storefront of Stoney Creek restaurant glowed invitingly. Chef Peter Seidman's menu, emphasizing seasonal, simple flavors, reflected his training at Manhattan's Chanterelle. A dish combining fresh linguine with house-smoked salmon and the first English peas of the season was comforting and delicious, as was the delicately pan-fried brook trout with crumbled pecans and lemon. We lingered over a wine from nearby Clinton Vineyards—a juicy, dry white made from Seyval Blanc, a French hybrid that grows well in the valley's frosty climate. At 11, the music was cranked up and a young crowd in elegant belted coats and cool couture hats arrived to party. When did college kids get so glamorous?
The next morning, in the town of Hudson, 15 miles north of Tivoli, we walked down to the water to find a few early risers launching kayaks from the public boat landing. The stillness hanging over the river made it impossible to imagine the busy port city Hudson was in the early 19th century. The town's architectural legacy—like that of a miniature Charleston or New Orleans—is largely intact. We spent the morning roaming the streets, gawking and pointing at finials and gingerbread gables, reading the National Register plaques on grand houses. Then we retreated to Warren Street and Red Dot, a bistro with superb moules frites, fresh ales on draft, and a crowd of village regulars as eclectic as the town's architecture. At the next table, a glamorous older woman, the spitting image of Martha Graham, munched on fish-and-chips with a statuesque younger man who could've been one of her principal dancers. At the long window table, a family with five rambunctious children babbled and gurgled, to everyone's approval.
Twenty miles north of Hudson is Old Chatham, reputed to be a sleepy and exclusive horse town. But a friend had threatened never to speak to us again if we returned to New York City without some of the Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.'s incredible Hudson Valley Camembert. We found the narrow roads choked with cars on their way to the Shaker Museum's annual herb festival. As we arrived, couples in Nantucket reds were returning to their SUV's pulling wagonloads of Thai basil, lovage, and chervil. The Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. occupies the pastures across the road from the museum, and though its wonderful inn and restaurant closed two years ago, the cheese-making operation is still in top form. Its Camembert had just taken a grand prize at the 2001 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest; we picked up one of the nutty, elegant little wheels from the dairy's stand at the herb festival for about half the price it fetches downriver.
Cheese in hand, we drove south 55 miles on the Taconic Parkway to Clinton Corners, in search of the wine we had tasted the night before. Pulling up to the wine-making barn at Clinton Vineyards, we found the resident oenologist, Mike Kelsey, in overalls, with only his sleepy Labrador for company, sipping glasses of his blueberry and raspberry wines. Kelsey, we would soon learn, is especially adept at crafting fruit wines. In the tasting room, with its great view of the vineyard, he acquainted us with his eclectic oeuvre, which runs the gamut from a crisp and elegant méthode champenoise cuvée reminiscent of Veuve Clicquot, to an intense black currant wine, to a rare experiment: apple juice fermented with wine yeasts instead of cider yeasts. As the sun lowered, we picked up a bottle of each and headed for Bullis Hall, our inn for the night.
On the road to Bangall, we passed a stone farmhouse where bunches of wildflowers had been set out for sale on the honor system. We both had one of those spine-tingling moments that happen nearly hourly in the valley: How spiritually distant we were from the Big City! When we pushed open the front door at Bullis Hall, we were in a different era entirely—the anterooms at Sissinghurst between the wars. Our feeble hellos went unanswered, so we helped ourselves to a look around. The front hall was aclutter with saddles and boots, the bar was full of brown stuff (Armagnac, Pinch blended scotch), and the dining table was half-set. Landscape paintings illuminated every wall in the cozy sitting room and library. Eventually, the laird of the manor descended from an upper room, barefoot, to greet us. J. Addison Berkey, who runs Bullis Hall with his wife, Lauren, explained that he opened the inn "so my friends can have a place to stay when they're in the area." There's an urbane luxury in the details, like Frette bathrobes and state-of-the-art soundproofing between the floors. But more important, there's an insouciance to the hospitality. If you're game, and give some notice, Berkey can snag you an invitation to a club's hunt or a beagling run. The inn offers a table d'hôte prepared by a CIA grad; we had a superb salad of baby greens with Coach Farm goat cheese and grilled pears, and an expertly cooked rare rack of lamb with fingerling potatoes. The wine list—with plenty of local bottles—was the only piece of paperwork in the room. And here's something you don't get at a restaurant: seconds. There were extra chops for us resolute carnivores.
In Millbrook the following morning, we parked on the main street, Franklin Avenue, behind a white Range Rover with a matching Lab lolling in the back. We stopped for coffee at the Millbrook Diner, an authentic 1940's classic, where farmers sit elbow-to-elbow with the ascot-and-breeches set. Then we headed down the street to the farmers' market. The stalls were crowded with townsfolk gathering garlic tops and fillets of Uphill Farm's Belted Galloway beef. At Still Point Community Farm's stand, shoppers were signing up for shares in the year's harvest: in exchange for working on the farm and a one-time fee, members get a weekly allotment of organic produce. Inspired, we considered phoning Berkey to ask if we could commandeer the kitchen for the afternoon, but settled instead on a snack of deliciously tart black currants from Breezy Hill Orchard and bottles of the farm's renowned Draft Cider and Farmhouse Perry, a fizzy, flinty pear cider.
Back on Franklin Avenue, we stocked up on sandwich makings at Slammin' Salmon, a country store where four CIA alums sell local cheeses as well as house-made charcuterie, smoked fish, and breads. Then we headed to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. Since 1959, this indoor-outdoor museum of vintage planes has launched weekend air shows from June through October. The planes, most from the pre—World War II era, are gorgeous contraptions, arrayed behind a white picket fence that keeps audiences off the grassy runway. Some of the craft are svelte torpedoes with silver, riveted flanks; others are mere parchment and matchsticks. One pedal-powered specimen has wings as delicate as a dragonfly's. We settled onto the plank bleachers and waited for the show to start, munching on peppery country pâté and smoked salmon and eavesdropping on one of the pilots, Bill King, as he talked shop with a young aviator in the audience. The planes took off throughout the afternoon, but for some reason, every time a straining metal bird—its engine chattering and chuffing oily smoke—lifted off, it was a freshly heart-wrenching experience. Be sure to put your name on the waiting list for a ride in the 1929 New Standard biplane as soon as you arrive. It's hands down the most spectacular perspective on the meandering Hudson and the majestic sweep of the valley, with all its vineyards, farms, and orchards.
Invigorated (it was chilly up there) and hungry, we drove to Mina in Red Hook, a colorful room with a checkerboard floor and tomato-red walls lit by flickering votives. We had an electric-green soup of peas and sorrel, sweet and tangy all at once, with a bracing dollop of crème fraîche. That was followed by zucchini blossoms stuffed with Coach Farm goat cheese, crisply fried and feather-light. The slow-roasted North Wind Farms guinea hen was delicious, shockingly so, and it dawned on us that prize poultry may be one of the valley's great treasures—and not just those ruddy duck breasts being overnighted to the world by the Hudson Valley Foie Gras company. Later that night, we saw a gang of some 20 wild turkeys walking slowly in an eerie lockstep across a moonlit meadow. Their uncharacteristic bravado suggested that in the Hudson Valley, turkeys outnumber hunters.
We bagged a different kind of quarry the next day—art: David Smith's sculpture Study in Arcs, a giant body with beak and plumage composed of girders of bent steel that seems to march on peg legs through a green glade. We had crossed the river once again, lured by Alexander Calder's giant red Five Swords, which had beckoned from the thruway when we first entered the valley. As we rambled the 500 acres of the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, the bombastic shapes created by Alexander Liberman and Sol LeWitt seemed to hover over the fields; other works, like Richard Serra's Schunnemunk Fork and Nam June Paik's Waiting for UFO, crept out of the hillside. Compared to the beseeching enticements of the city where we live, the riches of the Hudson Valley seem more like these works, revealing themselves gradually, unobtrusively. But once the splendors of the valley become apparent, they will draw you in, then grab hold of you, and, as Jonathan White did, make you feel like a part of the revolution.
Hudson River Valley
Where to Stay
Bullis Hall 88 Hunns Lake Rd., Bangall; 845/868-1665; doubles from $250. A colonnaded village inn with a chic, hunt-club interior and the four most stylish rooms in the valley. Don't miss the table d'hôte.
Olde Rhinebeck Inn 37 Wurtemburg Rd., Rhinebeck; 845/871-1745; doubles from $195. The three rooms in this circa-1745 roadhouse have clean country interiors and superb original details: hand-hewn chestnut beams, wide-plank floors with a buttermilk finish.
Restaurants and Cafés
Clove Café Rte. 213 and Mohonk Rd., High Falls; 845/687-7911; dinner for two $60. The epitome of country dining resides in this Alice Waters—inspired roadside find.
Stoney Creek 76 Broadway, Tivoli; 845/757-4117; dinner for two $60. Comfort food that makes passionate use of the valley's seasonal best. A hip scene after 11 p.m. on weekends.
Red Dot Bar & Restaurant 321 Warren St., Hudson; 518/828-3657; dinner for two $40. Charming neighborhood bistro with an eclectic clientele, tasty beers, and crisp, twice-fried pommes frites.
Millbrook Diner Franklin Ave., Millbrook; 845/677-5319; breakfast for two $25. Country breakfasts at a 1940's diner.
Mina Restaurant 29 W. Market St., Red Hook; 845/758-5992; dinner for two $60. A serene village bistro with a focus on the yield of nearby farms.
These sources are all convenient to the picnic areas listed below.
Sprout Creek Farm Lauer Rd., Poughkeepsie. If you don't want to help make cheese (appointment required), you can still buy it at the farm store or through www.cowsoutside.com.
Smokehouse of the Catskills 724 Rte. 212, Saugerties; 845/246-8767. Classic old-school German butcher with platters of leberkäse, landjäger, soppressata, slab bacon, and smoked pork chops cut to order.
Earth Foods 523 Warren St., Hudson; 518/822-1396. A friendly deli selling excellent vegetarian (and non) wraps and sandwiches.
Slammin' Salmon Franklin Ave., Millbrook; 845/677-5400. A warm, shoebox-sized gourmet shop with housemade sausages, smoked salmon, and gravlax.
Cherry Ridge Farms 4150 Rte. 23, Greenport; 518/828-7018. A stunning pick-your-own cherry and stone-fruit orchard that slopes down to the river. Call in early July to find out when the sour cherries will be ready.
Greig Farm Market 227 Pitcher Lane, Red Hook; 845/758-1234. The valley's most elaborate pick-your-own, with a different harvest every month from May through December: asparagus in May, strawberries and peas in June, yellow and red raspberries in July.
Clinton Vineyards Schultzville Rd., Clinton Corners; 845/266-5372. The Seyval Blancs are this small family-owned vineyard's best bottles, but try maverick wine-maker Mike Kelsey's more unusual creations.
Prime Picnic Spots
Saugerties Lighthouse 168 Lighthouse Dr., Saugerties; 845/247-0656. It's a 10-minute hike through marshy cattails to the best of the Hudson River lighthouses, but the waterfront view is well worth the walk.
Olana 5720 Rte. 9G, Hudson; 518/828-0135. Frederic Church's Moorish homestead offers a panoramic view of the river and mountains.
Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome 9 Norton Rd., Rhinebeck; 845/758-8610; biplane rides $40 per person. Shapely World War I airplanes perform stunts for weekend crowds June through October.
Storm King Art Center Old Pleasant Hill Rd., Mountainville; 845/534-3115. Picnic among the artwork at this large outdoor collection of postwar sculptures.
Where to Shop
Rosendale Wares 416 Main St., Rosendale; 845/658-7673. An eye-catching selection of retro housewares and clothing, from colorful melamine bowls to 1970's disco dresses.
Treasure Shop 92 Partition St., Veteran; 845/247-0802. Vintage hardware and housewares, with a vast array of old kitchen tools: cast iron, butter churns, and pickling equipment.
The Valley Table www.valleytable.com. A quarterly magazine that covers food news in the Hudson Valley. Pick up a copy at a local restaurant or log on to the Web site for restaurant openings, seasonal specials, and farm and market listings.