Sunday, October 26, 2008

Once you go local...

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is, for many New York food-lovers, a place of near-mythic importance. One does not visit; one pays homage, or, at the very list, makes a pilgrimage. Its chef, Dan Barber, is justifiably famous for his pioneering role in the evolution of haute barnyard cuisine, and the food at the restaurant is truly delicious. I first visited last December, and, due to a Christmas season traffic jam, my group arrived too late to take our planned jaunt around the farm. So when Lisa and I were looking for something to do last Saturday afternoon, we decided to get in her car and head across the Tappan Zee to the Stone Barns Center in Tarrytown.

Stone Barns sits on the old Rockefeller estate in the Pocantico Hills section of town. The buildings themselves date from the 1930's, and were first part of a dairy farm, and later the location of Peggy Rockefeller's cattle ranch. In 2004, the Rockefellers invited Dan Barber to open a for-profit restaurant as part of the larger not-for-profit agricultural and educational experiment - a center for learning about environmentally responsible, four-season farming with a restaurant to match.

It's easy to see why the experiment took root so quickly and so deeply. The property itself is stunning - all gentle slopes and rolling hills, with the stately barns rising out of a hollow in the valley. Walking around the pastures and the vegetable fields, you run into all sorts - parents pushing strollers, locals out for a morning jog, and foodies paying homage. In addition to the restaurant, there's a casual cafe open daily that serves strong, hot coffee (a must for keeping warm on long, blustery walks around the farm), sandwiches, salads and pastries. Almost all of the food on offer is grown or raised on the property, which means the menus are exclusively seasonal and change daily.

Lisa and I arrived around 1 o'clock, and started our visit with a quick trip to the gift shop. I know, I know - but, this is a truly excellent shop. I picked up a couple of $6 grocery tote bags - perfect stocking stuffers - and a fantastic (and challenging) trivia game called Foodie Fight. I also spied a truly gorgeous cookbook called Country Cooking of France, which is going on my Christmas list.

Since it was lunchtime, and since we needed fortification for our planned walk, we decided to have lunch next. The line snakes around the tiny cafe in a circle, which gave us ample opportunity to scope out all that was on offer. I grabbed a jar of cucumber pickles from the shelf, and thought seriously about the cow-printed tea towels and teeny coffee cakes. Also available: the decidedly not local but truly delicious Rancho Gordo heirloom beans.

We finally made it up to the counter, where we ordered the bologna sandwich with pickles, zucchini fritatta, caramel apple, apple custard tart, and two big, steaming cups of coffee. We camped out at a picnic table outside and wolfed down our feast.

The homemade bologna was the best bologna I have ever tasted - light in texture, tangy and meaty in flavor, and layered on a fluffy piece of focaccia spread with strong mustard. The apple tart was a bit too sweet, but the cookie crumble crust on the bottom was salty enough to cut the sugar. The caramel apple, served on a twig, was deliciously smoky, if tooth-crackingly tough to bite into. All in all, a good lunch.

Finally, filled with lunchtime goodness, we set off on a walk around the property. We walked past the private dining room, where the staff were setting up for a wedding, arranging flowers and building a chuppah out of twigs and berries from the farm and surrounding park. We saw a fallow vegetable field, walked past the dairy cows relaxing in their pasture, and paid a visit to the chickens, who gathered around our feet, pecking gently at our toes in search of a snack.

Just past the chickens were a flock of pure-white ducks and a few gigantic pigs. These guys had to be at least three hundred pounds each. As we approached, I remembered the bologna sandwich and started feeling a bit, well, guilty. But then I realized how happy the pigs were, rooting around in their trough, enjoying the sunshine, wandering at will, and realized it was not only the best-tasting bologna I'd ever eaten - it was also probably the most ethically sound.

All in all, that was the prevailing lesson of the day. Seeing where your food comes from, spending time with it, smelling the earth out of which it grew, picking your way across the field where it was raised - it makes you that much more appreciative of it, and far more aware of the impact your choices have. The peace of mind you gain by understanding how your food was produced cannot be overstated. Yes, it can be expensive and a bit of a hassle to eat locally and humanely, but if you can afford the little bit of extra money and a little bit more extra time, it truly is worth it.


Ms. Graham said...

Wow! I didn't know our day was quite this awesome until you wrote such wonderful prose!


I love Stone Barns, my company takes us there every year and I am really amazed how they started this project..

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