A chef’s tour of the Berkshires
An early morning mist rose over the fields at the Equinox Farm in Sheffield. It was a pretty picture: fluffy clouds floated overhead, tall trees punctuated the horizon, and rows of lush lettuces and greens stretched across the farmlands. Ted Dobson, founder and self-described farmer-in-chief of Equinox Farm (413-229-2266, www.equinoxfarmberkshires.com). was explaining how the lettuces he grows here on his 15-acre or so farm, the first organic market farm in western Massachusetts, taste different than the farmer’s greens up the road. It’s all about the soil, the terroir, he explained. “The taste is a reflection of the farm and the farmer,” he said, pointing to the orderly raised beds of greens, baby lettuces, mustards, and kale.
We were with Brian Alberg, James Beard Foundation member, founding chair of Berkshire Farm & Table, and executive chef at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge (413-298-5545, www.redlioninn.com), who was showing us some of his favorite farmers and purveyors in the Berkshires. Alberg, a pioneer in the local food, farm-to-table movement, has forged relationships (and most often friendships) with a variety of local farmers, cheesemakers, coffee roasters, bakers, and specialty suppliers throughout the Berkshires, sleuthing out the best products.
“I know if I run out of arugula on a busy Saturday night, Ted [Dobson] will get me more,” Alberg said. “And I’ll guarantee you, it’ll be fresh.” Alberg, who has bought greens from the Equinox Farm for several years, knows that Dobson sells only what’s picked that day. “Chefs aren’t easy to work with, and farmers aren’t all that easy to work with, either,” Alberg said. “So, when you find a good working relationship, you keep it.”
Like the one he has with Laura Meister, owner of the Farm Girl Farm (413-262-8707, www.farmgirlfarm.com). When we arrived at the Sheffield farm, a friendly black lab came out of the jam-packed greenhouse — filled with pots of veggies and trays of seedlings — to greet us. Alberg gave Meister a warm hug before introducing us. “I do veggies!” Meister said, brushing the dirt off her hands before shaking ours. She grows a variety of vegetables on about three acres, and sells to local chefs and at farmer’s markets. She keeps the business on a small and personal scale; it’s not unusual for her to pick up the phone and call individual chefs to let them know what she has ready to pick that day. Her specialty — and a top seller — are heirloom tomatoes; she grows about 150 varieties. “I love the gumball mix,” Alberg said. “It has about 35 different varieties of really flavor-intense cherry tomatoes.”
Long before the farm-to-table movement swept the country, this scenic pocket in Western Massachusetts had a longstanding small farm community, and a tradition of eating locally. The country’s first agricultural fair was held in Berkshire County, and the nation’s first two community-supported farms (think: CSAs) started here. Even author Herman Melville tried farming here, before winter set in and he turned his energies to writing “Moby-Dick.” Today, several small, artisan farms, creative culinary upstarts, and well-known purveyors are tucked away in the Berkshires’ sleepy villages, forested mountains and sloping fields.
“It’s a little salty, a little sweet, with a lot of crunch,” Michelle Miller said as she offered a taste of granola. We were standing in the small BOLA Granola factory in Great Barrington (413-528-4745, www.bolagranola.com). We didn’t need the description: the nearly addictive granola, handmade with oats, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and organic grains, is at the top of our weekly Whole Foods shopping lists. Miller started making her popular granola in her home kitchen in the Berkshires. Today, she produces 1,000 pounds of granola a day, and ships to places around the world, including to Whole Foods markets in the Boston area. Alberg offers BOLA gluten-free granola on the Red Lion Inn breakfast menu: “It’s great! Many of our guests ask where they can buy it to take home.”
At our next stop, we met Gregg Charbonneau, co-owner of the Barrington Coffee Roasting Company (413-243-3008, www.barringtoncoffee.com). Charbonneau and Barth Anderson started the company in 1993, and are still self-proclaimed “fanatics” when it comes to making java. They’ve been buying “beautiful beans” from a small family-owned farm in Costa Rica for more than 20 years, but are constantly on the lookout for the best beans produced around the world for small batch coffees and specialty brews. “We roast everything to order, and ship it out immediately,” Charbonneau said, leading us into the production area. We watched as the coffee roaster stood guard at the roasting machine, waiting for the moment when the beans reached exactly the right roast. He does this based on the color of the bean (and we suppose lots of experience with timing.) “Ten seconds can make or break a coffee,” Charbonneau said. Within a few minutes, the roaster was poised at the lever of the machine: looking, looking . . . now! He released the hatch and a flood of perfectly, lightly roasted Gold Espresso (their top selling blend) poured into the cooling tray. We then followed Charbonneau into the tasting room, where we learned how to tell a good bean from a not-so-good bean, and sampled beans from India, Ethiopia, Indonesian, and Colombia. (They offer “cupping” classes at their factory in Lee, where you can learn about coffee roasting and sample a variety of blends; they also have two Boston cafes in Fort Point and on Newbury Street.)
Alberg needed to get back to the Red Lion Inn to prepare for dinner. We decided to visit one more farm. Lila Berle is a legend in these parts, known for raising some of the best sheep in the region (and for being a pioneering advocate for conservation and food activism). She and her Maremma dogs take care of a herd of Rambouillet sheep on a picturesque farm in Great Barrington. The views were beautiful: curly sheep and soft little lambs grazed on lush fields, surrounded by gentle mountain peaks and green forests. “These sheep have it made,” our traveling companion said. “I bet they taste amazing.”
They did. That evening we dined at the Red Lion Inn on lettuce salads, with greens so tender they were almost soft, and possibly the best lamb chops we’ve ever had, surrounded by fresh-picked spring vegetables. We ended the meal with a toast to the farmers — and a cup of Gold Espresso, of course.