Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Eating the Berkshires Round 1: Dairy Farm, Pizza and Ice Cream, Oh My.

Please note: None of the reviews below were sponsored, nor was I given any product or meal gratis. I was a paying customer at every place mentioned in this post.

Recently, my mother and I spent a few days in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts visiting my brother. It was a family reunion of sorts. More like a nostalgic tour. In the 70's my mother bought us a second home in Lenox MA. Since she was a schoolteacher, we all had the same vacation schedule so we spent every summer, Christmas, Easter and many long weekends year round there.

My brother bought a house in the area a few years ago. I love that. Somehow it keeps us all still rooted there. So all three of us reconvened in this area we loved so much for so long. It's a place that carries so many wonderful memories for each of us.

Since we sold the house in the 90's, the Berkshires has become an even hotter destination, not only for second home owners but for foodies. Lots of folks raising livestock and making cheese and whatnot. So when my brother asked me if I had anywhere special in mind to explore. I said what any food blogger would say, "Let's eat!"

And eat we did. Based on a very quick internet search and suggestions from my brother, we ended up randomly exploring. As we went along and the more I read and learned, the list got longer and longer. Needless to say, we did not get to everything on the list. I also wanted to revisit some old favorites we grew up with like The Red Lion Inn and Joe's Diner. We didn't get to those either. I am saving the rest for a return trip. However, some absolute gems were discovered along the way and I am recounting them here.

First we did the requisite, we're in the country, let's visit a farm stop.  Cricket Creek Dairy Farm in Williamstown looked nondescript at first. When exiting the car, we were greeted by this lovely black and white ambassador who then led us into the farm's store.

There was not a soul in sight. We quickly discovered the place was on the honor system. Sitting off to the side was a box where you could stuff large bills into. Next to it was an open tray with small bills and coins so you can pay and make your own change. Trusting and charming. And a bit crazy.

I quickly discovered this place was the Aladdin's Cave of Dairy Farm stores and went to work gathering items to buy. There were homemade dairy products, baked goods, flours, coffee, jams and jellies and many other locally made delicious treats for sale.

I purchased the following:

Chocolate bread from local baker, Berkshire Mountain Bakery.  SO incredible. The bread had a big sourdough taste and large chunks of chocolate running through it. We couldn't decide if it was a breakfast food or a dessert. Just fantastic. This bakery is already on the list for my next visit.

I also bought the local Berkshire Firewater, an apple cider vinegar/honey concoction that touts curing a variety of maladies.

My brother and I were starving so we each snagged a maple flavored yogurt made at the dairy farm. It was beyond good. So creamy, it reminded me of my favorite yogurt brand in Germany.

We also bought a container of Skyr. Originated in Iceland, this is a cultured dairy product that tastes a bit like yogurt. However, it's texture is so creamy, you would never know it's made from skim milk. The farm tricks it out with fruit on the bottom in wonderful flavor combinations.

The farm sells raw milk and the leftover milk gets processed into milk products like cheese, yogurts and the afore mentioned skyr.

Eventually a lovely man named Topher wandered in and started answering the barrage of questions my mother threw at him. 

My mother is the original interviewer. She's fearless and funny. Long ago, my brother and I nicknamed her "Fingerprints" because her questioning is so thorough, it's almost an interrogation. Great for me because she does all the work when we're someplace I would like to write a post on. I just take photos and eavesdrop.

My mother found out we could visit the cows around back and also extracted from Topher that one was just born the day before. I paid for my items and we walked to the cow barn.

"Our dairy cows are the focal point of this farm.We work for them, and they work for us. Everyone of our cows has a name, a unique personality and a special niche in the farm community." -Cricket Creek Farm

The cows all had their names attached to their ears. They had gorgeous fur and were incredibly friendly, licking us like we were ice cream cones. The newborn did look a little traumatized by the world she just entered so we left her alone. For her sake, I was happy there were not too many people around. 

What I love most about this farm is that it is one of the oldest in the area. When the original family decided to give it up, someone else bought it, mostly just to keep the land out of the hands of developers. 

Cricket Creek Farm rests on a gorgeous piece of land. I would hate to see it sullied with condos. 

"Our mission is to produce nourishing food that honors our animals, respects the land, and feeds our community, and to exemplify a sustainable model for small-farm viability."
-Cricket Creek Farm

Our next stop was pizza. Yeah, what's so great about pizza you ask? So did my mother. On the way, she interrogated my brother, a veteran of the NYC pizza landscape, intent on finding out what was so great about this place he insisted we try. 

Baba Louie's did not disappoint. They specializes in thin crust sourdough pizza. No yeast is used in their crusts and the toppings are all fresh from the veggies to the mozzarella. 

Brother also insisted (a lot of insisting goes on in our family) we only order the BBQ Chicken Pizza. Being I was going to write about the place, I also ordered us a salad and another smaller vegetarian pizza with the wonderful sing song name of Isabella Pizzarella to share.

Holy mother of whatever, was it all was incredible. From the simple 4 ingredient salad - Insalata Allegra made up of mixed greens, figs, apricots and roasted pecans tossed in tangy balsamic dressing to the mashed sweet potatoes smeared on the Isabella Pizzarella which also sported roasted parsnips, caramelized onions, roasted garlic and shaved fennel. Both were perfection. I'll be recreating the salad at home.

However, as I conceded to my brother's infinite pizza wisdom, the star of the show was the Abbondante BBQ Chicken Pizza containing red onions, fresh mozzarella, smoked gouda, oregano and parmesan. Tangy. Sweet. Addictive. 

A special shout out to the drink I ordered. Virgil's diet root beer is flavored with stevia. I LOVE root beer, never drink diet soda and this was an excellent no sugar option. 

Both pizzas we tried had the perfect mixture of cheese to topping ratio. The cheese didn't overwhelm the rest. I'm looking forward to a return visit to try others. Their menu also features a series of wonderful looking sandwiches available on a wide variety of homemade bread such as sunny flax, ciabatta, focaccia, gluten-free, whole wheat and rye as well as pastas.

Baba Louie's has three locations, two in the Berkshires. We went to the smaller one in Great Barrington. They have a larger location in Pittsfield and another in Hudson. NY.

Of course we needed something sweet après pizza. So we wandered around the corner to the Soco Creamery to check out the ice cream. 

Were we ever glad we did. Soco has been making hand crafted, micro-batched ice cream for 26 years. 

I guess we were lucky enough to visit the place in cold weather. After tasting their ice cream, I  can imagine a line stretching out the door and down the block in warm weather. They also sell their ice cream by the pint in the store and many local stores carry the brand. 

In addition to ice cream, Soco sells several varieties of homemade gelato. Both of my family members opted for the gelato. My mother had a scoop of coffee flavor (her favorite) and my brother opted for two scoops, one coffee and one chocolate. I tasted both and I can honestly say, the place makes very good gelato. 

I had a brief flirtation with the Burnt Sugar Flavor after tasting it but I resisted, because... oh, the ice cream. The dilemma was, what flavor? Both the ginger (crystalized ginger bits in a sweet cream base)  and the Mexicali chocolate (made with mint, cinnamon, expresso and cayenne pepper) looked tempting.

I ended up with the Mission Fig (outstanding!) and a kookie flavor ('cause you know how I love kooky anything) called Baldwin's Favorite that tuned out to be very tasty. When I asked what it was, the scooper told me it contained a special extract from a local extract company called Baldwin's that was a mix of vanilla, lemon, orange and spearmint. Soco mixed it into their signature sweet cream base to create the flavor. Sold! The extract factory immediately went to the top of my list to visit the next day. 

Soco Creamery also sells a small array of baked goods and some incredible ice cream cake concoctions, like this Chai Bomb.

You can buy wearable Soco creamery merch and there are pints to go. If you want to pick your flavors to go, they generously allow you two flavors or more per pint. Because, I mean who can decide on just one?

Soco Creamery. I am putting you on notice. I will be back.

Down the street from Soco is a lovely shop called The Chef's Shop

From the outside it looked like a mix between Sur La Table and Broadway Panhandler with a little Williams Sonoma on the side. Like I need anything for the kitchen. However, I couldn't resist popping in just to quickly check out the merch. Glad I honored my impulse. They have all sorts of lovely things, cookware and small appliances to buy.  They also have a kitchen in the back for cooking demos and tastings. 

My curiosity satisfied, I was on my way out the door when I spied a tasting bar of flavored balsamic vinegars. 

I've seen my share of flavored basalmic vinegar both in Europe and America and I have to say these are special. I was blown away by the flavors (Chipotle! Lavender!) These vinegars are also extremely potent. After tasting a few, I waltzed out the door with two bottles, one Blackberry Ginger and one dark chocolate balsamic vinegar. 

Made by the Oliva di Vita , primarily an olive oil company based out of Delafield, WI, also specializes in a line of balsamic vinegars is aged 12 or 18 years. 

For all I know, this line may be available all over Manhattan. All I do know is it took me getting to the Berkshires to this store in Great Barrington for me to sit up and take notice. This company has my full attention now. I will be on the lookout for their products in specialty stores. 

P.S. I can't wait to try the dark chocolate drizzled on homemade vanilla ice cream.

So we have come to the end of round one of Eating the Berkshires. Stay tuned for Round two next week which features a doughnut shop started by a Dunkin Doughnut refugee, the fabulous family run Baldwin extract company and a hop over the state border to visit a terrific Vermont Bakery run by Crazy Russian Girls. 

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