Country Sojourn in Greene County
Head over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, a charming brick archway that leads into Greene County on the west side of the Hudson River, or venture off the NYS Thruway at Exit 21 from points north and south, and you’re quickly on Route 23 in the Catskills region, surrounded by mountains blanketed with greenery in summer, and snow in winter, and celebrated as the location where Rip Van Winkle awoke after a 20-year slumber. Today, many of the towns are dotted with mom-and-pop-style diners, small specialty food shops, inns-cum-restaurants and extensive farms, some so off the beaten track that a GPS and cell phones won’t work in your favor, if at all. What many places share is being owned and staffed by hardworking people, often members of family businesses, who are intent on doing what they love rather than keeping up with big-city trends. And while some area businesses have existed for decades, new ones keep opening, as working and living in the country gains more appeal. Because of the mountains, many of the following destinations can only be reached in the most circuitous fashion; enjoy the detours and making your own discoveries.
WESTBOUND FROM THE RIVER
At the very start of the journey along Route 23 in Catskill is Maybelle’s, which opened this past August, with foodies awaiting its debut as a sort of encore for well-touted Another Fork in the Road owner/chef Jamie Parry. Trained in Manhattan at the respected Tribeca Grill and now shuttered Montrachet, Parry wanted a place that would reflect a lower key vibe than Hudson, where he cooked at Swoon before opening Another Fork in the Road in Milan. “I love the Catskill area and wanted a restaurant in a burgeoning community that would reflect how Hudson used to be when less saturated,” he says. The new endeavor is housed in the former Mayflower Cafe, and its menu is an eclectic mix of American comfort food inspired by, and drawn from, what’s grown in the area, plus fresh shell fish and charcuterie, says Matt Smallwood, the CIA-trained chef who has partnered with Parry on the eatery. “We want this to be a place where people go for a good night out, with items reinterpreted in interesting ways, yet with the least amount of manipulation,” he says.
On a recent Thursday afternoon in late July, the laidback charm of the area is conspicuous in the Alpine Pork Store in South Cairo (pronounced like the syrup, Kay-row, rather than the Egyptian city). Just off Exit 21 on the New York State Thruway, the store is located down a hill on Route 23B, which makes it easy to miss the first time. Its wooden A-frame structure, with floral motif, wood cutout embellishments and stone base, conjures up the image of a place that belongs in a Bavarian mountain village. The simply furnished interior contains old-fashioned cases and shelves filled with an extensive array of traditional German food favorites that leave no doubt this is what eating robustly is all about—a variety of wursts and liverwursts, pâtés, leberkases— beef and pork loaves, pork ribs, bacon, fresh chopped beef for steak tartare, German potato, crusty breads, packages of dumplings and noodles and jars of sauerkraut, herring and red cabbage. The inventory mirrors what owner Bernard Flammer’s father, Bernard, made and stocked for 25 years, after emigrating from a small town near Stuttgart, Germany, and buying the store from the prior owner, who had run it for 17 years.
The younger Flammer, trained as a butcher, relocated to the area from Brooklyn to help his father. “I was told to pay attention, so I did. I found it a lot more peaceful living here,” he says. The shop continues to attract the area’s heavily German population or those visiting nearby resorts or other shops like Hartmann’s Kaffeehaus in Round Top, a hamlet, like South Cairo, and part of the town of Cairo (population 6,670 according to the last U.S. Census). Many of today’s residents’ ancestors came to the area as far back as the turn of the century and built boarding houses or opened shops, says Cairo town historian Robert Uzzilia. “The natural surroundings reminded them of rolling hills and streams back home. Others came from New England because the farmland was less expensive,” he says.
In Purling, near Round Top and just up the road from Hartmann’s, Suzanne and Stan Oldakowski represent the third generation of her family to operate the Bavarian Manor Country Inn and Restaurant, which dates back to 1865, though her grandfather bought it in 1931. The inn sprawls over 100 acres, with its restaurant the prime incentive for guests who come to stay in the 18 rooms and others to dine. “People come for the German food. They may be from Germany, or were stationed in the military and fell in love with the culture and beer, or simply can’t find German food in restaurants since many have closed. My parents were born in Bavaria,” says Suzanne. Husband Stan is the chef, and one of his best friends the inn bartender.
While the food has a definite German edge and has been updated— vegan bratwurst, for example—you can also find steaks and fresh seafood. The couple expects another generation to join; one son attends a culinary program in Philadelphia. For more German flavor, she suggests attending the German Alps Festival at Hunter Mountain in early August, initiated by her late mother, Johannel Bauer, in 1996.
For the last 20 years, Deborah and Peter Kavakos have farmed in South Cairo. Their Stoneledge Farm encompasses more than 250 acres and five greenhouses. While many small farm owners worry whether their business will survive into the next generation, the Kavakoses didn’t have to twist the arm of son Peter, 28. He eagerly came onboard after graduating college with a major in plant science six years ago. The family farms organically more than 100 varieties of vegetables, following guidelines to sell at 25 CSA sites—1 local in Greene County, 15 in Manhattan, and 9 in Westchester County and Connecticut. CSA members pay $515 a year for a standard vegetable share. Despite the stressed economy in the region and the hard physical work it takes to maintain a farm 10 months of the year—the Kavakoses take off December and January, which Deborah finds a rewarding respite to help make their output better each year. In addition to vegetables, they sell mushrooms from the Bulich Mushroom Farm in Catskill, fair-trade green coffee beans they import from Central America and roast locally, and fruits from Fix Brothers Fruit Farm in Hudson and Bartalotta & Sons Fruit Farm in Germantown.
As son Peter works longer in the business, he adds his imprint, now experimenting with growing apples and currants. “I’m curious since I don’t know of local organic fruit growers, and it requires different skills,” he says. Peter remains as excited and committed as his parents. “You keep learning different methods and trying new technologies. We’re doing things differently than we did five years ago—different soil tests, different efforts to combat diseases, different organic fertilizers to improve plants,” he says, pointing to tomatoes in a hoop house. Like his parents, he can’t imagine doing anything else, “I love being outside and seeing things grow better yearly.”
Heading a bit off Route 23, toward Tannersville and Hunter, Amy’s Take-Away is owned by Amy Jackson, who moved to Lanesville eight years ago to pursue her twin passions of cooking and gardening. “This is the rural life, up close and very personal in a town of maybe 75 and where if you blink you miss it,” Jackson says, laughing. Her dream of having a store where everyone would gather to eat and schmooze didn’t work out as she found people weren’t willing to drive even a few miles to find such camaraderie. She adjusted and switched to cooking and catering from a kitchen in a former general store building and selling at farmers’ markets with ingredients purchased locally from such local farms as Migliorelli, RSK and Story Farms in Catskill.
Jackson, a former actress, finds joy in promoting grower-to-table results and helping others learn how foods are supposed to taste. “They forget what real commodity crops taste like,” she says. Her long list of offerings includes soups that change according to produce—gazpacho, corn chowder and broccoli and arugula in summer to name a few, and butternut squash, Yankee bean and Ukranian borscht as weather gets nippier. “It’s hard work, but I love it,” she says.
Drive farther west along 23A toward Hunter and Tannersville, you wind through the 700,000-acre Catskill Park preserve, past Kaaterskill Creek and its picturesque falls and the Rip Van Winkle Trail. After years of seeing its population decline and buildings and businesses close, the village of Tannersville, settled in the early 19th century and once a top vacation spot in the country, is now making a comeback.
Much of the credit comes from a variety of sources, while a big hand originates from mutual fund CEO Charles “Chuck” Royce and wife Deborah, who have summered in the area for decades. They got involved in the Hunter Foundation, Inc., which has worked since 1997 to improve the town of Hunter, and includes the villages of Hunter and Tannersville. The organization purchases, renovates and sells blighted buildings to give residents and visitors a reason to mingle and eat. Many of the buildings like Mountain Market Bakery, housed in the former Astor House, now resemble San Francisco colorful “Painted Ladies” with their brightly colored facades, thanks to the Tannersville Paint Project. At Mountain Market, homemade foods for breakfast and lunch are sold to eat in a small café or to take away, including mountainous-size macaroons, plain or dipped in chocolate and oversize brownies, with and without nuts. Besides food and drink, there are gifts and used books to buy.
A few doors away, Twin Peaks, also for breakfast and lunch, roasts its own organic coffee, and has become a go-to place for conversation, billiards and those wanting to know what a freshly made warm donut tastes like. Others dreamt of opening cupcake shops. Susan and John Kleinfelder and Charlene and Ron Holdridge had dancing visions of donuts on the brain. They restored a vintage building last October, bought a “donut robot” and are now selling 18 dozen daily, with toppings that range from basic cinnamon and sugar, powdered sugar and chocolate glaze to more exotic caramel and sea salt, (the requisite) bacon and seasonal summer s’mores with graham cracker crumbs, chocolate and marshmallows. The two couples concocted the ultimate answer for those who want to live more calorically dangerously. Their donut slider features two donuts, each with egg, bacon and cheese—a creation that would make Paula Deen swoon. Donut leftovers are recycled into the equivalent of a bread pudding “muffin.”
A high point of the area for those willing to spend a few more dollars is the Deer Mountain Inn on County Highway Route 25, which pass es the entrance to the private Onteora Club and residential “cottages” built in mountain style at the turn of the 19th century. New York City families once summered there and at other nearby establishments such as the legendary and long-vanished Catskill Mountain House, because of the abundance of cooler mountain air, which provided a relief from hot city living in an era before air-conditioning. The inn, which was in need of repair, was purchased a few years back, along with 168 neighboring acres, restored and opened last October with six rooms, plus more to come, by the Royce family, which has a nearby house. Sonin- law Dan King, in charge of family property management, says Deer Mountain is not an attempt to duplicate their upscale historic Ocean House Resort in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, or slightly more casual and smaller Weekapaug Inn in Westerly, Rhode Island.
“This is meant to be a mountain getaway, where people can hike, bicycle, use two swimming holes and enjoy area activities such as the Catskill Jazz Festival and Orpheum Theater,” King says. Designer Iliana Moore decorated the inn to reflect a fresh, yet period sensitivity using Craftsman-style antiques. And the food prepared by chef Marc Rosenberg brings together a similar approach with produce from top area farms as well as ramps and fiddleheads growing on the property. The menu for a Sunday night dinner lists small plates, such as poached egg with carrot spaetzle, asparagus and pickled bunapi mushrooms, or smoked trout toast with deviled egg yolk and crème fraîche, and main courses, such as pan-roasted halibut with chamomile couscous and bok choy and cauliflower risotto with pistachios and zucchini.
A significant detour to the hamlet of Bloomfield in Delaware County led to Table on Ten, which has generated a lot of well-deserved buzz. Owners Inez Valk-Kempthorne and husband Justus Kempthorne were involved in Brooklyn’s well-known Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop, but wanted a local place outside the city, which they cultivated in an unpretentious yellow-cream 1860s building. Despite its aged appearance, it offers an array of contemporary delights—hangout, micro-shopping, massages, overnight stays and meals that run the gamut from (local) eggs in a pan with four-hour marinara with basil, Parmesan and cracked black pepper to Meyer lemon marmalade on buttered (house-made toast), weekly soups, house-made ice creams and brick-oven pizzas with a sourdough crust on Friday and Saturday nights. Since opening two years ago, the couple is doing well with a mix of locals and second-home owners from Manhattan and plenty of curious food enthusiasts driving up from points south.
It is back onto Route 23 for a final stop in the small town of Windham, 1,703 residents at last count (a number that swells in winter with visitors to the Windham Mountain Ski Resort) and nicknamed “Gem of the Catskills.” Despite several choices for Sunday dinner, Bistro Brie & Bordeaux on Main Street wins out for its busy porch scene. Owned by Stephane and Claudia Desgaches, the eight-year-old restaurant’s menu includes French classics like mussels, bouillabaisse, hanger steak, crème brulée and an interesting wine list; Stephane hails from Lyon, France, considered the French capital of gastronomy.
Besides couples and multigenerational families dining, the bistro’s dining room is buzzing with a party for a 50th- anniversary during one recent visit. The husband of the happy couple, retired pastry chef Jean- Claude Szurdak and buddy of celeb chef Jacques Pépin, shares when he’s congratulated that he has cooked for three American presidents. Instead of a cake, he and wife Genevieve and guests are each feted with a special order—profiteroles made into swans filled with a pastry cream garnished with strawberries. As long suspected, great food, along with wonderful wine, may be two of the best ingredients for a long, happy marriage. That recipe thrives throughout Greene County.