Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Henry Hudson and his explorations were my only association with the Hudson Valley. But, as a New Yorker (going on eight years -is it official yet?) I now realize why the 150-mile stretch above Manhattan is revered for more than its epic place in history and a verdant New York City escape. It is also a culinary mecca, considered by many to be the ‘Napa of the East’ as quoted in CIA alum, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. In fact, National Geographic Traveler proclaimed the region as ‘one of the top 20 destinations in the world’ in 2013. Two words: Road trip.
Logically, the first stop was the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, just an hour and a half north of New York City. The campus sprawls across 170 acres with four restaurants and housing for its 3,000 full-time students. While the institute offers both recreational and professional culinary programs, we were there to eat. Calling a week in advance, we were lucky to get any reservation at all. We arrived at The Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici with little in the way of expectation. The verdict? Some dishes were better than others. The service was often lacking. But, that wasn’t the point. The point was to experience the training ground for some of the nation’s best chef’s. The setting over the Hudson, the impressive campus, the history and a very decent meal from chefs in the making. It was a very novel experience; one I hope to repeat.
Our home base was Stanfordville, where we had rented a cabin. More specifically, this was likely the quirkiest cabin we have ever rented; a stronger statement than you might think. There is a lot of competition in the quirky cabin category for the areas we have frequented, the Catskills and now the area east of the Hudson.The cabin was advertised not as a ‘Romantic Escape for Two’, but as a ‘Romantic Escape for ONLY Two’. Yes, it was cozy. It was a studio. But, it had everything we needed and could not have been more secluded, the only cabin on a small man-made lake.
Despite the seclusion, we awoke to noise,the clanging sounds of about two dozen wind chimes of all shapes and sizes. Sleep became impossible. Heading out to escape the cacophony, we noticed the yard was uniquely landscaped with multiple ‘frog crossings’ and a full squad of smiling rocks and trees keeping watch.
Brunch ready, we headed to The Red Devon Market and Cafe, considered one of the top farm-to-table destinations in the Valley. At the Red Devon, all produce and meats are locally sourced from sustainable farms. Everything is made in-house— from ketchup to croissants. The quality and attention to detail was apparent with each exceptional bite of our meal; salmon cakes, mushroom and goat cheese quiche and a turkey sandwich. Not so ironically, the chef, Sara Lukasiewicz, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park. Sense a theme here?
The road home took us past the tiny Big Rock Farm Stand. Mid-April is not yet prime time for any farm stand. So, expectations were low. While the selection was limited, it was locally sourced and well curated. Offerings ranged from artisanal cheeses, pasture-raised beef, produce, teas and their own Big Rock maple syrup.
This was no tourist-only farm stand. According to Big Rock’s Jennica, their stand stays open year-round and is the main grocery source for many of the locals, supplemented with California-grown produce during the Winter. With excitement she shared that this year a local farm would be providing produce from a greenhouse, enabling local produce year-round. Dedication. As we paid for our selections, Jennica warmly asked if this was our first time to Big Rock. Upon confirmation, she informed us that Big Rock invites all first-time customers to select a free gift home. What Big Rock lacked in size, they more than made up for in character and style.
Next stop, wine tasting. It was news to me that the Hudson Valley is the oldest wine-producing and grape growing area in the country. Currently, it is home to over 20 wineries. Driving, we noted the signs for the Dutchess Wine ‘Trail’ of two wineries, which were just 15 minutes from each other. We opted for Millbrook, voted Hudson Valley’s Best Winery for the past 19 years. Stopping in, we found an elegance similar to the Napa Valley tasting rooms, award-winning wines and stunning views of the valley. Apparently, its sister on the trail, Clinton, has a more laid-back ambience, but equally worthy wines.
Clearly, we only scratched the surface of the Hudson Valley on our weekend tour. The food, the scenery, friendly locals and the history left us planning a return trip. The valley was just waking up from a long winter. I can’t wait to return with an empty stomach and more time to see it its full bounty.