The woods don’t hold twilight for long — brief gold shafts through the trees gave way to a heavy night that blackened the windows around the dining table in Southfield, a storybook of a town tucked into the Berkshire mountain range.
There were 10 of us that night not long ago — the food blogger, the meat purveyor, the cheesemonger and our hosts Bobby Houston (an Oscar-winning filmmaker) and home renovator Eric Shamie.
Matthew Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers & Grocers and Rubi’s Café in Great Barrington (rubiners.com), brought some of his wares — a raw milk variety from Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown and Monterey Chèvre, a milky, sweet ice cream of a cheese made by a woman not 20 minutes away.
“We’ve watched the Hudson Valley get hyper cool,” said Houston, standing in front of a photograph of him taken and signed by Andy Warhol. “The Berkshires does it better — without the hyper cool.”
Historically, the Berkshires have been the vacation spot of Boston and New York intelligentsia — the Yo-Yo Mas, the Ruth Reichls, the people who would sooner torch their bona fides than step foot in the Hamptons. But recently, this swath of Massachusetts has given rise to a formidable food movement — a place where the milk remains cream on top, where the animals graze on hillsides, where little shoots grow up to be farmers’ market peas.
“The concentration of food, music and art makes it Brooklyn with mountains,” said Jane Larkworthy, executive beauty director of W magazine, who chronicles food happenings on her blog, the Fraudulent Chef (thefraudulentchef.com).
“The Berkshires make our mission possible,” explained Mark Firth, a Brooklyn transplant who left restaurants he co-founded there — Marlow & Sons, Diner — to open the marquee restaurant of Great Barrington, Prairie Whale. “We source our produce locally; grow our herbs; raise pigs, hens and sheep; feed our community.”
Not surprisingly, the farms here supply the best local restaurants, like the recently opened Cantina 229 (cantina229.com) in New Marlborough. Dan Barber of Blue Hill fame also has a farm nearby, which supplies his empire.
And everyone knows everyone.
“The farmers I work with, we grew up together,” said Scott Cole, owner of the beautifully curated Monterey General Store (monterey-general-store.com). “When you know someone for 20 years, you trust the food.”
Over the next weeks, I sampled spicy mustard greens at Ted Dobson’s Equinox Farm (equinoxfarmberkshires.com), held a baby goat that would one day make the famous chèvre, and met a Large Black Pig (that is the official name) at Dominic Palumbo’s Moon in the Pond farm (mooninthepond.org).
Palumbo — whose farm name was suggested by a friend after he noticed the reflection of the moon in the water — and I stood in the meadow next to a dairy cow named Honeysuckle.
“It reminded me of Plato, the idea that everything is a reflection.” I nodded. Of course. Plato. Brilliant! Except I had no idea what he was talking about.
Later, I visited the milking room at the Rawson Brook Farm to meet the farmer behind the chèvre — Susan Sellew. Sellew and Rubiner were discussing her new fetas. The creaminess, the saltiness. They asked my opinion, which proved insightful: “That one’s great,” I said. “Wait — so’s that.”
If this world has an epicenter, it is the farmers’ market in Great Barrington, which, with no intended offense to Stockbridge, is the capital of the Berkshires. This is where I met Laura Meister, the owner of Farm Girl Farm (farmgirlfarm.com) as she was setting up her baby greens.
“This is my second career,” said Meister, who worked as an art historian in Boston before she shifted to an agrarian life.
Production in the Berkshires is small — that’s the point. “We should eat less meat” is not a sentiment you’d expect from a meat purveyor — but it’s what Jeremy Stanton, owner of the Meat Market and the recently opened Camp Fire (themeatmarketgb.com) told me. “I live with the weight of every animal I have ever sold.”
It’s in keeping with the Berkshires, a place where farmers quote Plato, where art historians grow micro-greens, where days-old goats wobble gently on new legs, where the woods are lovely, dark and deep.
Back in the forest, the dinner party was winding down. Larkworthy’s roasted lamb was long gone. The cheese tray was reduced to a sad few rinds. I was discreetly sweeping up the end of the celeriac mashed potatoes with my finger.
Soon there was the clatter of plates.
Before walking into the night, Rubiner tried to articulate what was so magical about the area.
“This is a place that is always taking care of its own,” he said. “And once the crowds thin, and the air is crisp and the markets fill up with pumpkins … that’s what the Berkshires are really meant to be.”