Among the pristine rows of vegetables in the greenhouse at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture are 35 varieties of salad greens. Full heads of lettuce. Red radicchio. Turnip greens. Spinach. Exotic claytonia, a flowering green that is a fine edible decorative in salad.
"I had heard of claytonia, but never cooked with it before," says Dan Barber, picking a stem and handing it to me before choosing one for himself. It has an earthy, slightly bitter taste. We are navigating our way through the half-acre greenhouse that is part of the $30 million, Rockefeller-funded food learning center in New York's Westchester County. Barber, 35, is dressed in a traditional white chef's coat, but a straw hat atop his head brings a dash of field hand to his roles as Stone Barns' chef and creative director.
At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the food goes directly from garden to table.
Creating dishes that incorporate ingredients like claytonia, and the hundreds of other varieties of foods produced on site, has been one of the challenges Barber has faced while getting his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, off the ground. "It requires a little more organization and a little more thought, but those are part of the challenges that are interesting," he explains.
The same goes for the Berkshire pigs the farm is raising in a natural, free-range environment, as well as for the flock of chickens that roost on the lawn. Nearly all of the foods grown or raised at Stone Barns will eventually be served in the restaurant's dining room. In an effort to use the bulk of the animals, not only the choice cuts of meat like tenderloins and breasts, the kitchen experiments with sausages. During my visit to Stone Barns last summer, aromatic links hung from doorways in Blue Hill's kitchen.
The farm-to-table learning center is a new draw to the Hudson River Valley, one that is particularly fitting given the region's reputation as a haven for food lovers. Manhattan chefs have long favored the region, about 30 miles north of New York City, for its locally made, farm-fresh foods. The area also is home to its own world-class chefs, thanks to the nearby Culinary Institute of America. A visit to Stone Barns makes an excellent jumping-off point to explore the region.
The Hudson River Valley in Upstate New York is linked by a network of bridges and stretches from Manhattan to the Catskills. The New York State Thruway runs through the valley, making it easy to bypass towns like Tarrytown, Rhinebeck, Kingston, Red Hood and Hudson, but veering off the highway in Tarrytown and heading north on Route 9 leads through the scenic heart of the valley's east bank.
From Stone Barns, heading north along the east bank will bring you to Hyde Park and the CIA, with its little red-brick campus, where aspiring chefs toil in the school's Colavita Center for Italian Food and Wine and the Shunsuke Takaki School of Baking and Pastry.
The CIA operates five restaurants on campus: the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe, American Bounty for fine dining, the Asian-inspired St. Andrew's Cafe, the Italian Ristorante Caterina de' Medici and the French Escoffier Room.The institute opens to the public for tours on select days of the week.
From Hyde Park, I turned east on Route 41 toward Clinton Corners, encouraged by the green grape signs promoting the Dutchess County Wine Trail, which links Clinton, Millbrook and Alison, three of the valley's 20-plus vintners. The route is a worthwhile diversion for wine tasting, but it's also a great way to see the lay of the land.
The east bank of the Hudson is storied with grand mansions -- the former estates of the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts -- and dotted with the sweet, boutique-filled towns of Tarrytown and Rhinebeck. Many people visit these historic landmarks and window-shop along the pleasant main streets without ever venturing into the countryside.