DESTINATION: Berkshire Botanical Garden Harvest Festival, Stockbridge, MA. By REGINA BURGIO Ask ten people their favorite time of year in the Berkshires and at least five of them will say fall. Vibrant colors against blue skies, crisp, invigorating air and warming, comfort foods like spiced apple cider, butternut bisque and chocolate hazelnut cupcakes with Nutella frosting. Okay, maybe not that last one (more on that later), but at this year's Harvest Festival at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, autumn was celebrated in classic Berkshire fashion; that is, plenty of tradition with tasty twists of the unconventional.
Every October, we make our way down the road to this popular fall festival. Over the hill and through Lenox we go, with spectacular scenery leading the way. Or more literally, down Route 7 to Route 183 by way of downtown Lenox.
Centrally located at the intersection of Routes 183 and 102 in Stockbridge, the Berkshire Botanical Garden is one of the nation's oldest botanic gardens. Open May through mid-October to the general public for viewing, it is the local authority on everything gardening, offering educational classes, workshops and topical lectures year round. But their annual Harvest Festival (and biggest fundraiser) is a giant autumn bash replete with children's activities, live music, handmade crafts and delectable comfort foods.
With a 76-year history headlining its resume, this is also one of the most satisfying and long-standing family events in the Berkshires. Choose from pony rides, a petting zoo, a hay jump, games and, for the non-acrophobic amongst us, their legendary cherry picker ride will take you and the kids high above the crowd for an unforgettable vista. Some of the happiest tikes, however, could be found digging around a sandbox (or more accurately, a "cornbox") filled with the largest maize kernels I've ever seen. Even Michael Pollan would approve of such corn usage!
But for me, hand in hand with scenery, local foods are the main event of any good road trip, and the Harvest Festival is the perfect marriage of the two. Against a backdrop of colorful foliage, you can enjoy autumn classics like the Red Lion Inn's butternut squash bisque or untraditional ones like Pittsfield Rye's Death by Chocolate Bread. Other crowd favorites include apple cider donuts from Bartlett's Orchard, pumpkin ice cream from SoCo, fruit tarts from Dutch Desserts and coconut chocolate macaroons from Klara's Gourmet Cookies. I was happy to see that Berkshire Grown produce and foods were being featured at this year's festival, doubling the usual food options.
Since we hadn't had lunch, both Alex and I chose a hearty cup of vegetarian chili from Theresa's Stockbridge Cafe. Against a palate of thick tomato broth, the requisite pinto beans were artfully and tastefully balanced with carrots, zucchini, peppers and corn, an array of colors that seemed to reflect the lovely autumn hues around us. We grabbed a Berkshire blonde to share from the Barrington Brewery tent and proceeded to mumble a few words here and there for the next fifteen minutes, delighting in our culinary choices and absorbing the cheerful atmosphere.
While I've never been to the restaurant, I have walked by their sign hundreds of times. Located on a short alley only a few steps from the Red Lion Inn, Theresa's Stockbridge Cafe is perhaps most famous for what it "used to be" as its placard proudly declares, "formerly Alice's Restaurant." Made famous by Arlo Guthrie's iconic 60s tune and movie, this eatery – while no longer owned by Alice Brock – remains a regular stop on the tourist trail. I'm not sure you can still "get anything you want," as Arlo professed, but on this day you could certainly get some bona fide veggie chili.
Across from the chili tent, we were tempted by diminutive, yet eye-catching mini cupcakes from a relative newcomer to the Berkshire food scene, Barrington Bites. Always a "sucker" for lemon, Alex went for the Lemon Drop, a lemon cupcake with a delightfully tart lemon cream cheese frosting. I opted for Chocolate Hazelnut, a dark chocolate cupcake with Nutella buttercream frosting. Nutella, a creamy chocolate and hazelnut spread, is to Italian kids what peanut butter is to American ones, except they mostly eat it for breakfast. Not the most wholesome way to start your day, but it probably edges out Count Chocula on the health meter.
Each mini cupcake was decorated with appealing colors and meticulous design. The simplicity of the cupcake names, however, belie their exotic descriptions. Toasted Almond (which we indulged in after the lemon and Nutella), refers to an "almond cupcake with whipped madagascar bourbon vanilla buttercream frosting sprinkled with toasted almonds." The creators have hit the triple crown of sensory sensation: sounds good, looks good, tastes good.
At their permanent location inside the Chef Shop on Railroad Street in Great Barrington, co-owners Sherri Gorelick and Wendy Weinberg offer 30 flavors of gourmet mini cupcakes. In an age and culture where bigger is better, kudos to these Berkshire visionaries for paying homage to the small. Sure to become a regular stop for us on future trips to GB.
To complement our dessert, we headed for the "100% organic, fair trade, air roasted, kosher-certified" java from Pierce Bros Coffee out of Greenfield, MA. Darren and Sean, who were on hand to chat up customers, are the brothers Pierce. They distribute their coffees to more than 70 farms, markets, restaurants, and cafes in 13 states. We both chose the Fogbuster, their signature brew. Strong and robust, it went down smoothly and offset the sweetness on the palate still lingering from the cupcakes.
Before leaving, we browsed the crafters, most of whom were local artisans. After a few early-Christmas buys, I grabbed a chunk of Maggie's Round, a raw milk cheese from Cricket Creek Farm, some golden cherry tomatoes from Taft Farms and a French baguette from Berkshire Mountain Bakery (see an interview with owner/baker Richard Bourdon.) I recently met Richard at a local farmer's market and was impressed that this master baker was selling his own wares. I've since learned that he's that kind of fellow.
What is especially satisfying about his bread, however, is that it is deliciously gourmet and healthful. Read the ingredient label. It won't take you long! Plus, you'll recognize all of the ingredients. But, this is not your Uncle Jerrie's hippie bread that takes two days to digest; the sourdough process he's perfected gives his bread an unusual lightness not usually found in such salubrious baked goods. One of his 3 S's will almost always be found in our ice box: Sunny Flax, Sesame or Spelt.
As we left the Harvest Festival, we decided to take one of our favorite backroads to Pittsfield. We made the short jaunt down Route 102 onto Main Street, the roadway made forever famous by Norman Rockwell. Before passing the Red Lion Inn, we hung a left onto Prospect Hill, which always touches me as a signature Berkshires road: rolling hills and sweeping vistas in the distance; a picturesque lake (Stockbridge Bowl); a Gilded Age estate and gardens (Naumkeag); a summer camp (Camp Mah-Kee-Nac); a luxury hotel (Wheatleigh); and at the very end of this 5-mile meandering route when it becomes W. Hawthorne Road, Tanglewood, the cultural icon perhaps most associated with the county. Not a shabby list for a 5-mile, semi-rural stretch.
As we turned on to Route 183 heading back home, it occurred to me that this year's Harvest Festival was probably my favorite one to date. Must have been the added Berkshire Grown presence and the perfect autumn weather. The cupcakes didn't hurt either.
DESTINATION: Northern Berkshires By REGINA BURGIO When it was first announced that one of the most popular unknown bands in the world, Wilco, would be curating a 3-day uber fest of music and arts at MASS MoCA, the largest center for contemporary arts in the United States, we knew we had to go. While we had no idea what to expect, it sounded too cool to pass up what was to be named the Solid Sound Festival. From Pittsfield it’s an easy and beautiful 40-minute trip up Route 8 into downtown North Adams. But easy isn’t really fun so we made a few stops along the way. Since I’m always thinking about my next meal, I realized we had no blueberries for the next day’s breakfast so we pulled into Whitney’s Farm in Cheshire. A long-standing family business, Whitney’s offers local produce, baked goods and has bragging rights for some of the best cider donuts in the Berkshires. They also have a huge garden center with plants and flowers of all kinds, but since I’m more of an eater than a grower, my legs don’t wander over there much. We love riding our bikes in the summer and fall along the Ashiwullticook Rail Trail, which parallels Route 8 from the Berkshire Mall to downtown Adams. Whitney’s is a perfect stop along the way for a donut, fresh deli sandwich or a cup of mulled cider. In addition, their petting zoo makes them a well-liked destination for families. But today we weren’t in the mood for dawdling so Alex ran in for some native blueberries and away we went. Shortly after Whitney’s is my favorite spot on Route 8, the scenic Cheshire Reservoir. Not to be missed in the fall, it is also a favored spot in winter, where ice fishing huts pop up as soon as the lake freezes. As we rolled into Adams, we decided to stop at Stone Soup Café to grab a quick afternoon tea and crumpet for the road. I’ve been here many times, mainly for lunch or a late morning snack since it is located near the end of the bike trail. Jeanne Matthew, the enthusiastic manager/chef of Stone Soup, is a veritable foodie. We’ve had many a rave about the benefits of eating locally-grown food versus the stuff that sits in a truck for a week. Her menu could best be described as organic and local with an emphasis on vegan and vegetarian selections. The atmosphere is coffeehouse casual (fair trade, of course) and she has appetizing homemade specials every day. She’s a one-woman tour-de-force and she will entertain you with conversation as she feeds you. The café is connected with the Topia Arts Center, definitely the coolest thing to hit Adams since the birth of Susan B. Anthony. (The latter’s recently opened museum is only a few minutes away.) There is so much to say about Topia. The brainchild of Nana Simopoulos and Caryn Heilman, the Topia Inn is the “greenest” bed and breakfast in the Berkshires, built in accordance with LEED guidelines and standards. But these are women of great vision and the inn is just the beginning. They are working feverishly on renovating the old theatre behind the café. According to their website, the Topia Arts Center presents “quality music, dance, theater, circus arts, film and visual art exhibits.” It’s a work in progress but they offer innovative programming year round even as they continue to renovate. Okay, back to the trip…. After a quick green tea and one of Jeanne’s homemade toasted hazelnut muffins, we made the short trip up the road to North Adams. I was hoping we had made the right choice. After all, there were two other events in the Berkshires that I was sorry to be missing that evening: John Oliver from The Daily Show was performing stand-up at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield and it was Film Night at Tanglewood in Lenox. Even worse, Robert Osborne the host of Turner Classic Movies was the featured guest. What to do? It was a typical Saturday night in the Berkshires. Every time I drive into North Adams I am struck by the beauty of the Northern Berkshires. Perhaps nowhere else in Berkshire County do you feel so welcomed by these gentle yet majestic mountains. We were pleasantly surprised to find no traffic jams and a nearby parking spot. First on the agenda was to check out the galleries. I’ve been to MASS MoCA many times and always enjoy the remarkable creativity of the exhibits. Yesterday morning I heard Joe Thompson, MASS MoCA’s director and visionary, on WAMC Radio make an insightful observation about contemporary art. He said sometimes people try too hard “to figure it out,” thinking there’s some “hidden code” in it, but it’s better “to just enjoy it and have fun with it.” I liked that. The Sol LeWitt drawings are exceptional and worth seeing repeatedly. When we were there, Glenn Kotche, the drummer from Wilco, was giving a walking lecture on drumming. His installation in the gallery featured various types of drum heads hanging from the ceiling, all for the playing. I was particularly eager to see the Leonard Nimoy “Secret Selves” exhibit. Life-size photographs of average people (from the Northampton, MA area) revealing their hidden selves. MASS MoCA was the perfect venue for this sort of show, offbeat and irreverent, but highly entertaining. While this in itself is worth a trip this summer or fall, there are so many other things that make this unique museum a destination any time of year. After a good hour in the galleries, we decided to make our way outdoors. It was fairly crowded but not claustrophobic in the least. More importantly, I was thrilled by all the food selections as I wasn’t sure what to expect. Gramercy Bistro, a popular downtown restaurant for many years, is now housed at the entrance to MASS MoCA. They were obviously bustling. (Note to self to return again this summer.) Lickety Split, the café located within MoCA, was selling fresh squeezed lemonade, smoothies, and heartier options like quesadillas and burritos. Spice Root, an Indian Restaurant in the heart of Williams College on Spring Street in Williamstown, was offering both veg and non-veg thali plates. I really wanted to get one of the veggie plates but since I would be carrying it back to my chair, it felt a little risky. In the end, we both chose a vegetarian curry pita (wrapped in handy aluminum foil) from Ahli Baba's, a kabob shop out of Burlington, VT. Absolutely delicious and authentic with a lovely bite of mango pickle. After feeding the tummy, Alex opted for a Magic Hat, a highly respected Vermont-based brew. Oddly enough, I was in the mood for a cup of java. Earlier we had walked by what appeared to be the official coffee of the festival, Intelligentsia. I was a little disappointed they weren’t serving my favorite local brew, Barrington Coffee. I’m someone who rather have no coffee than bad coffee but when I overheard the barista say they were making each cup to order I was quickly sold. I decided to buy the souvenir Wilco mug at the same time (hey, it was only 10 bucks and the coffee was free.) Now for the bigger decision. There were two types of coffee to choose from: a Kenyan and a Honduran. To keep it simple I said, “I’ll have whichever one you recommend.” He chose the Kenya for me. As I waited for it to finish filtering, the woman after me made the mistake of asking the difference (besides the price) between the two offerings. Somewhere between “notes of abundant persimmon acidity” and “floral lime tones” he lost us both. “That was pretty confusing,” she replied. “I’ll just have the cheaper one.” It was a funny moment, but at least I knew I was getting the real deal. Turns out Intelligentsia is a Chicago-based company, and since Wilco is also from the Windy City, I guess that made sense to bring their own coffee. Also, from Chicago was the artist opening up for Wilco that evening, the soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples. A cross between Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle, she and her band got everyone feeling really good. The boomers in the crowd got especially excited when she started singing “The Weight,” the classic ’60s tune by The Band. As we relaxed on the lawn, sipping our drinks, listening to Mavis and watching the sun set behind the serene mountains, we had no regrets about missing the other events that evening. We were in the right place at the right time, savoring a timeless Berkshire moment. But of course, the main event that evening was Wilco. As expected, they were fabulous in every way. At about 40 minutes into the show, Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer, greeted the crowd and expressed how happy they were to be here and how much fun they were having. Shouts from the audience soon followed. “What? What do I think of what?” asked Tweedy. More shouts. “What do I think of Big Bird?” he tried again. Laughs. Then more shouts. “Oh, what do I think of the Berkshires?” “Are you kidding? It’s incredible here,” he remarked without a beat. We couldn’t agree more.