Massachusetts isn’t a very big state, though it does pack a punch for its size. Traversing it, however, isn’t as easy at it seems. One can go south along the Massachusetts Turnpike, which is the fastest way to go. Another option is to travel along the northern side via Route 2, also known as “The Mohawk Trail,” which is a bit slower but has some great views and hairpin turns. Finally, you can cut right through the middle of the state on either Massachusetts State Route 9 or US Route 20, both are slower routes, though they are easily the most historic and present numerous opportunities to step out and experience some local character and history.
After a recent visit to the towns of Lee and Lenox in the Berkshires, we opted to take Route 9 back to Eastern Massachusetts. Route 9 runs from Pittsfield, MA into Boston, winding through historic towns and hamlets along the way. Historically, Route 9 is an amalgam of old roads, including the Berkshire Trail and the Worcester Turnpike. We left Lee (which happens to sit on the MA Pike) and headed north to Pittsfield and began our journey along the slower route.
Many of our trips are punctuated with the requisite coffee stops, which usually means Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks. Since we’re localvores, we feel we’ve hit the jackpot when we find an independent coffee roaster. While driving through the town of Williamsburg, MA, which lies west of the Connecticut River between Pittsfield and Northhampton, we accidentally passed an unassuming coffee roaster in a small building set back from Route 9. Realizing our mistake, we quickly turned around and headed right to Elbow Room Coffee.
Inside, we met Melissa Krueger, the owner, an eastern Massachusetts ex-pat who proudly calls this section of Pioneer Valley home. She proudly shared her technique and sourcing. In small batches of no more than 20 pounds, she roasts fair trade beans from Africa, Indonesia, and the Americas. After a couple of nicely brewed samples, Melissa had us hooked. As taste-driven coffee fans, we were thrilled and purchased several pounds of beans roasted that morning, including an amazing Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and an aromatic Flores Green Dragon.
Each sip of Melissa’s coffee will not only give us a great taste sensation but will also conjure up pleasant images of Williamsburg and our trip along Route 9. There’s nothing like taking the slow road for the maximum travel experience.
Boston is like a folded quilt with its well-known neighborhoods on top: The North End, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Charlestown, The South End, Fenway, East Boston, and South Boston. Unfold the quilt to discover Allston, Brighton, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. Many of these neighborhood were independent communities that became part of Boston proper in the late 19thcentury, an activity that also led to the expansion of other cities such as New York, which consolidated other cities into boroughs such as Brooklyn. Just as in Boston, smaller borough neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, still have maintain their own identity.
Recently, Rob attended a Sunday morning event at Doyle’s Cafe in the Jamaica Plain (JP to the locals) section of Boston. Founded in 1882, Doyle’s is not just a historic JP Irish bar and restaurant, but it’s also a tribute to Boston’s history. It’s worth a visit just to look at the walls covered with pictures, magazines, and newspapers that so eloquently echo Boston stories from a different time.
That Sunday morning event was Boston Media Makers (BMM), a regular gathering of people working with audio and video on the web: podcasters, videobloggers, filmmakers, artists, writers, PR and social media people. Our host was the indefatigable Steve Garfield, who’s rarely seen in Boston without a camera. While there, Rob met Roy Krantz, a publisher, web designer, and just a fascinating and passionate personality.
Roy explained that he and his wife Susan would be hosting a concert at their Jamaica Plain house featuring the Hi-Tone Ramblers. The band describes their style as a “melting pot of Anglo and African-rooted songs, rhythms, blues and old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.” Also at the BMM meeting was Tim Rowell, the Hi-Tone Ramblers talented banjo player. Both men extended a very warm invitation. How could two rather curious, sentimental people like us resist?
So… last night we headed down to JP. Not surprisingly, we stopped at Doyle’s for a quick bite and headed to Roy and Susan’s house nearby. We were surprised to find an unconventional house, a former printing shop that had creatively converted by Roy into an eclectic and charming home. Even better, its unique design and tall ceilings would shortly ensure great acoustics for both the band and the audience.
And the Hi-Tone Ramblers didn’t disappoint. With Cathy Mason on fiddle, Tim Rowell on banjo, Tim FitzPatrick on guitar, Bethany Weiman on cello, and Paul Strother on bass, they delivered two fantastic sets. Not a single foot was idle the entire evening. Complementing the music, the band members lightheartedly described the history and their philosophy of song selection. We’ve been to many concerts over the years, but we’re happy to say that listening to some creative string music in a converted print shop in Jamaica Plain proved to be one of the best musical experiences we’ve ever had.
It was quiet when we woke up this morning. Snow quiet. Over night, we received a couple of inches of snow on top of the previous few from the other day. Snow acts as muffler and creates a calm, especially on the weekend when the concern about a nasty work commute isn’t there. Unfortunately, snow gets a bum rap; it just isn’t winter without it.
Today’s was a dry, fluffy snow, which meant the temperatures outside were rather cold. Anyone who’s shoveled snow will quickly remark that it’s better to shovel this snow than the “warmer” weather, heavy wet snow. With the light stuff, one can clear the walkway, driveway and car in a matter of minutes, which is exactly what we did.
It was too pretty outside so we opted to go out for breakfast. Before leaving the house, though, we dressed in our L.L. Bean winter jackets and, most importantly, put on our favorite winter boots: Bogs. We learned about Bogs a few years back from Deb Paisley of Paisley Farm & Greenhouse in West Boxford, MA. We thought, “When a New England farmer recommends a boot, he (or in this case she) knows this from practical use. We picked up ours at the Kittery Trading Post in southern Maine. It’s turned out to be one of the best things we ever did. Though Bogs aren’t from New England, they’re perfect for our region.
With Bogs on and feet warm, we hopped in our S.U.V. Yes, it has four-wheel drive (4WD) to make the journeys around Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut a little easier when the white stuff falls. 4WD, unfortunately, does not turn a New England country road with 14 inches of snow into a flat dry interstate in summer. We see more 4WD vehicles on their roofs during a snowstorm than regular cars. Nonetheless, it helps, but only with a healthy dose of Yankee pragmatism.
We went out, had a great breakfast that included Rhode Island-style jonnycakes with real Vermont maple syrup. After a pleasant and warm trip out into the snow, we’re now back home, sitting by the fire, and happily telling you about it. Thank goodness for warm shoes and four-wheel drive.
Recently, my friend Erica Holthausen and I were fortunate to grab the last two available seats for an Artisan French Bread class at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School, a small, family run baking school in Lyman, ME. Stone Turtle is an unpretentious, hidden gem that turns out some wonderfully executed and practical lessons on the art of bread baking. (Hidden indeed as the directions had us turn at an old landmark, roadside stand painted with a weathered Moxie logo.) On this brisk fall day, ten participants surrounded the kitchen’s large rectangular table. The group makeup was diverse: three men and seven women ranging in age from late twenty-something to over seventy years.
The owners Michael and Sandy Jubinsky are native New Englanders originally from Lowell, MA. Michael is a retired engineer, and Sandy, a talented artist specializing in painted porcelain. Both have been cooking, baking, studying and writing about food for more than forty years, which shows as they work harmoniously in the Stone Turtle kitchen. Michael leads the class instruction while sharing his passion and skills for producing all forms of bread, the proverbial staff of life. He is an incredibly patient man, capable of teaching everyone from the novice baker to the more experienced professional. He couples this with a great sense of humor and a vast reservoir of knowledge. Sandy wears a name tag that simply says “The Boss,” and is flanked by the couple’s son, John, who keeps the Le Panyol oven fired up and ready. Together they help move Michael along at a comfortable pace.
Before he embarked on making the bread, Michael quickly noted that one must bake at least 2,000 loaves before feeling success. As daunting as that sounded, he further added that even with that behind him or her, a bread baker will continue to refine skills, striving to improve with each subsequent loaf.
As class began, we were each given equal portions of poolish, a pre-ferment originally used by Polish bakers in the nineteenth century and later adapted by French pâtissiers in pastry making. The purpose of the poolish, which Michael made the evening before, is to improve the bread by increasing the acidity, extending the shelf life, and allowing more depth of flavor to develop prior to mixing the final dough. It is, however, not a sourdough starter.
Everything involved in the entire baking exercise was done by hand -no mixers. The dough, surprisingly damp and sticky, coated everyone’s hands and echoed Michael’s mantra of “wetter is better.” Between the rising, resting and shaping, he demonstrated how to make a variety of French breads along with a few Italian breads. For the latter, he used French techniques to make both a rosemary focaccia and a pizza crust, which we later enjoyed for a delicious lunch.
Much like an old French Citroën deux chevaux automobile, the Le Panyol oven (a.k.a. “the Stone Turtle”) is a labor of love. It requires multiple cycles of heating and cooling over several days to gradually raise the temperature to the desired level for baking. Just as we were preparing to bake the bread, John removed the oven coals and said that no additional heat was necessary; the retained heat, stored in twelve inches of ceramic, would be sufficient. Bake times will often vary because no adjustments are possible once the breads go in.
The class participated in every step of the baking process, right down to a rapid, continuous procession of peels (long handled paddles used to place bread in a deep oven) orchestrated by Michael who carefully placed our risen breads in the hot oven. While waiting for our newly conceived children to finish, we sampled a French boule and a boule d’olive that Michael made earlier in the day. If ours turned out half as good, we were going to be in for a treat!
Much of the baking equipment was handmade out of practicality, which enhanced the charm and rustic feel of the whole experience. The paddle we used to gently roll our risen dough onto the peels was constructed of cedar clapboard donned with pantyhose. It performed flawlessly.
One of the great things about this class at Stone Turtle was that all of the ingredients – including those used in the poolish – are readily available to the non-professional. Some of our flour was locally sourced from Maine’s Aroostook County. The recipes provided will work well for the home baker. For those of us without a Le Panyol at home, Michael also demonstrated impressive results using a standard oven. That’s great, but having a Le Panyol in my own backyard would be a nice Mother’s Day gift. (Hint, hint other Palaverer.)
After cleaning up and saying our goodbyes, Erica and I — along with our beautiful bâtards — returned home. The breads were exceptional. So memorable was this experience that I promptly signed up the other Palaverer for the Artisan Italian class next month. Our Christmas baking should prove interesting.
Thanks to the team at Stone Turtle Baking & Cooking School (Michael, Sandy, and John) for the wonderfully rewarding, educational, and delicious November day in Maine. I have only 1,998 more loaves to go!
Whatever your baking ability, the Le Panyol at Stone Turtle is quite an experience. Finding a little bit of France Down East in Maine made it even better.
On a recent, beautiful, summer evening, approximately seventy-five lucky individuals converged on Wilson Farm in Lexington, MA at closing time. Gathering among rows of tomato plants and other ripening farm vegetables, the crowd slowly filled the chairs that flanked three long tables draped with white tablecloth and adorned with beautiful fresh cut flowers. Many in attendance had never met before, but would share a common bond tonight: a culinary experience with fresh food from New England.
Dining in a location where one typically doesn’t sit down to eat (like in a field, a dock or a barn) is a novelty, and only added to the anticipation of knowing that much of our dinner had been picked hours earlier from the very field where we now sat. For us, it was reminiscent of the feeling we would get while picnicking with our young sons on a rainy day in our living room: out of the ordinary yet quite special.
Through the din of conversation, our servers (folks who worked at the farm stand and recently trained for the evening) began serving up course after course upon the table, some plated individually, and others offered family-style. With each course, Wilson Farm Chef Todd Heberlein would proudly and passionately explain each dish’s contents, philosophy, and thoughtful preparation. The colors, aromas, and flavors were an amplification of their freshness and a testament to Chef Heberlein’s artistry.
As the courses passed, the sun was replaced by candlelight, adding another welcome dimension to the evening. Ultimately, seventy-five content, satiated people left Wilson Farm as friends – not just with one another, but also with a passionate local chef and with a farm that very much embraces its New England heritage.
There is no better way to celebrate the harvest than to dine on food, simply and lovingly prepared where it was grown, shared at a community table among people who appreciate it and enjoyed in the fresh air beneath the open sky.
As we’ve said many times before: New England is as much about the people as it is about the history, culture, food and the landscape. We saw this here as well. Jim Wilson, one of the owners of Wilson Farm, was present the entire evening, sharing his big smile and ensuring that we were enjoying ourselves. Chef Heberlein didn’t hide either, making the rounds and checking to make sure we were smiling. Great New Englanders. Great farm. Great evening.
Historic city. Esteemed seafaring heritage. Some say she has seen better days. A pretty girl with a dirty face. Very proud people.
The description could apply to either Naples, Italy or New Bedford, Massachusetts. Having spent time in both cities, we see the similarities even though thousands of miles separate them. Both, in our humble opinion, are worthy destinations and offer far more to the visitor than may be apparent on their often tired facades. They also have an intoxicating vibrancy, fed by well-needed renewals. That’s why we keep going back.
Recently, on a beautiful, spring Saturday, we headed down to Massachusetts’ South Coast for some research and relaxation. For those of you not familiar, South Coast is the term used to describe the non-Cape Cod coastal section of Massachusetts that extends from the canal to the border of Rhode Island. Like much of coastal New England, this region blends natural beauty, hardscrabble living, local rituals, and rich American history. It doesn’t have the crowds or the kitsch of the Cape, but offers travelers a rewarding, yet accessible experience to explore New England. On this particular day, we covered the entire length from Wareham to Westport and included our regular, requisite stop in New Bedford.
Our destination in New Bedford was Travessia, an urban winery in the heart of the city. Travessia is run by Marco Montez, whose love for the vine flows as beautifully as his wine. Marco is reinstituting the ancient tradition of vinification in a city, rather than in a remote, rural setting. He chose New Bedford and frequently uses locally-harvested grapes for his array of wines. Though he does business sixty miles from the capital of Massachusetts, Marco is well-known by the Boston wine community and justifiably so: he’s a passionate New Englander who cares deeply about his product and his ties to the South Coast. But we digress. Travessia was our expected destination, but another place in New Bedford became our unexpected destination.
On the way to Travessia, we passed what appeared to be yet another, undifferentiated pizza establishment. Laura grabbed my arm, pulled me to a stop and pointed me to the name, “Brick Pizzeria Napoletana.” I tuned out immediately, which is normally uncharacteristic for me (and Laura), except when it comes to pizza. We’ve had so many lackluster pizzas over the years despite searching endlessly for great ones. For some bizarre reason, we take our pizza seriously – very, very seriously. I’m trying rather hard not to turn this into a pizza post because that one is already in the works. Nonetheless, being too often disappointed, I find that the Naples designation applied to pizza only exacerbates my angst because it’s almost always not like real Naples. Hence, we moved on to Travessia for a pleasant tasting with Marco.
After sampling some great wine and purchasing some nice bottles, we headed back to the car. Again, Laura stopped me in front of Brick. “They’ve got a real wood fired oven in there!” she exclaimed. “Wood-fired bad pizza is still bad pizza,” I responded. She was undeterred and dragged me in. I’ve been married too long and know when resistance is futile. Once inside, my nose reacted to the aromas immediately. They registered “Naples, Italy.” Wow. Interesting. I thought it was fluke and fought what my senses were telling me.
I saw the Caputo Flour in the kitchen, so I instantly knew they took their dough seriously. Then I saw the fresh mozzarella, the San Marzano tomatoes, and the sprigs of fresh basil. I started a conversation with John Goggin, the pizzaiolo, who was kind enough to give a skeptic like me history of the restaurant, a description of the ingredients, and a review of the baking process. In fairness to John, I did tell him that I spent many years in the North End of Boston in a famed pizzeria, so we had some common ground. John informed me that his son Jeff, whom we just missed by a matter of minutes, was the owner.
I capitulated to both Laura and John and ordered a classic Margherita pizza. Though one of the simplest of pizzas, the Margherita is the true test of a pizza establishment. More ingredients only serve to mask imperfections. And that was the challenge because there would be no room for error and it would confirm my anticipated disappointment.
Then the pizza arrived.
It was visually stunning. It was cooked to perfection. It was delicious. I was wrong – dead wrong. And I admitted it to Laura. (Another reason we’ve been married for 20 years.) This pizza was Naples, Italy-caliber. No kidding. I wanted to give John a hug. This was an unexpected experience. Right away, I wished I lived nearby so I could stop in regularly, perhaps pairing a great Margherita from Brick with a nice red wine from Travessia.
In the meantime, Laura and I will continue our trips to the South Coast, somehow knowing there will be more visits to New Bedford, to Travessia, and to Brick Pizzeria Napoletana. And what about Naples, Italy? We’ll head back there as well. It’s a jewel like New Bedford. Fortunately, we can now experience some Neapolitan pizza without the hassle of a long flight.
Are there take-aways here? Absolutely. In fact, there are several.
Great things are happening in older New England cities like New Bedford.
Entrepreneurs like Marco Montez and Jeff Goggin infuse life into our historic cities.
New Englanders like John Goggin make a huge difference for customers.
Massachusetts’ South Coast is a rich and evolving destination with no canals to cross.
The key to a happy marriage is listening to your spouse and admitting when you’re wrong.
Life is too short to eat bad pizza and drink lousy wine.
-Rob Ciampa, Palaverer
Photos credits: City-data.com (Wikipedia Commons), Travessia Urban Winery, Rob & Laura Ciampa
Strawbery Banke Portsmouth, NH. Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun.Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, NH – Photo by Roger H. GounThe scene is a cold, December night in 2007 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A biting wind cuts across the Piscataqua River, scattering the few snow flurries loitering in the air and shaking the Christmas lights that adorn the trees in historic Strawbery Banke. We enter The Dunaway Restaurant, a contemporary dining establishment inside a classic New England saltbox-style home, and are welcomed by a warm fire in the hearth. We sought out this restaurant because its chef, Ben Hasty, a local who grew up on a farm in South Berwick, Maine, very much embraced the use of regional, New England ingredients all the way from legumes to lobster.
Ben’s creations were superb, ranging from his Maine oyster embellishments to his vanilla infused poached lobster. During dinner, we looked up at one another and said, “It’s good to be back in New England.” In fact, we had moved back the previous month after several years in Atlanta, Georgia. When we moved away, we knew that we would someday return. Little did we know, however, how much we would miss the many things that collectively and uniquely make New England home.
Many of our family members, friends and colleagues leave the area and never return, while others make the occasional visit back. Surprisingly, though, we’ve found growing numbers who – consciously and intentionally – make their way home. Our chef Ben Hasty, like us, came back to New England. He stopped by to chat when our meal was done and shared his similar passion for the region. That’s the characteristic, a deep-rooted connection to place that continually calls to those destined to return – and to those who enjoy living here.
For the past two years, we’ve been reconnecting with all six New England states. Fried clams in Rhode Island. Historic ships in Connecticut. Mountain top meadow views in Vermont. Politically-inspired breakfasts in New Hampshire. Slow walks around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Scenic drives along the coast of Maine. Barely a week passes that we’re not enlightened by something old and something new.
We’re not sure whether it’s because we were away or that we’re just a little bit wiser, but nonetheless we’re happy to be back. And we’re equally glad to palaver about New England.
-The Two Palaverers
Epilogue: The Dunaway Restaurant closed after being sold last fall and will reopen in 2010 under another name. After the purchase, Ben Hasty joined the restaurant scene in Portland, ME, but has recently returned to Epoch Restaurant & Bar in the newly-renovated Exeter Inn in Exeter, NH.