Exploring the Culinary Creativity of the Hudson Valley
The Hudson River has long been the highway that provided the link between New York City and its agricultural hinterland. It was for this reason that the food hall we designed at Brookfield Place is named Hudson Eats. The lower portion of the Hudson, like the San Francisco Bay, is an estuary where ocean and river meet to create a very particular ecosystem. On a recent trip through the Hudson Valley, I was reminded of this by the silhouette of the sturgeon one finds on the many signs in the area, which warn against polluting the streams that run into the Hudson. The Bay, too, has sturgeon—fantastic prehistoric fish that are susceptible to toxins that find their way into the river bottom. As the BCV New York team visited farms and small businesses in the region, these signs were a constant reminder of the presence and influence of the mighty river.
Today this region is not only a major food source for New York City, but the recipient of the talents of the city, as New York chefs and food producers choose to make their home here for a variety of reasons—from economic pressures to the love of the land and culture of this beautiful place.
A word about economics—as we approach the ten year anniversary of the economic collapse of 2008, it is clear that one of the outcomes of the dislocation it created was the emergence of many small food businesses, as people turned to their own skills to create their own employment after they saw their corporate jobs evaporate, or after they became disillusioned by these jobs. Ironically this proved to be a good time to start businesses as rent and other costs were low and the relatively quick recovery of the economy in cities like New York and San Francisco created demand. These businesses helped solidify the draw to communities such as Brooklyn that have now become so desirable that rents have increased to the point that these pioneers are being forced to look elsewhere for new homes.
The presence of Etsy’s headquarters in Brooklyn symbolizes the strength and appeal of this maker culture. It is telling to me that Etsy has chosen to locate its customer service department in the town of Hudson—an old whaling port turned mill town that after years of stagnation is seeing its fortune rebound as a meeting place of food and the arts.
With only a couple of days to explore the region I was able to gather a series of impressions of the dynamic activity going on. My sights and observations are detailed below.
We visited McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, NY, established in 1953. At 1,100 acres, the farm is relatively large for the state and produces a variety of livestock, compost and vegetables. We were given a tour of their operations by UC Davis educated soil scientist Annie Bossange. She informed us that the farm has been forced to decrease its participation in farmer’s markets because of the increasing number of organic farms in the region—they now focus instead on restaurant sales and wholesale accounts.
We went to see their huge organic compost operation and learned that composting and soil production is one of the steadiest parts of their business. Our photographs of their operation give a sense of the quantity of material being composted which includes manure from their livestock and from other local farms, as well as compostable waste from nearby towns - no grass cuttings are allowed because they contain too many pesticides.
The compost piles are turned on a rigorous schedule and screened until they produce various soil products from soil amendments to potting soil. It is amazing to have a soil scientist describe composting to you—you feel as if a chef is describing how to make a particularly involved dish. Composting is more than an aspect of the agricultural process; McEnroe revealed to us the creation of a value added product.
The Hudson Valley Seed Company is the brain child of Ken Greene and his partner Doug. Their current catalogue is a celebration of their journey from librarians, who started collecting and sharing local seeds, to business owners. They also infuse in their business practice, a commitment to historical, cultural, and community regeneration. Ken and Doug have recently created a nonprofit to help work with Native Americans and others to do projects to preserve ancestral crops.
These farmers of seeds bring a distinctly urban sensibility to their rural undertaking on the grounds of an old summer camp. They commission artists to create cover art for their seed packs and use this art (through traveling exhibitions) to stimulate interest in their seeds. Ken shared that 80% of commercially available seeds in the US are produced by three companies. Local, organic seeds are a mission for them. It was interesting to learn that after several years of selling online they realized that they needed to have a paper catalogue, which increased sales by over 20%.
American children learn the story of Johnny Appleseed and how the northeast became an apple orchard. The Hudson Valley and state of New York is apple country and this landscape has spawned a new generation of hard cider makers. We were able to visit with a number of these passionate producers at the Taste New York event on Pier A in Manhattan. Andy Brennan who owns Andy Burr Cidery is a spiritual guide to many of these producers. His ciders are focused on terroir and often use wild apples.
Jahil Maplestone of Descendant Cider is British and is determined to bring the passion for cider in Britain to American. We also appreciated the cider of South Hill Cider, which came from outside Ithaca. The owner, Ellen, is a doctor who works with her husband Steve to create exceptional ciders.
When Alice Waters decided to revamp the culinary program at the American Academy in Rome ten years ago, she tapped British Colombia native and Chez Panisse alum Mona Talbott. Mona is a chef with a keen sense of how the food world is really the entire world—from the farmers to the purveyors, chefs, and ultimately, guests. She was famous for involving the Academy fellows in the preparation of their own meals and thus elevated the culinary arts into the discourse of the community in a very real way. After coming home to Brooklyn from Rome, she returned to working as a private chef. Her dream has been to create a cooking school for food professionals in upstate New York, but she knows it’s important to first become a part of the culture.
Walking through the town of Hudson one day she found a small store with an apartment above, and it is here that she and her partner, cheese authority Kate Arding, have created Talbott & Arding. This is more than a cheese shop. It is a provisions shop, a charcuterie, and a bakery that makes most of what it sells. Mona’s crackers, which they wholesale to stores such as Eataly, BKLYN Larder and others, are the perfect vehicle for Kate’s cheese. Talbott & Arding epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit that is building a new economy in Hudson. Mona is keenly aware of the challenges facing local residents who have lived with the problems of an under-served town for three or more generations, but she welcomes the chance to be a part of creating new opportunities built around the values of a sustainable food system.