At the Yonkers Brewing Co, in an old trolley barn beside the railway tracks, there is an unusual line in bar snacks:
in front of me is a beer flight and a plate of crunchy fried sprouts (yonkersbrewing.com).
Bonkers about beer, the microbrewery’s beardy chief brewologist, Sharif Taleb, waxes lyrical about hops. “Leave them in too long and you get a stronger brew – like tea. Steeping for just a few minutes gives you subtler aromas.” The company’s Belgian-style saison is fruity and spicy (“perfect with a garlic roast chicken”).
Yonkers is in New York State’s Hudson Valley. 30 minutes by train from New York’s Grand Central Station, it’s where Manhattanites flock at the weekend to escape the mayhem. It’s a green spot, with forests, farmland and quaint towns, sweeping waterways and vineyards. The Hudson River originates 150 miles away at the romantically named Lake Tear of the Clouds, high in the Adirondacks. In the string of counties it flows through you can explore the historic estates of the Rockerfellers, Roosevelts and Vanderbilts, and a clutch of pretty clapboard towns and villages.
Beneath the sleepy façade, however, the region is home to a hive of entrepreneurial activity. Micro-greens are grown in disused office blocks, farmers’ markets throng with sauerkraut and bourbon stalls, and farm-to-table dining flourishes.
Stone Barns is one of my first stops (stonebarnscenter.org). A non-profit farm, its mission is to change the way America eats and farms; imagine the love child of Daylesford Organic and the Duchy of Cornwall. As well as working with seed producers to develop new varieties, it runs tours, tastings and cooking classes for visitors, and sheep-shearing festivals.
You can also try sheep-shearing at the more traditional Fishkill Farm in Dutchess County (fishkillfarms.com). As young owner, Josh Morgenthau, shows me around he points out pictures of Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the farm with his grandfather Robert (the Secretary of the Treasury under FDR). Today his 300 acres of pick-your-own includes 80 varieties of apples.
Next I swing by Sprout Creek Farm to taste its award-winning cheese (sproutcreekfarm.org). Doe re mi is a creamy, fresh goat’s cheese while margi has a buttery sweetness, like brie. It’s the last batch, I learn, from the cows’ winter hay diet. The first grass-fed cheese of the season will take its flavour from the early onion grass.
The cheesemaker, Colin McGrath, is a CIA graduate. Not that CIA, but the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (ciarestaurantgroup.com). Based in Hyde Park, a town around 90 minutes’ north of Yonkers; its stellar alumni include Anthony Bourdain and Thomas Keller. You can tour the campus and book a table at one of the student-staffed restaurants, from Bocuse (named after the French chef) to the homey Apple Pie Bakery Café.
With a view onto the flurry of activity in the kitchen I try an earthy green garlic soup with manila clams, fiddlehead ferns and foraged mushrooms and sip a glass of rkatsiteli (like a chenin blanc, and the first grape planted in New York State, says the sommelier).
In fact, the Hudson Valley was America’s first wine producing region. The following day I pass the picturesque Millbrook Vineyard, with its walking trail through the vines and sweeping views of the Catskill mountains (millbrookwine.com). I’m not so much here for the grape but the grain though. A few minutes further along the road a couple of outdoorsmen, Paul Coughlin and Gerald Valenti, produce the quintessential American spirit, bourbon, in a barn down a dirt track (taconicdistillery.com).
Created by early American settlers in the 19th century, bourbon is made from corn, rye and barley. Sweeter than rye whiskey, which Taconic also makes, the bourbon is the result of a real farm-to-bottle operation; even the water comes from a limestone aquifer on the land.
There’s a lot of cross-pollination here. While Taconic has just introduced a double barrel bourbon whiskey with maple syrup, at nearby Madava Farms I taste a bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup (crownmaple.com).
Robb and Lydia Turner bought Madava Farm as a weekend retreat, then discovered red maple trees on the land. Now it’s the largest maple syrup producer in the state, offering tours, tastings, a café and hiking trails. They tap the trees in December, collect the sap then boil it down to create a range of natural, single-estate syrups: golden, amber, dark (good for glazing pork and salmon), very dark and bourbon-barrel-aged.
I am staying at Hotel Tivoli in sleepy Tivoli, a cluster of pretty, pastel-painted clapboard houses 30 minutes north of Hyde Park (hoteltivoli.org). Owned by artists Brice and Helen Marden, the hotel is a colourful, eclectic little place with contemporary artworks on the walls and the farm-to-table Corner Restaurant. Devon Gilroy’s Mediterranean-inspired menus feature a knockout fresh mackerel escabeche with periwinkle broth and tear-and-share Moroccan bread.
North again, the town of Hudson in Columbia County, two hours by train from New York, has long been on antique-hunters’ radars. However, since a bunch of Brooklyn hipsters decamped here recently it’s also seriously upped its gourmet game.
Among said hipsters is chef Zak Pelaccio, who opened Fish & Game in an old blacksmith’s forge (fishandgamehudson.com). Studying the menu, mint julep in hand, you pick tapas-style, or order a whole aged spit-roast duck or steamed black bass for the table. The garganelli is exceptional: pungent pork ragù and hand-rolled penne. The swordfish is smoky then sour, an accompanying cherry kimchi nicely tart after that smoke hit.
Also in Hudson is Grazin’, an original 1940s burger joint with a modern outlook on fast food (grazinburger.com). Not just field-to-plate, Grazin’s sign brags ‘Farm-to-Table-Direct’. All the meat served here comes from owner Dan Gibson’s nearby farm, his herd of grass-fed Black Angus cattle producing the best burgers I’ve ever tasted.
Down near the river and railroad, meanwhile, WM Farmer and Sons, Boarding and Barroom, is another hip hangout (wmfarmerandsons.com). On a Saturday night it’s heaving as I tackle a hearty ham board and delicate charred mackerel on a bed of daikon, kimchi and apple and radish salad. For dessert? As the Amtrak train whistles “woo-woo” I order chocolate bourbon pecan pie.
HOW TO DO IT
Return flights from Gatwick to New York’s JFK cost from £645 (ba.com). Multi-stop return train tickets from New York to Hudson start at $106 (Amtrak.com). Double rooms at Hotel Tivoli cost from $210, b&b (hoteltivoli.org). More info: travelhudsonvalley.com
Words Lucy Gillmore Photographs Alamy, Getty