A Weekend in the Pioneer Valley

Raw milk, craft beer and good food in Western Massachusetts.

Four hours north of Brooklyn, just shy of the Vermont border, the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts boasts a deeply rooted local food scene and a burgeoning new generation of young farmers and food entrepreneurs that could make the most committed Brooklynite consider pulling up stakes—at least for the weekend.

Comprising several towns along the Connecticut River, the Valley’s river-bottom soils make up some of the richest agricultural land in the country: Locavores will swoon for the abundance of farm products available at destination-worthy farmers markets and farm stands. The region is rich in ideas as well, home to Smith, UMass, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke and Amherst College, which together support an impressive cluster of artisan coffee roasters and a serious beer culture.

Below is a selection of the best places to experience the Valley’s dynamic food culture, from heirloom apples to raw milk. Come hungry and pack a cooler.

East of the connecticut river
Flayvors of Cook Farm (129 S. Maple St., Hadley; 413.584.2224)—This fifth-generation dairy serves homemade ice cream right at the farm. Smell the silage, then take your cone on a stroll to pet the milkers in their stalls and visit the baby calves. My favorite flavor is Inez (a coconut-chocolate-almond concoction named for one of the cows on the farm sign), but special seasonal cones include corn and pumpkin. Order ahead for raw milk and fresh-churned butter.

Esselon Café (99 Russell St., Hadley; 413.585.1515)—Coffee connoisseurs can select their beans from at least 10 different regions, all roasted on-site and meticulously brewed by whirling baristas. an impressive tea selection is also on offer. Farm ingredients are scattered throughout the light menu of soups, salads and sandwiches; take a seat in the heated patio where it’s easy to forget you’re on the main drag between Northampton and Amherst.

Chez Albert (178 N. Pleasant St., Amherst; 413.253.3811)—Chef Paul Hathaway recently moved his popular farm-French bistro with copper-topped tables to a larger space with outdoor patio and bar seating, but the place is so popular, you should still call early to snag a seat. If you succeed, the manic maitre d’, Manu, will tease you in French and dance to the funk soundtrack as you dine on masterfully slow-cooked meats like oxtail and house-made country pâté, featuring ingredients from local farms. On Wednesday afternoons walk a few steps down to Kendrick Park for a picnic en plein air of Hathaway’s seasonal fare from his farmers market stall at Wednesday Market.

Atkins Farms (corner of Route 116 and Bay Road, Amherst; 413.253.9528)—Once a small farm stand for the Atkins family’s 200 acres of apple, peach and pear orchards, this delicious destination has expanded its focus and is now a full service grocery, deli counter and bakery with a devoted following for their cider donuts. The extensive produce department offers local fruits and vegetables at great prices (think Park Slope Food Co-op without the work shift). Score a 50-pound bag of local onions for next to nothing and grab a cabbage as big as a basketball to impress your friends back in Brooklyn, not to mention local dairy like Mapleline glass-bottled milk, Snow’s ice cream and Goat Rising chèvre.

The Moan & Dove (460 West St., Amherst; 413.265.1710)—a dark dungeon in an anonymous strip mall conceals one of the best beer bars in the country. The formidable craft-beer list is comprised of 200 bottles arranged by origin and style, plus a sophisticated lineup of imported and seasonal brews on tap, and often rare casks, too. The vibe is quiet and intellectual when it opens at 3:00 p.m., but as the evening progresses the music gets louder and the free salted peanuts get scattered.

The Roadhouse Café (176 Federal St., Belchertown; 413.323.6175)—This adorably funky little roadside breakfast joint is justifiably famous for its fresh-baked breads and fluffy, plate-size pancakes served with local maple syrup. Check the specials board for the pumpkin pancakes, a perennial fall favorite made from roasted local butternut squash. Order the deliciously dark Fogbuster coffee from area roaster Pierce Bros Coffee.

Mike’s Maze (23 S. Main St., Sunderland; 413.665.8331)—Every year Warner Farm’s Mike Wissemann teams up with painter and illustrator Will Sillin to create a corn art masterpiece on an 8.25-acre field (previous years: Louis armstrong, The Odyssey, Julia Child). This year’s theme is Noah Webster, and an elaborate game of clever word-search clues lead you to the maze exit with stops along the way at the walk-in camera obscura and the pneumatic potato cannon (“SpudZooka”). To make a day of it, grab lunch at the brand new Corn Café, where local crops star as onion rings and French fries, then hop on a Belgian horse–drawn wagon ride to the pick-your-own pumpkin field. Open weekends through Halloween.

The Lady Killigrew (440 Greenfield Rd., Montague; 413.367.9666)— This gem of a café perched on the cascading Sawmill River is one of the most breathtaking spots in the Valley. Wander the corridors of the light-filled Montague Bookmill, housed in a converted 1842 gristmill (motto: “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find”), then head over to the Lady Killigrew for a craft beer and their popular warm brown rice salad with your laptop or a game of Boggle. For a fancier meal in the same fabulous setting, walk around the building to the Night Kitchen (montaguenightkitchen.com).

Bistro Les Gras (25 West St., Northampton)—Chef Daniel Martinez is the Dan Barber of the Valley, seeking out fleeting farm ingredients to craft into elegant plates using classic and cutting- edge techniques. Martinez’s wife, Elizabeth, curates a serious wine list and hosts regular wine dinners including a rigorous seven- course Locavore Dinner made up exclusively of local ingredients from within a 25-mile radius (except salt and pepper), and the annual Cochon “wine and swine extravaganza” on October 16, which deliciously employs an entire Mockingbird Farm pig.

Outlook Farm (Route 66, Westhampton; 413.529.9388)—Farm stand and pick-your-own orchard open daily during apple season. Horse-drawn hay-wagon rides on Sunday afternoons and pig roast and barbecue featuring meat from the farm’s own Smoke and Chop House.

The Hungry Ghost (62 State St., Northampton; 413.582.9009)—Bakers Jonathan Stevens and Cheryl Maffei are two of the Valley’s most active proponents of local grain, and as more farmers have geared up to meet demand, the Hungry Ghost now offers several local loaves each day. Their delicious wood-fired sourdough is baked in a gorgeous hand-built masonry oven that takes up most of their small shop. The semolina fennel and pointy-tipped French bâtard are enough to make you break your lease back home, but be sure to try their local wheat, rye and spelt crackers, too.

The Dirty Truth (29 Main St., Northampton; 413.585.5999)—a sister bar to the Moaner with the added bonus of a serious kitchen that sources from local farms. Beer makes cameo appearances in much of the creative pub fare (mac and cheese with an IPA reduction; beer-boiled currywurst), but the hot, doughy pretzel served with potent avery IPA mustard remains my favorite salty snack to pair with any of the 40 craft beers on tap plus two cask lines, and a bottle list of more than 50 beers. The hipster vibe can remind you of Bedford Ave, but the hype is well deserved.

Enterprise Farm (75 River Rd., Whately; 413.865.6608)—This 80-acre certified organic vegetable farm redefines local for their “East Coast Farm Share” and trucks in veggies and fruits from likeminded organic “sister farms” as far south as Florida.

Pekarski’s Sausage (293 Conway Rd., South Deerfield; 413.665.4537)—Mike Pekarski is the third generation operating this artisanal smokehouse where 600–800 pounds of kielbasa per week are prepared in three smokers burning local hardwoods like apple, cherry, hickory and maple. Several varieties of traditional Polish sausages as well as excellent bacon and breakfast links, smoked holiday hams, turkeys and Cornish game hens are sold right here at the no-frills retail counter.

Elmer’s Store (396 Main St., Ashfield)—Originally from New Orleans, Nan Parati converted Ashfield’s picturesque New England general store into one of the Hilltown’s quirkiest and most-prized institutions. Famous for their country breakfast (especially the pancake recipe originated at Gray’s Sugarhouse), Elmer’s also houses a grocery store and art and craft gallery and serves Friday night dinners cooked by guest chefs. Elmer’s is the only place to buy annaBread, Anna Fessenden’s coveted crusty home-baked loaves. Elmer’s kitchen uses “very local” eggs from the neighborhood and peppers the menu descriptions with political opinions and off-color humor. If the locals have claimed all the seats, walk up the road to Countrypie Pizza (343 Main St.) and if the weather’s nice carry it down to the Ashfield Lake for a swim and picnic.

Sidehill Farm (137 Beldingville Rd., Ashfield; 413.625.0011)—While you’re all the way up in Ashfield you should go the extra mile to find Sidehill Farm’s terrific yogurt and raw milk for sale out of a beat-up refrigerator on a dirt farm road.

Clarkdale Fruit Farms (303 Upper Rd., Deerfield; 413.772.6797)—Visit this beautiful fourth-generation farm with a stunning view of its orchard’s roll- ing hills for an unbelievable selection of pick-your-own apples and pear varieties, including heirlooms like Gravenstein and Golden Russet and new favorites like Honeycrisp and Gold Rush. Their own cider house produces a remarkable pear cider and excellent vintage varietal apple ciders that are a significant presence at the annual CiderDays festival the first weekend of November.

Hope & Olive (44 Hope St., Greenfield; 413.7743150)—Brother and sister Jim and Maggie Zaccara’s two farm-to-table restaurants, Hope & Olive and Magpie (see below), can take a lot of credit for Greenfield’s recent influx of creative types and young families snatching up real estate after being priced out of Northampton. Since opening in 2007 Hope & Olive has become the heart of Greenfield’s growing artist community and the restaurant hosts a monthly Free Soup and Game Night as a fund-raiser for community arts groups like the Brick + Mortar International Video Art Festival October 14–15. The creative farm-inspired menu is vast, but be sure to also check the chalkboard behind the bar for the best bar snacks and seasonal cocktails in the Valley. (Jim also hosts a weekly radio show about local libations.)

Magpie Wood-Fired Pizzeria (21 Bank Row, Greenfield; 413.475.3570)—Last year the Zaccaras, along with business partner Evelyn Wulfkhule, opened Magpie around the corner from Hope & Olive and started producing chewy, thin-crust pizzas with inventive farm-driven toppings from a beautiful brick oven. They’re famous for their dessert pizza, the honey pie, which combines ricotta, salty almonds, local honey and seasonal fruit.

The People’s Pint (24 Federal St., Greenfield; 413.773.0333)—This brew-pub-with-principles put Greenfield on the map when it opened back in 1997. The draw of healthy comfort food like grassfed beef burgers, peanut noodles and brown-rice burritos plus a rotating lineup of quality ales and lagers (and ginger ale!) brewed on nearby Hope Street helped bring Greenfield back to life after a post-industrial slump. Owner Alden Booth raises vegetables and pigs at his Gill Farm and supplies the Pint (and his more upscale restaurant, the Gill Tavern, 326 Main Rd., Gill; 413.863.9006; thegilltavern.com) by bike. All compost and brewery waste is fed to the pigs and used in the garden. Booth further promotes the low-impact lifestyle by offering discounts to bicyclists.

The Wagon Wheel Restaurant (39 French King Highway, Rte. 2, Gill; 413.863.8210)—This ingredient-driven country drive-in offers road food from up the road plus seasonal salads, local beer, great homemade ice cream and an amazing kitsch collection.

Upinngil Farm (411 Main Rd., Gill; 413.863.4431)—On a perch overlooking rolling hills with grazing cows may just be the most adorable farm store in New England. Here Sorrel Hatch and her father, Cliff, sell glass-bottled raw milk and farmstead cheeses from their Ayreshire cows along with fresh-baked whole-wheat bread, bagels and pies from their Little Red Hen Bakery. The store also sells flour, milled fresh year-round, from the 25 acres of organic wheat, rye and buckwheat grown here. (The farm also supplies Bread Euphoria bakery at 206 Main St., Haydenville, for their sourdough Granary loaf). Cliff Hatch offers cheesemaking workshops and the store carries equipment and cultures for home dairy craft, including yogurt and cheesemaking. Look for Upinngil’s wine and table grapes at the farm stand alongside the other fall produce.

Come hungry. A half-day’s drive from Brooklyn, this locavore wonderland welcomes visitors with garlic festivals, cider donuts and a corn-maze masterpiece.

Beer here. The Moan & Dove in Amherst boasts 200 bottles of craft brews, a sophisticated lineup of imported and seasonal suds on tap, and often rare casks, too.

Photo credit:  Eileen Crosby, Deb Habib, Gabriel Maria Kennedy Costa, Will Sillin, and Sorrel Hatch.

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Caroline Pam cooked and taught about local food in New York but left in 2004 to farm in the Pioneer Valley, where she discovered how completely the farm-to-table concept can become a way of life. She now owns the Kitchen Garden with her husband and fellow ex-Brooklynite Tim Wilcox. kitchengardenfarm.com.