One of the best ways to explore an area is to eat foods that come from there. Local foods and beverages offer an opportunity to enlist and enliven all five senses and, through them, to develop a deeper sense of place. To seek out and enjoy “place-based” foods is a great way to discover a community’s heritage and local identity.
In the Berkshires, as across the world, eating local, traditional dishes connects us to the human stories and traditions behind the meals. The Berkshires is home to a growing number of artisanal food producers who are busy crafting foods that reflect the region’s soil and climate. These farmers, chefs and foragers are building an exciting cultural cuisine rooted in Berkshire-sourced ingredients. A rich selection of unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences can be found in the Berkshires.
Berkshire food culture emphasizes sustainability, seasonality, flavor and craftsmanship. The hilly, outcropped terrain of the beautiful Berkshires hills has many microclimates—pockets of hot and cold air, shadow and light. Much fertile pastureland remains from the county’s history of orchards and dairies. Precisely this combination of historical and environmental factors is what gives foods from the Berkshires their distinctive character. The renewed market and culture around farm-based products accentuates and revives local history and ecology.
Cheese is an ideal doorway to discovering the concept of terroir, a French term for the special characteristics that a particular geography bestows upon particular agricultural products. The best artisanal cheeses reflect the soil of the terrain from which they originate. As animals convert grass to milk, the milk becomes rich with the vitamins and minerals of a farm’s particular plant species, all of which give nuanced flavors, subtle smells and unique textures to the final products. By eating artisanal, farmstead cheeses, you can experience terroir through your taste buds.
Route 7, the corridor that joins north and south Berkshire County, makes cheese-focused travel easy. Take the gorgeous Tyringham Road from Lee to head towards your first Berkshires cheese spot: Rawson Brook Farm in Monterey. The tone for your upcoming taste experience will be set by the drive’s stunning views, previewing the natural elements that compose the cheeses before even one bite.
Rawson Brook goats thrive on the rocky soil and shrubby underbrush that they eat. The chevre-style goat’s cheese from Rawson Brook can be found on many regional menus, yet a trip to the source is well worthwhile. This is especially true in springtime, when visitors can enjoy seeing baby goat kids frolic in the grass during their walkthrough of the cheese-making rooms. The tart, creamy fresh cheeses come in various flavors—chives and garlic being a local favorite. Head north from Monterey to Dalton, where over the 12 years Ira Grable has built an internationally recognized brand, aptly named Berkshire Blue Cheese. Berkshire Blue is made from the whole, unpasteurized milk of grass-fed Jersey cows from a nearby farm in Tyringham, whose herd is dedicated solely to supplying Grable’s production of Berkshire Blue Cheese. The Stilton–style cheese has won many awards, including a gold medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2003. Its fudgy, creamy texture is balanced with a nice bite that pairs well with fig jam to close out dinner.
Visitors to Williamstown already visiting the Clark Museum and MASS MoCA, should not miss Cricket Creek Farm on Oblong Road, just off Route 7 near the Store at Five Corners at the junction of Route 43. Cricket Creek Farm is doing a lot right, including their signature Maggie’s Round, a first place award–winner at the American Cheese Society’s 2011 conference. Cricket Creek is one of the oldest active dairy farms in the Berkshire region, and has wonderful farm store selling raw milk, baked goods and other products.
Nestled on the slopes of the Taconic hills, Cricket Creek Farm consists of over 500 acres of rolling fields and woodlots, old apple orchards and sugarbush. The farm hosts a herd of 40 Brown Swiss and Jersey cows. All of Cricket Creek’s cheeses are made by hand in small batches from grass-fed milk and all cheeses are aged on the farm. Maggie’s Round, a semisoft cow’s milk cheese, is nutty, thick and versatile. These two Berkshire-based cheesemakers take great care to produce cheese that honors our animals, respects our landscape and feeds our community. As you enjoy the fruits of their labor, you are also helping to preserve farmland and the relationships that thrive there. And if you don’t have time to travel the length of Route 7 to the source of these cheeses, treat yourself to them all—and many more—at Rubiner’s Cheesemongers in Great Barrington, Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Pittsfield, and Nejaime’s Wine Cellars in Lenox or Berkshire Organics in Dalton.
KATHARINE MILLONZI, a lifelong resident of the Berkshires, is an anthropologist, herbalist and ecogastronome. She has made, mongered and eaten cheese all over the world and is currently working on new economic systems that support, promote and celebrate land stewards and food producers of all kinds. Katharine is a former Fulbright Fellow and holds a MA from the University of Gastronomic Sciences, founded by Slow Food International.