In the countryside a couple of miles outside Cooperstown (Otsego County), NY, is an extraordinary café, Origins. It is housed in the greenhouse of a family-run garden center, Carefree Gardens. From the nursery’s small parking lot, the café is approached by a short footpath that winds through thickets of perennials, edged by trees and potted shrubs. To step into the greenhouse is to enter a wonderland of colorful flowers, tropical foliage and exotic plants. This sensory magic in upstate New York is heightened by the floral fragrance and tinkling of small fountains.
Our group of three were there for lunch. We selected a table flanked on one side by a papaya plant, complete with fruit, and on the other by tangerine and avocado trees, similarly displaying their fruits. Over our heads was a flamboyant scarlet chandelier in the form of a hanging begonia.
For the most part, Origins serves locally and sustainably produced food. The restaurant’s website states that its praiseworthy mission is to bring positive change to the world though food that is good for bodies, clean for the planet and fair to the global community. The sources of its locally produced cheeses and seasonal vegetables and fruits are listed on its menu and just inside the door there is a map showing where the produce comes from. The menu’s listing of 15 specific local sources of cheeses, greens, mushrooms, onions, sprouts, black beans & white beans, honey, teas, milk, and bread, entitled “The Origins of Your Food,” shows the commitment of the proprietors. A menu footnote advises that quinoa used in some of its dishes is sourced from Randimpak, a rural Ecuadorian women’s cooperative that also provides technical training, microfinance and health care, and the café’s coffee beans are “Peruvian fair trade & organic.” It is obvious that the chef-owners are serious about promoting first class and sustainably grown ingredients. I’m happy to report that their café’s mission is executed with culinary skill and obvious joy.
The lunch menu features casual fare and is mostly vegetarian. I selected the “Butternut Valley,” a grilled sandwich of French peasant bread (the Heidelberg Baking Company, Herkimer, NY), filled with chevre cheese, fig spread and grilled onions, served on a bed of organic greens and balsamic dressing. Another of our group chose the quiche of the day, with tomatoes and gouda, also with dressed greens. The third member selected “Painted Goat” salad, an appealing combo of Painted Goat Dairy chevre, dried cranberries and walnuts over greens. This companion diner had accidentally dislodged an avocado from a nearby tree but her embarrassment was assuaged by our server, who smilingly inquired whether she would like the avocado added to her salad. She would indeed!
While we waited for our food to reach the table, we took a stroll around the greenhouse and the garden center. What a lovely way to pass ten minutes or so. The garden center and restaurant are run by the Leonard family. Their friendliness and helpfulness is evident everywhere. No hard sell at Carefree Gardens: instead one feels genuinely welcome to browse and ask questions.
A wave from our server summoned us to our lunch. It scored on all fronts. The greens were varied and fresh, the chevre beautifully smooth, the pastry crust on the quiche crunchy and light, the blending of flavors in all dishes sublime. And the avocado (no extra charge) finely sliced atop the chevre, cranberry and walnut salad, was superb. Having never before had the experience of tasting a native-grown upstate New York avocado, it was something for us to savor and remember!
After the filling and delicious lunch, only one of our party could manage a dessert. Home-baked peach tart, drizzled with honey, was equally delicious. We had contemplated one of Origins’ choice of smoothies, which are well known in the Cooperstown area. Fruits such as blueberries, cranberries, banana and cherries are combined with local milk and honey in a selection of blends. But they are pleasures that for us would have to await another day.
Origins, a seasonal restaurant, is open for lunch every day, except Thursdays, through mid-October. It also offers a “Harvest Dinner” on Wednesday and Saturday evenings (reservation only), serving the yield of the current harvest. The Harvest Dinners are accompanied by music provided by local musicians and, as the café is not licensed to sell liquor, diners may BYOB.
For anyone seeking temporary sanctuary from the baseball themes of Cooperstown as well as locally sourced food, skillfully prepared and served in delightful surroundings, Origins can’t be beaten. In closing, since there’s no denying that the Baseball Hall of Fame has put Cooperstown on the map, let me indulge in one final note: Origins is a culinary home run, with bases loaded. [Origins Café at Carefree Gardens, 558 Beaver Meadow Road, (Cafe) 607.437.2862 – (Gardens) 607.547.9744, Lunch/Café menu: Daily 11:00AM-5:00PM (Mid-April-Early Fall), www.celebrateorigins.com]
(Eidin Beirne, 9/4/13)