I’m guessing that you and I share an enjoyment of cooking at home, and that we initially viewed the closure of dining-out possibilities a couple of months ago as no great loss. I’m further guessing that, as soon as we learned it was possible to visit an eatery again for something other than take-out, we realized we’d been lying to ourselves. We love dining out! That’s why it’s a joy to report on a pair of places where the food not only is satisfyingly delicious but also locally sourced – and where the rules for the new dining-out experience are carefully observed.
My wife and daughter and I enjoyed a recent dining-out weekend, welcoming summer with a pair of meals that emphasized creative seasonal bounty. For Saturday’s supper we traveled to West Fulton, NY, in the middle of Schoharie County. It’s farm country, so it’s almost surprising to come upon a cluster of close-set buildings.
Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store and Café occupies a pleasant space with off-street parking, and has three tables outside and another three in – numbers reduced to suit current regulations. There seemed to be at least three masked women attending to the guests; they all turned out to be Shannon Hayes, who is a whirlwind. She offered one of the outdoor tables, then moved us indoors as a light rain commenced. We had the place to ourselves. It’s very busy at breakfast, she told us, but dinners have been slow.
I’m sure that’s going to change. The café has been open for four years, serving as an adjunct to the farm that’s not far up the street. The farm has been run for over 40 years, first by Shannon’s parents, Jim and Adele Hayes, who bought what was then a defunct dairy operation and turned it into an ecologically responsible source of grass-fed beef, alongside pasture-raised pigs, chickens, and turkeys.
Shannon and her husband, Bob Hooper, joined the business in 2001. Five years ago they were looking to expand the operation. We needed to grow, said Shannon, but we decided that we wouldn’t expand the farm. Better that we should help the community. They purchased a building that had housed, among other things, an auto-repair shop, and refurbished it into a cooking and dining space, with seating inside and out.
The menu is online (New York State guidelines during the pandemic put the kibosh on physical copies circulating). We studied it before leaving the house, but it didn’t hurt to have a cell phone handy.
Breakfast and lunch feature a number of (farm-fresh) egg dishes, like a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich ($15.50), or an omelette (up to three fillings) with sides of home fries, salad, sausage, or bacon, and a pastry (croissant, brioche roll, cornbread, or muffin, $18.75); there are also pancakes ($11.75), oatmeal ($8.50), or granola and yogurt (or milk, $7.50).
Shared with the dinner menu are the Farm-to-Table Prix Fix Special, which changes weekly ($22), a cheeseburger platter ($17.50), and a cheeseburger salad ($17.50). Added for dinner are “beyond caprese” ($17), which mixes fresh mozzarella, roasted garlic, fresh greens, and a piece of hearth bread; and beans and greens ($13).
Dinner appetizers include pâté ($14), bone broth ($6.50), fried halloumi ($15), and maple mustard lamb riblets ($11). There are also pastries, desserts, and a range of beverages that includes beer and wine.
There’s a nice casual-dining feel about the room, plexiglass dividers notwithstanding. And Shannon is an enthusiastic and gracious host. We indulged in a sweep of various items, beginning with stout from Middleburgh’s Green Wolf Brewing Company ($7) and a glass of the house Chardonnay ($5.75).
Bone broth simmers for 72 hours, and is drawn from a melange of what bones are available, including poultry. There are nutrients aplenty to be drawn from those bones, which has made this a favored health-food treat – and it certainly enlivens your palate with a more robust mix of flavors than a standard consommé.
Shannon notes that she first tasted halloumi several years ago and spent much of that time trying to find a reasonable and reasonably local source. But what she serves, and what we certainly enjoyed, is a cheese imported from Greece. The plate features six slices, lightly fried, fanned across a bed of greens and beets. There’s a subtle, persistent flavor that pairs well with the earthiness of beets.
The secret to chicken-liver pâté is butter. That secret is known to this kitchen. The secret to a worthy pâté platter is surrounding the luscious spread with complementary factors, like the tang of a sour pickle slice, the snap of a walnut, the breezy oiliness of a kalamata olive, and the merriment of a pickled string bean. They’re all there, along with slices of homemade bread to vehicularize the pâté.
My wife doesn’t mind surrendering culinary decisions, so she chose the fixed-price special, which in this case featured Cuban-style black beans and white rice – reminiscent of the classic Cuban dish Moros y Cristianos – decorated with slices of chorizo, a pork sausage here smoked over wood, deepening the flavor balance. A salad of local lettuce was served alongside.
Whatever greens don’t originate from Sap Bush Hollow come from Barber’s, a farm just down the hill. And most of the beans they use come from around New York State, except for the gigandes that come from Italy.
And we met those gigandes – they’re the beans component in the beans and greens, a charming plate that mixed a couple of types of lettuce, slices of carrots, cucumbers, and red cabbage, cauliflower florets, and chunks of colorful beets – and a couple of slices of their excellent bread. The marinated gigandes were shrouded by bean sprouts, and a side of balsamic vinaigrette allowed us to dress the mosaic as desired.
I’d heard that a Sap Bush burger put all other so-named items to shame, and this proved to be correct. Grass-fed beef has a visceral quality that mainstream burgers lack: flavor. Like your first taste of hot sauce, it dances in your mouth. And there’s a less-definable quality as well, the psychic component, a cellular comfort that comes from eating what’s been grown in your own backyard.
You’ll see both Shannon and Bob working the kitchen, and she explains that there’s a careful division of duties. She does most of the prep late in the week, and the bulk of the Saturday cooking. Bob does all the plating and dishes. If I were to plate your food, it would all come out in a heap. He makes it all beautiful. He refers to himself as the sous chef, but it’s more Mom and Pop than chef and sous chef, I suppose.
We finished with desserts – we had to, because it comes with prix fixe meal (an ice-cream sandwich with homemade cookies bracketing a scoop of Brooklyn’s Blue Marble vanilla). That ice cream figured into two other desserts as well – a maple walnut sundae, and as a sweet accompaniment to a slice of strawberry-rhubarb pie.
Food that’s local and carefully nurtured tends to cost more than what’s been cheapened for consumeristas on the supermarket shelves. And what you’re getting here is not only local but also crafted into creative meals that have made this a desirable destination since it opened.
As I wrote this piece, late into the night, a car stopped in front of my house and its driver swiped the Biden for President sign off my lawn. Shannon is also a liberal-minded resident of a rural, generally close-minded town: How does she get along with the locals? They accept me, she explained. My family has been here for forty years. We’re part of the community. And they know that.
Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store & Café, 832 West Fulton Road, West Fulton (Schoharie County), NY 12194, Serving Saturdays (Breakfast & Lunch) 9 AM-1 PM and (Dinner) 5 PM-8 PM
Thanks to an influx of folks who fled the nearby cities, the village of Preston Hollow, in southern Albany County in upstate New York, has a more enlightened feel. Biden signs might last a little longer on those lawns. But it’s still very much a farm community, and the 200-year-old Heather Ridge Farm has been operating under the guidance of Carol Clement since 1979, at first part time as she supported herself doing marketing and making films, and full time since 2003, now with husband John Harrison. And they’re doing it right, practicing a pasture-rotation style called intensive managed grazing. It keeps the many animals – there can be up to a thousand of differing species at the season’s height – moving among (and enriching) the areas that aren’t otherwise resting, encouraging the vegetation necessary to keep the soil healthy.
Dining takes place outdoors on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 AM to 3 PM. You’ll see the large white tent as you approach from the west, then a yellow house, then some picnic tables. A popular feature is a fried-chicken dinner that’s offered one Saturday evening per month. They sell out, so reservations are needed.
We opted for a Sunday brunch in order to sample more of the menu, and arrived even as the four picnic tables were filling. Because I live in an area where people believe that mask-wearing is a sign of weakness or the mark of the devil or some such idiocy, I keep my distance from others. More than six feet, if possible. Here, it was easy to do.
A menu is pinned to a tree. (It’s also online.)You can whet your appetite with an order of cornbread or a crusty roll or a farm-baked English muffin and butter ($3), but you might be tempted, as we were, to opt for the cheese and scallion scone ($3), which is far fluffier than the British tea-time variety.
Here again you’ll be dining on greens from Barber’s Farm. We reluctantly passed up the chef’s salad ($12), which features nitrate-free ham and Harpersfield Cheese from Brovetto’s Dairy Farm in the northern Catskills, along with tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives served with a buttermilk-herb dressing, enjoying instead two other imaginative salads: one built around strawberries (from Story Farms in Catskill, NY) and candied pecans, with Nettle Meadow chevre, radishes, red onion, and a smooth poppyseed dressing ($10), and a sugar snap pea salad ($10), with Barber’s snap peas and greens, mixed with walnuts, radishes, red onion, and mint, and a sherry vinaigrette dressing to mix it in. Or mix in it – the salads arrive in takeout-style cardboard with a souffle cup of the dressing.
The food is delivered to your seat, but you order at a nearby window. The kitchen is supervised by chef Rob Handel, who is of the family that operates East Durham’s Blackthorne Resort, where he also was the chef. I met him informally at the Catskill Mountain Beekeepers Club, says Carol, and he had also come to my farm to buy wool fleece, though I didn’t know he was a chef then. When he decided to leave the family business, looking for an opportunity where he could be more creative, friends linked us up. Perfect.
You can tell that he means business with the beef-and-herb gyro ($14). If we’re familiar with this dish at all, we probably know it from the frozen patties used in diners and carts. When it’s a fresh patty of grassfed beef, you need to re-balance the seasoning that emphasize that flavor. And not drown it in tzatziki. It was served on warm pita with lettuce, tomato, olives, and onions – unexpectedly satisfying. (I must note that I once asked a counterman at an Astoria grill in how to pronounce the name of this item. He gave me a series of variations on hee-row, enunciating the initial syllable according to regions of Greece. Jy-row, however, is strictly American.)
Not to be outdone, my wife ordered steak and eggs ($16), an unusual departure for her – but grass-fed beef makes all the difference. It’s a small slice of marinated sirloin that hits the grill, and two farm-fresh fried eggs were served alongside. The beef was tender enough to slice with the provided plastic knife. A side of toast, and a side of the potato salad that was served with each of our entrées.
My daughter’s breakfast sandwich ($12) featured one of the café’s own English muffins (which will put you off the store-bought kind forever). Given the difficult choice of sausage or bacon, she opted for the latter, and I can’t blame her when it’s, again, sourced from a nearby pig. But sausage-making is an art unto itself, and I’m always eager to taste those results. But a daughter must be allowed her independence.
I had coffee left from the car trip (I tend to brew too much), but we sampled the subtle difference of the rosewater lemonade ($4) and went crazy enough for a bottle of ginger ale from Brooklyn-based Bruce Cost ($3) that we ordered a case of the stuff when we got home.
The menu evolves weekly, explained Carol, as available seasonal foods change. There are some standard dishes that are constant, like our famous Oink and Moo Chili. (That had sold out by the time we arrived; next time.) You’ll reckon your dining total with her in a room just inside the house where you’ll also see food items for sale in the freezer as well as soaps, candles, honey products, and more.
Carol grew up in the hospitality business. Her family ran a Saugerties resort, and named it The Holiday Country Inn, but everyone still called it by the previous name, The Shagbark Inn. I think of it fondly. The big rambling classic main building unfortunately burned to the ground in the late sixties (after we sold it and moved away, and it had become an artist colony), but all the other buildings remained and have been turned into homes and artist studios.
A welcoming geniality is key to the restaurant business, and never more so than in these overstressed times. But there’s something about a farm-and-café combo that’s warmer and happier and all the more welcoming – especially in these overstressed times.
Heather Ridge Farm and the Bees Knees Café, 989 Broome Center Road, Preston Hollow (Albany County), NY 12469, Serving Saturdays and Sundays 11 AM-3 PM (plus special event dinners)
(B.A. Nilsson, 7/7/20)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): These two upstate New York farm cafés are included in our directory for Dining on the Farm or in the Garden, which now has over 70 listings, spread over 27 states in the U.S. and five other countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, & United Kingdom (England & Wales).]