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Berkshires country goes its own way, home-growing food, cuisine, art, fun

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File 2007)
By Victoria Abbott Riccardi
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2010

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The Berkshires seem to have it all — stellar food, spectacular art, and lots of outdoor activities. And winter is one of the best times to visit this picturesque pocket of Massachusetts only a two-hour drive from Boston.

“Nature at this time of year is so beautiful, but it’s less crowded, not as hectic, and less expensive,’’ says Laurie Klefos, president of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau, adding that inns no longer have two-night minimums and offer low-season rates.

With that in mind, here are three Berkshire experiences.

Food, glorious food The Berkshires satisfy many appetites, and not just in restaurants. “What’s evolved over the years is that you’re seeing a lot more young farmers raising pastured animals and growing great vegetables,’’ says Nancy Thomas, co-founder of Mezze Restaurant Group. “You’re also seeing a lot more cheesemakers and small, craft, artisanal food makers,’’ and folks making mead, gin, vodka, rum, hard cider, and wine.

A delectable place to base yourself is Blantyre, a luxurious, Scottish-style castle built in 1901 and tucked away on 220 woodland acres. Chef Christopher Brooks, an avid locavore, uses as many locally grown ingredients as possible in his elegant New England fare, served in a handsome, wood-paneled dining room. Don’t miss his hot chocolate menu, featuring Valrhona-rich cocoas spiked with liqueurs such as Cointreau, topped with homemade marshmallows, and served with a side of cold whipped cream and warm banana bread.

If you love coffee, stop by the Barrington Coffee Roasting Co. in Lee (closed weekends) for a tour and cup of their excellent java, also served at numerous area cafes and shops, including Rubiner’s Cheesemonger’s & Grocers in Great Barrington, which also stocks 100-plus cheeses, a third of which are local.

For old-fashioned goodness, head to Charles H. Baldwin & Sons in West Stockbridge, a quaint, country store that’s been making and selling pure vanilla extract since 1888. Earl Baldwin Moffatt, great grandson of the company’s founder, uses bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar to make the vanilla and ages it in 100-year-old oak barrels.

For those in the know, Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield is the place to go for owner Dominic Palumbo’s heirloom vegetables, and heritage breed animals and fowl for meat, dairy, and eggs.

For extraordinary chocolate, visit Chocolate Springs Café in Lenox. French-trained Joshua Needleman crafts sublime pastries and confections, like the intense Mendiant-Dark chocolate bar packed with Piedmonte hazelnuts, almonds, raisins, orange, and lemon zests.

The area’s top restaurants are finally accessible now that the Tanglewood and foliage crowds have gone. An old favorite is John Andrews Restaurant in South Egremont, serving dishes like roast organic chicken with mashed potatoes, bacon, caramelized onion, and mushroom jus in a fireplace-warmed dining room (circa late 1790s). Allium Restaurant + Bar in Great Barrington offers more casual plates, like wood-grilled, local pork loin with apples and stone-ground oats, while the hip, snug NUDEL in Lenox serves dishes like spicy lamb meatballs with feta, wilted spinach, wheat berries, and shisito pepper sauce. For a taste of nostalgia, Jack’s Hotdog Stand in North Adams, a single counter, 12-stool restaurant, has been serving wieners since 1917.

Galleries and museums “While the Berkshires has always been a place to see art, over the last decade there’s been a dramatic growth in the number of young, contemporary artists who have made the Berkshires their home,’’ says Jonathan Secore, director of the Berkshire Cultural Resource Center at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Art (MCLA) in North Adams. “North Adams, in particular, now has over a dozen year-round galleries.’’

MCLA’s nonprofit Gallery 51 hosts 10 shows a year featuring the works of national and international contemporary artists, and Studio21South, in the historic Beaver Mill in North Adams, shows works from regional artists.

An enchanting place to base yourself is The Trustees of Reservations property, The Guest House at Field Farm in Williamstown. The property houses 13 modern sculptures, including works by Richard M. Miller and Herbert Ferber. Another artsy option is Stonover Farm in Lenox, where you’ll find a bounty of contemporary artwork to view and buy both in the main house and the adjacent Barn Gallery.

In an effort to redefine itself, Pittsfield has boosted its art scene, in part through Artscape, an annual display of 20 plus works of public art. For galleries, a noteworthy newcomer is Ferrin Gallery, featuring a stunning collection of ceramics, paintings, mixed media pieces, and photographs. Another charming spot is the Berkshire Museum. The 26th annual “Festival of Trees’’ exhibit, through Jan. 2, has a “storybook forest’’ theme.

The Vault Gallery in Great Barrington, set in a former bank, displays Marilyn Kalish’s vivid oil landscapes of Italy through March.

For performing arts, options abound, including The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, famous for hosting plays and more recently high-definition broadcasts from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. An artful way to end the evening is dinner at Bizen, located around the corner from the theater and specializing in Japanese fare.

Fresh-air fun Come winter, the Berkshires offer many activities for outdoor enthusiasts. An ideal spot to hunker down is The Inn at Sweet Water Farm in North Egremont, an eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast close to numerous alpine resorts, including Ski Butternut in Great Barrington.

While the Berkshires Mountains pale in size next to their northern neighbors, they still offer fine downhill skiing, snowboarding, tubing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing, once the snow arrives.

For standout cross-country skiing, head to Notchview in Windsor for 17 kilometers of trails groomed for classic cross-country skiing; 8 kilometers groomed for skate skiing; and a separate trail system groomed for “skijoring,’’ or skiing with dogs. In Lenox, Kennedy Park has 15 miles of groomed cross-country trails, while Cranwell Resort has six miles of trails for classic and skate cross-country skiing. New to the Lenox scene is Hilltop Orchard’s 2.7 kilometer cross-country trail designed by two-time Olympic biathlete John Morton as part of the orchard’s extensive trail system, for skate skiing and snowshoeing.

For downhill skiing, Butternut and Berkshire East offer only day skiing, while Otis Ridge in Otis, Hancock’s Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, and Pittsfield’s Bousquet Ski Area all offer day and night skiing. For a less taxing way to glide across the snow, Green River Farms in Williamstown offers sleigh rides on weekends, weather permitting.

Victoria Abbott Riccardi can be reached at variccardi@rcn.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
The Guest House at Field Farm
554 Sloan Rd.,Williamstown
413-458-3135
www.thetrustees.org/field- farm/
Bauhaus style decor. Bountiful hot breakfast and 4 miles of trails for walking or cross-country skiing, $150-$275.
Where to eat
John Andrews Restaurant
Route 23, South Egremont
413-528-3469
www.jarestaurant.com
Italy meets New England cuisine based on local, organic, sustainable ingredients in a romantic, clapboard, home-style space. Entrees $25-$32.