Stone Barns – Hands On Agriculture | Westchester County, New York

Posted by on July 29, 2008

I first heard about it as “Blue Hill at Stone Barns.”  It was broadcast as THE most wonderful organic upscale restaurant EVER.

And I gather it IS.  But I knew there was more to the story, so I was glad to have the opportunity to have a look at what it really is.  What I discovered is staggering.

The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture is a Nor-for-Profit Organization. It was converted from the former farm operations for the Rockefeller Pocantico Hills estate, and was established by David Rockefeller as a memorial to his wife and land conservationist, Peggy Rockefeller.

Every imaginable agricultural activity is carried on here, and as part of the diverse activities, there is a farm market, a shop, a snack bar, tours, summer day camps for children, visits to the pig farm, and the crowning glory for gourmands, which is BLUE HILL restaurant.

Blue Hill was (and is) a restaurant in New York City, with a now famous chef, Dan Barber.

Apparently Dan Barber was intrigued with the idea of an organic paradise in Pocantico Hills, and the opportunity to open his restaurant in the elegant stone barns. Apparently everyone else is also intrigued, and the food must be out of this world, because it is extremely difficult to get a reservation to this most purest of eateries.

And this is the Eden to which I traveled recently.  It was love at first sight, without question. Beautiful is not a good enough word to describe what I saw.

First things were old stone walls dividing lush green pastures.  Then as we followed the meandering driveway, up a little hill, we came upon these giant stone barns.  I defy anyone not to fall in love.  The closer I got, the more flowers I saw.  Then at the brow of the hill, flowing down the other side, I saw rows of multicolored snapdragons, then rows of berries with little gremlins crawling among them. (These turned out to be day camp children picking currents.)  Plastic greenhouses covered parts of the hillside. More serious greenhouses were at the bottom of the hill (they proved to be filled with the most awe inspiring lush array of lettuces I have ever seen.  They would make a vegetarian out of anyone.)  And all this food is served up the hill a few hundred yards away. Talk about “local food!”

My attention was quickly diverted to the perennial gardens up at the top near the barns.  Inside that space, there was more activity.  This turned out to be the farm market, where the blueberries were the size of raspberries, and the strawberries tasted like grandma’s. Need I say more?

Okay, I will.   Next door to that was the air-conditioned gift shop.  I had to give this one an A plus, almost without hesitation, just for the coolness and the look of the items.  Closer perusal produced adorable orange caps with a carrot and its feathery fronds as the logo. Cool. Then there were soft little squeezy birds, that even made appropriate bird calls, (when squeezed.)  A deep shelf was arrayed with my favorite Emma Bridgewater pottery in the form of mugs and pitchers and so forth.  It was really hard to keep hands off.  There is more grandmother stuff (read “kids’ garden clothes and books.”) and more gardening books for the rest of us than you can imagine.  I had to keep my hands in my pockets in the book area.  All in all, a destination gift shop.

Further along, inside a peaceful sunny courtyard, I faced a huge herb and flower border with leaded glass windows behind it.  That proved to be the entrance to the elegant Blue Hill.  On the side there is a shaded area with comfortable tables for resting and snacking.  We ended our day with an iced coffee here, leaving behind the tasty looking buns and cookies in the snack bar. (Not easy.)

Before this rest period, we took a long walk to the pig farm with one of the enthusiastic gardeners named Laura.  She gave us lots of information about how the crops here are rotated and how the livestock are grown and used in the restaurant.  We could have had a longer tour, but the sun was hot and we had had a long morning garden tour (about which more – next column.)

There is no question that this unusual destination deserves its excellent reputation.  I am longing for the time when we can go back for a meal.  Although it takes about an hour from central Dutchess county to get down to Pocantico Hills, this little area is a super day trip. And there’s more to see.

Just before we had our Stone Barns tour, we made a stop to see the Chagall windows, at the Union Church, just down the road.

This little church, which was where the Rockefellers worshipped, has a huge Matisse stained glass window, in addition to the only cycle of Marc Chagall church windows in America.  The Matisse is his last completed work.

The Chagall windows defy description.  I had heard about them for years, and didn’t have time to see them when I went to Kykuit years ago.  I have regretted that ever since, and now I know why.  I truly think one has to sit in this small church, with its ship bottom wooden ceiling, and dark wooden pews, to know that the reaction to this beauty is purely emotional and extremely moving.  I would suggest going alone, and staying a while.

Sleepy Hollow and Pocantico Hills are just north of Tarrytown, and easy to reach just off the Taconic Parkway.  There is more to see, including the aforementioned Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate, with its indoor and outdoor art, and elegant Hudson views.

So check out www.stonebarnscenter.org and  www.hudsonvalley.org  to see what else you can discover in this unending Hudson Valley discovery tour!

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