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Yummy summer blues: Blueberry-cranberry chutney

27 Jul

A taste of summer: Blueberry-cranberry chutney with Brie on crusty bread


“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” This I croon, along with Lena Horne on the car radio, as I make my way through the winding hills and farm fields of Washington County on this sultry summer Sunday. Where the air is heady with the smell of hay, earth, and cow dung. (Am I the only one who revels in the pungent scent of cow paddy?) En route to My Rural Mecca: Gardenworks at MacClan Farms in Salem, New York. It’s blueberry season, and my mission this day is to pick enough of the superfood berries to last the summer, to avoid the $3.99-per-pint weekly charges at the local grocery by harvesting the fruits of my own labor (well, not really) for half the cost. In the sunshine, in the fertile Black Creek Valley of eastern New York, an hour from home, a hundred years back in time, in a magical corner of the state where cows outnumber people (and milk trucks therefore outnumber cars)…

Gardenworks is more than a farm stand, or nursery, or greenhouse. It is a compound of creativity, and all that is idyllic about an agrarian existence. It is a collection of pristine hundred-year-old barns, in a verdant valley on the border of Vermont, specializing in local produce, meats, books, artwork, jewelry, and (my favorite) cheese. There are wreath-making classes, and cheese talks, and art exhibits, and cooking seminars.

Every season at Gardenworks holds a different wonder: a bounty of berries and plentiful perennials in summer; prolific pumpkins and mums ad finitum in autumn; Christmas trees, wreaths, and handcrafted decorations in winter. For the past few Christmases, I have created gift baskets for friends and family, purely from Gardenworks wares: soups, syrups, dip mixes, cheeses, ornaments, textiles. Most, if not all, created within a 20-mile radius, or right at Gardenworks. 

But today, it’s all about the blues. 

I grab a red pick-your-own pail from the Radio Flyer wagon out front, and nearly skip into the adjacent fields to start my harvest. I pretend that these fields, this land, these beautiful barns, are mine, all mine. 

I am alone, almost. And I am glad for this solitude. Because I suddenly realize that I don’t know what a blueberry bush looks like. I walk among low-growing rows of green shrubs, scanning them for signs of blueberries, and pretend that I know where I am going, and what I am doing (I don’t). I keep walking with false confidence. Just in case someone is watching this pseudo-city slicker/country gal wannabe. I realize that the last time I picked blueberries was with my mom, as a preteen girl in my hometown of Clifton Park, in a farm field that has long since surrendered to subdivision development. A loooong time ago. 

Then finally, there they are. Tall, scraggly bushes, at the far end of the field. Heavy with my blue heaven.

One for the bucket, one for my belly. One for the bucket, two for my belly. That’s pretty much the way it goes for the better part of an hour. Until my red pail is about a third full, and my belly is fuller. 

I head back to the main barn. I pick up a few varieties of locally made cheese, a sweet onion, some smoked sausage for supper. My blueberry haul weighs in at just under two pounds, or about $5. Enough for the next few weeks, or until I get the urge to make my Gardenworks pilgrimage again. With my receipt, the clerk hands me a delightful bouquet, gratis. No doubt culled from the nursery’s winning homegrown selection of zinnias, snapdragons, and dahlias. “(Owners) Meg and Rob (Southerland) thank you for shopping Gardenworks. These were leftover from a party they hosted last night. Enjoy!”

Bonus: With my Gardenworks receipt, I can enjoy 10% off ice cream at Battenkill Valley Creamery, just down the road. Old-school dairy, milk in glass jugs, hand-churned ice cream, farm fresh eggs, cheese curds. How to turn down a dish of my favorite mint chocolate chunk…

…fresh from this cow, right across the road?

But now, for the blueberries. What to create with my blueberries? Sure, there are all sorts of sweet possibilities–buckle, crumble, jelly, scones, muffins–but I seek the savory. How about a blueberry chutney? A tart, chunky relish, slathered on a slice of crusty bread, with a bloomy Brie-like cheese, perhaps?


Blueberry-Cranberry Chutney

In a medium saucepan, combine 2 cups washed, picked-over fresh blueberries

…with (1) chopped sweet onion, a handful of dried cranberries, 1-2 tablespoons brown sugar, pinch sea salt, sprinkle of cinnamon (yes, friend Sarah, that kind you love!), and enough apple cider vinegar to almost cover the saucepan’s contents.

Simmer, covered, over medium-low heat, until it looks really messy like this, about 20 minutes…

Dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in some water, and add to the simmering mixture, stirring until slightly thickened…

…then cool and transfer to a comely white bowl like this to serve…

Or store in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a few weeks, but it won’t last that long, because you’ll enjoy it sooner. I highly recommend pairing it with an earthy cheese and crusty bread. While at Gardenworks, I picked up some White Lily, a scrumptious goat cheese produced in neighboring Argyle, NY, at Sweet Spring Farm (also available at our nearby Saratoga Farmers’ Market). Unwrap, let it come to room temperature, until spreadable but still a tad crumbly…

Spread cheese onto crusty artisan bread, top with chutney, and garnish with lemon thyme. Enjoy the bounty of summer blueberries in this delicious, savory, sweet-tart spread!

How should I use the rest of my blueberries? Share your recipe suggestions!


Whirlwind Montreal! From whiteout to White Night

2 Mar
Spending a Saturday enjoying the winter wonders of Montreal


Last Saturday, Hubby and I went in search of winter, making our annual pilgrimage three hours due north to Montreal. Montreal is an amazing city, notably in the dead of winter, when the whole place comes alive with light, near-daily snowfall, and fur-clad festival-goers intent on making the best of this bracing season. It is an especially walkable metropolis, with an impressive mix of history, architecture, arts, culture, dining, shopping, and outdoor activities packed into its tidy island space.

Getting to Montreal is easy. From our home in upstate New York, it’s a swift three-hour ride on a single highway, Interstate 87–also known as The Northway–across the border near Plattsburgh, continuing onto Quebec’s Autoroute 15. Between home and the border, I-87 runs along the eastern perimeter of the Adirondacks, affording great views of granite slides, beaver ponds, and the High Peaks to the west. The landscape flattens out near Plattsburgh, where Lake Champlain can be glimpsed off to the east, and the Green Mountains of Vermont beyond that. Crossing the border at Lacolle is seldom problematic–“Where do you live? Where are you going? Why? For how long? Have a fun trip!”–and the drive into Montreal from there is (usually) an uneventful 45 minutes across open prairie. On this day, however, snow blowing across the highway outside of the city makes our approach a white-knuckled one…

Whiteout conditions along Autoroute 15 on the prairie approach south of Montreal

Too bad for the near whiteout conditions, as Montreal’s skyline is a beautiful one to behold. We can usually see the mountain first–a giant hill, really–for which the city is named: Mount Royal, or Mont Real.  (Montreal is bilingual, as is the rest of our neighboring country, supremely shaped by and respectful of both its French and English history, so its signs, menus, packaging, newspapers, and so forth are in both languages. In Quebec Province, however, a cultural tug-o-war continues, and French tends to dominate signs and place names. In deference to this, I try to stick to the French names in my references here.) The varied skyscrapers then come into view, as the expressway winds along the St. Lawrence River before crossing over it on the Champlain Bridge. From the bridge it’s easy to appreciate the city’s panorama, stretched along the riverfront: the old 1976 Olympic Stadium (“The Big O”) with its sweeping arc of a tower to the east, the Molson factory and clock, the towering grain elevators at the port, the ancient buildings of Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal) in the foreground, juxtaposed with newer skyscrapers of myriad shapes, colors, and sizes…all of it against the backdrop of a treed mound known as Mount Royal, itself topped by a giant cross that lights up at night. On this snowy day, our view of the city is only to be seen in our mind’s eye.

After unloading at our hotel (I could devote a whole post to Montreal lodgings, and at some point probably will…there are so many of them, each with its own assets and advantages; we’ve stayed at a different place with each visit, and been disappointed by none), we set a course to explore. This visit is a short one–just an overnight–so we opt to cover limited ground. One block east of our hotel, on the fringe of Old Montreal, is the start of Boulevard St. Laurent, an iconic Montreal street also known as “The Main”, a north-south thoroughfare that divides the city in two, between east and west. We decide to cruise The Main and canvass this low-rise side of the city by foot.

At the southern terminus of Boulevard St. Laurent, a sign shows views of a busy street corner throughout the years.

For me, one of Montreal’s main draws is its architecture. Like many North American cities in the 1970s, Montreal suffered through the rape of urban renewal and forsook some of its architectural gems. But many notable historic buildings remain, often wedged between modern and post-modern structures designed by greats likes Moshe Safdie and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Where old buildings no longer stand, the city does a great job of paying homage to their history with signs and stories of the way things used to be. In more recent new construction, buildings have been designed to mimic their 19th- and early 20-century predecessors, incorporating bygone style elements with a modern flare.

Then...and now, at Rue St. Antoine & Boulevard St. Laurent, looking west

As we make our way up St. Laurent, we leave the edge of Old Montreal and enter Chinatown. This section of the city is just a few blocks wide and long, and is bounded at the north, south, east, and west by gates like the one pictured below, also known as paifang. Chinese, Cantonese, and Vietnamese restaurants line St. Laurent and its pedestrian-only offshoots here, along with Asian specialty stores packed with herbs, teas, exotic imports, and electronics.

South Gate entrance to Chinatown. In the far background, to the southeast, is the former Palais de Justice in Old Montreal, built in the 1850s. Between the South Gate and Old Montreal stands an example of post-modern architecture.

Continuing up St. Laurent, we cross a few of Montreal’s main east-west streets, including Boulevard Rene-Levesque, Rue Ste. Catherine, and Rue Sherbrooke (rue means “street” in French). A few blocks to our west is the hub of Montreal’s downtown: its financial district, its entertainment center, its “red-light” stripper stretch, its Golden Square Mile of museums, galleries, shops, eateries, and upscale homes. Also to the west is my alma mater, McGill University, along with Concordia University and Universite de Quebec a Montreal (UQAM). To the east, the city is much more residential. Also to the east are the Olympic Stadium, Botanical Gardens, and Biodome. So much to do and see…so little time! We keep our focus on our humble single street, but note that this stretch of St. Laurent is decidedly “fringe” and “grunge”. Some might say boho-chic. Bones of beautiful old buildings remain, in varying stages of rehabilitation (or decay…it’s hard to tell).

St. Laurent streetscapes

Stores and restaurants along St. Laurent are, um, eclectic. In some cases, it’s difficult to know if shops are open, or abandoned, or even shops at all. But the signs and window-front displays are entertaining, if not perplexing!

Store? House? Vacant? Occupied? Crime scene?

Our stomachs are leading us up The Main, and I have a lunchtime destination in mind. But first, Hubby wants to duck into this Irish pub called McKibbin’s. I don’t argue, since the snow is now falling horizontally (a typical Montreal weather event as the wind blows off the mountain). The waitress hands us a menu on newsprint. Resembling an old time-y newspaper, it has articles on the history of Irish people in Montreal, facts on the Titanic, and, of course, the menu items. It’s in French, and I can understand about 80% of it. But some of the offerings elude me. I can tell they serve poutine, but can’t quite translate what ingredients make their version special. I also think they have a fried pickle appetizer, but again, can’t be sure. I cave and ask for an English version of the menu. I cave again and order the poutine–made with curry and three cheeses!–and, yes, the fried pickles, or “McKibbin’s Frickles”.

Food and drink at McKibbin's Irish Pub

Appetites and thirsts temporarily sated, and snow having ceased, we head back outside and continue up The Main. More comical signs and storefronts. Montreal is an incredibly liberal city, and no where is this more evident than in its seductive store displays and promiscuous advertising. These are tame, G-rated examples…

Stitch 'n' Bitch...Je t'aime ce mannequin!

A little further up St. Laurent, we happen upon La Vieille Europe. With its unassuming storefront and rolled-up awning, it’s easy to miss. But its cheese case, all awash in golden light within, catches my eye and like a siren song seduces me. Cheese, as far as the eye can see. Cases of the stuff. Domestic Québécois cheese, French, Danish, German, Swiss. Above the cheese cases, all manner of cured meats and sausages. Around the corner and deeper into the store, shelves brimming with soups, oils, canned fish, mustards. Labels so colorful they make an artful patchwork that is a feast for the eyes. A whole section devoted to flavored salts. Exotic chocolate bars with ingredients like curry, wasabi, lavender, bacon, smoke, and stout. We could easily spend hours and hundreds of dollars here. A provisions paradise!

Surveying the amazing collection of food imports...including a whole section devoted just to salts!

A stone’s throw from the store is our intended lunchtime destination: Schwartz’s Delicatessen. This place is a Montreal institution, and is always humming. We hit it just right, no lines, and snag two stools at the end of the deli counter…the best seats in the house.

Lunchtime destination and Montreal institution: Schwartz's Delicatessen

Though Schwartz’s has a menu, the options are ultimately “smoked meat sandwich” or “smoked meat platter”. Having just come off our McKibbin’s mini meal, we opt for the sandwich. Beforehand, we are each served up a single, huge, super crunchy, über tart dill pickle. We start by biting into it whole, but then see others at the counter using their knives, and figure this must be the more proper pickle-consuming protocol. Then, the main event: A mountain of smoked meat, sandwiched between two modest, mustard-slathered slices of rye. Unadulterated beefy bliss.

Appetizer: Huge, crunchy, dilly pickle. Main event: Smoked meat mountain!

Camaraderie with the “counter culture”, up-close view of the old-school, white-capped gents carving up the signature smoked meat…Consider us two jolly gentiles!

A view from the counter at Schwartz's

Bellies full, we return to The Main, and start working our way back toward the hotel. Boulevard St. Laurent continues to the north side of the island on which Montreal sits, for another 6-7 miles. Further on are Little Italy, Little Portugal, and the Mile End arts district. But for us, this marks the turnaround point on our St. Laurent ramble. Heading back down the boulevard at dusk, we get our first glimpse of Montreal by night. Our visit coincides with the end of the city’s month-long High Lights Festival, or Montreal en Lumiere. During this festival, there is a flurry of arts activities, and businesses and public spaces throughout the downtown neighborhoods are aglow with unique light installations.

Intriguing light and multi-media installations are scattered throughout the city during Montreal en Lumiere, a month-long mid-winter celebration of the arts.

Near the intersection of St. Laurent and Rue Ste. Catherine, remnants of a disappearing red-light district remain. Montreal boasts a bunch of “gentleman’s clubs”–nude-y bars, strip clubs, cabarets–but most of these are clustered on other parts of Ste. Catherine to the west. They have in-your-face names like Club Super Sexe and racy photos of bare-boobed, stick-thin vixens. Frat boys from the States pack those places. Stumbling on this aging St. Laurent club, Hubby chortles, “Look how big and curvy the women are on the sign!” I can’t help but wax wistful for a time when bona-fide buxom and Rubenesque gals set the aesthetic standard. I imagine that behind the darkened windows of this Cafe Cleopatre, a 60-something broad named Babette is shaking her deflated bosoms for some fellow in a fedora who has been coming here since 1954. But I just Googled the place, and it looks like they are pretty much keeping up with the sexy times. Still, I will cling to my more nostalgic notions.

Retro "go-go" club on The Main has seen better days.

From sinful to saintly…After a quick pit stop at our hotel (for our free happy hour cocktails), we head back out, continuing just a few more blocks south to where Montreal begins, historically, geographically, figuratively, literally. Old Montreal. Vieux Montreal. This is my favorite part of the city. Blocks and blocks of breathtakingly beautiful buildings, cobblestone streets, boutique hotels in repurposed factory buildings and warehouses, funky galleries, cozy cafes and creperies, and sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River and Old Port. The awesome Basilique Notre-Dame is a landmark structure within this historic neighborhood. Construction of this Gothic Revival wonder spanned much of the 1800s. The exterior is a massive marvel; the interior, a jewel-toned and gold-leafed masterpiece of truly divine proportions.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal

On the eastern edge of Old Montreal, some blocks away and situated on the Old Port, sits Marche Bonsecours. When I was attending university here in the early 1990s, this once-grand 1840s building and its environs sat idle and in decay. Since that time, the area has been reborn as a beautiful architectural bookend to the old city. The Marche now houses several cafes, boutiques, exhibit spaces, and open air-styled shops that showcase wares and works by local artisans. The Old Port in front of the Marche has been rehabilitated, and now features a science museum, IMAX theatre, linear park, yacht basin, and launching point for Cirque du Soleil.

Marche Bonsecours, Old Montreal

A portion of the Old Port has been carved out to create an ice skating rink. Ringed by illuminated cubes, bounded on one side by the St. Lawrence and on the other by Old Montreal and the rest of the city beyond, this is among the most scenic outdoor skating venues. (Note how a newer pavilion built for the rink’s rentals, warming hut, and cafe is a modern incarnation of Marche Bonsecours in miniature.) Hubby and I didn’t have our skates, and decided not to rent at the late hour, but still had fun people watching…

Ice skating at the Old Port

Just to the west of the Old Port and Marche Bonsecours is Place Jacques-Cartier. Named for the French explorer who helped to discover Canada, this square is a scenic gathering place no matter the season.

Illuminated planters in Place Jacques-Cartier. Montreal's City Hall is at the top of the Place, seen in the background.

On this night, as part of the special “Nuit Blanche” (“White Night”) festivities, ice sculptors saw and carve their crystalline creations.

Carving ice sculptures at Place Jacques-Cartier

Having our fill of the outdoors, Hubby and I craved cocktails. Earlier in the day on St. Laurent, we had seen a great poster for a brand of absinthe, and snapped the below shot. Now trekking the darkened streets between Old Montreal and downtown, a sign for an absinthe bar caught my eye. It was a sign. Literally. So, absinthe it was.

"After the first glass (of absinthe), you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world." -Oscar Wilde

If you have never had absinthe, seek it out. Unless you live in a big city, you likely won’t find absinthe served in any local bar. Absinthe is an art. And until recently, it was banned. A few years back, Hubby bought a bottle in a nearby liquor store after reading about the U.S. lift on the ban. He was drawn to it for its, um, “transformative” properties. I was drawn to it for its Art Deco/Jazz Age legend. Absinthe is one of those old-timey aperitifs that peaked in popularity in the early 1900s, before being vilified for its purported harmful hallucinogenic effects. In former fashion, it was the select spirit among Parisian artists and authors. Look how it figured into the works of some great artists, who often called upon “the green muse” or “the green fairy” for creative inspiration…

Great artists have paid homage to absinthe in their works, including (l-r) Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Van Gogh, and Picasso.

Absinthe tastes like liquid licorice, being derived from green anise, wormwood, sweet fennel, and other herbs. Apparently, there really is an art to preparing and properly enjoying absinthe. At home, Hubby and I had sipped it diluted with ice water and a touch of sugar stirred in. But at the absinthe bar we stumbled upon, we observe a much more purposeful technique. First: The ice water must drip. Preferably from a beautiful, vintage Art Deco fountain. Also: Don’t just stir in the sugar. Instead, follow the French Method, placing a sugar cube on a specially designed slotted spoon, and then placing the spoon on a glass containing a measure of absinthe. Then, start the drip. As water dilutes the spirit (3-5 parts water), the less soluble herbs in the absinthe cloud the mixture, making it a milky, chartreuse-colored concoction. Voila!

The art of enjoying absinthe? It's all in the drip.

Absinthe had, we are ready to get our art on. We haven’t yet been to the core of downtown, a handful of blocks to the west and north. Luckily, we can travel the full route without ever being outside and exposed to the frigid nighttime temperatures. Montreal boasts an expansive underground network of tunnels and passageways, totaling some 20 miles. This “underground city” allows residents to avoid the weather and traffic above, and go quickly between metro stations, office buildings, shopping malls, and schools. On this night, we notice placards throughout the network pointing us to various art exhibits and performances, as part of Art Souterrain. Performance artists, muralists, musicians, puppeteers…all convening underground to entertain the masses in the wee hours of this Nuit Blanche. Most of it is, well, weird. But a fun way to pass through the city, at an hour when the underground city businesses are otherwise closed up and quiet for the night.

Performance art, interactive exhibits, and visual art installations as seen in Montreal's underground network

Final destination for the day: Les 3 Brasseurs (The 3 Brewers), a hopping brew pub in the heart of downtown. Our night cap: A six-beer sampling of all the pub’s brews: blond, red, white, brown, La Belle Provence (an amber), and a seasonal special that packed a whopping 9% ABV punch.

Enjoying a 6-beer "flight" night cap at Les 3 Brasseurs in downtown Montreal

The sobering walk back to the hotel (mostly above-ground) permitted us to enjoy a serene, late-night cityscape. Freshly fallen snow + illuminated architecture x 6 beer samples = Magique!

Old Montreal architecture

Like most cities, the true beauty of Montreal is “up”. Jaded city folks shuffle along briskly with eyes down. Mistake! While you might run the risk of increased bumping or unintentional jay-walking, I challenge city slickers to walk while looking up. Buildings are beautiful. Unfortunately, their beauty often evades the ground-level multitudes, unless viewed from afar or above. Gargoyles, flourishes, gables, roof lines, windows…so much of what gives city buildings their unique character can be easily overlooked. In this case, tilting our heads heaven-ward yielded a pretty cool perspective on a minimalist and otherwise nondescript office building.

A city best enjoyed at night, by foot, while looking up

Our Montreal visit wrapped a mere 17 hours after our arrival, we bid adieu to the fair city by finding a different way off the island than usual. This time, we wind through the streets of Old Montreal, then between the old grain elevators at the port, following small, cryptic signs pointing us to Pont Victoria. This Erector set-looking structure is ancient, built in 1859 and the first to span the St. Lawrence. Obviously constructed in an era predating the automobile, it is little changed. The bridge was built for trains, and trains still use it today, taking center stage, with cars limited to one lane on each side, on that scary metal grating that makes a lot of noise and makes your car wiggle, like it wants to dance off the roadway.

Exiting the city via the aging Pont Victoria across the St. Lawrence Seaway

Homeward bound across the prairie in the crystal clear light of day, we see the effect of yesterday’s winds on the snow banks, which resemble sand dunes.

Returning south along Autoroute 15 in clear weather, we see the snowdrifts shaped by yesterday's winds.

Arriving in white, departing in light. A wonderful, whirlwind weekend getaway. Montreal…je t’aime!

Five fun things to do in Lake Placid

8 Feb

View from Guest Room 437 at Mirror Lake Inn


On Sunday the 5th, Hubby and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We chuckle about this, because we have been together for over 15 years, but finally decided to “pull the trigger” and make it official in the eyes of the law just last February, with a 10-minute affair in our living room, officiated by a former mayor, witnessed by our next door neighbors, and followed by an afternoon of downtown pub crawling and Chowderfest fun. No frills, no fuss. Being not-so-conventional, no honeymoon either. But my mom, brother, and sister-in-law did give us a most generous wedding gift–a getaway to the amazing Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid, New York–which Hubby and I enjoyed this past weekend, in celebration of our “first year” together.

Lake Placid is a great little village, nestled in the heart of the High Peaks region of the immense Adirondack Park, about 110 miles north-northwest of our Saratoga Springs home. While travel by car takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes, travel through time takes us backward about 30 years. You see, Lake Placid hosted the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games–a feat that seems almost unimaginable now, given the town’s size, (lack of) infrastructure, and absence of urbanity, when compared to more metropolitan and glamorous Games hosts (think St. Moritz, Innsbruck, Oslo, Vancouver)–and there is some sense that time has, well, stood still in the village since its 1980 eminence.

Map of New York showing Adirondack Park bounde...

Image via Wikipedia

Then again, most villages located in the Adirondack Park feel a bit anachronistic. “Charming rustic”, teetering on “past-prime shabby”. I think this is due in large part to the strictly regulated development within the Blue Line boundary of the 6 million-acre state park. Since early discovery by westward-moving American pioneers, the Adirondack Mountains have been continually exploited, for fish, game, furs, lumber, minerals, ores…even for the curative fresh mountain air. Wonderful safeguards have been put into place to ensure that the natural beauty of this ancient mountain landscape is preserved for future generations. But these same measures have also made it difficult for any meaningful industry, development, or economic progress to occur within the protected park, which is really a complex patchwork of public and private lands.

Lake Placid and its environs have not been exempt from these restrictions. Whatever development and progress the village enjoyed in the past few decades was from the spurt of building activity leading up to the 1980 Olympics, and from posh private homes built for seasonal enjoyment by a wealthy few since then. Its main street has an eclectic mix of stores and restaurants, but sadly, the architecture is more urban renewal ugly than quaint, vintage Alpine. The Olympic facilities are still in use, and where budding athletes from the region still train. But like the village’s downtown, a lot of these once impressive structures now seem hokey, aging, forgotten. So, is the village of Lake Placid pretty, and worth visiting? In a word, “no”.

But look beyond the village, to the lake for which the village is named. Or to the lake that the village actually rims (oddly, not the same…Lake Placid, the village, sits on Mirror Lake; Lake Placid, the lake, is sort of hidden behind the village, with a really unprepossessing marina for public access). And to the majestic high peaks that ring the area. And yes, for this, the Lake Placid region is beautiful, and well worth the visit.

Hubby and I have only been to Lake Placid a few times, and this visit was our first in the winter. For us, we decided that there is no better time to go. Most other people think differently, I guess, since the “in” season for this historic winter sports haven is actually summer. Go figure. On this weekend, we embraced the area’s tranquility, free from throngs of tourists, and enjoyed a frosty corner of the forest with the laid-back local folk. Beyond unwinding, eating, and drinking, we didn’t do much during our two-night stay. And we still can’t claim to have partaken of any “Olympic Experience” activities. But here is a list of five things we did do, and enjoyed, and would recommend to anyone else wandering over Lake Placid way on some random winter weekend.

Five Fun Things (Winter Edition)

#1: Driving

Getting to Lake Placid is half the fun. State Route 73 winds westward from Interstate 87, much of it along scenic brooks, streams, waterfalls, gorges, and ponds, through rustic villages like Keene and St. Huberts, and past numerous trail heads to rises and rifts with names like Rooster Comb, Pitchoff, Chapel Pond, and Bear Run. The route is often precipitous, and the bare birches seem to beckon like skeletal fingers, luring you deeper into the wilderness, up into the mountains. The approach to Lake Placid opens to a wide clearing, where the majesty of the surrounding snow-dusted mountaintops is truly awesome. 

Mountain views

#2: Sleeping

Retreating into the woods and away from the noise and pressure of the daily grind guarantees a sound sleep. And there is no better place to rest your weary head than at the Mirror Lake Inn. “Polished, not snooty” is how it’s been described. It’s pricey, but well worth the splurge. Almost every room has a beautiful view of Mirror Lake and the string of towering peaks, like Mount Marcy and Algonquin, in the distance. Afternoon tea with homemade cookies is served daily in the main building’s cozy living room. You can cuddle up in front of a crackling fire and play board games in the adjacent wood-paneled library. Luxuriate in the indoor pool/sauna/hot tub or indulge in a spa treatment. Eat all manner of incredible edibles, from baked brie and fried brussels sprouts, to venison burgers and lobster risotto–and everything in between–at one of the onsite eateries. Do all that, then collapse in to the super sumptuous bedding, and sleep like a baby.

Cozy living room at Mirror Lake Inn

#3: Eating/drinking

See #2 above. Of course, there are a number of other great places to eat in Lake Placid and the surrounding area. One place we’d like to return to is the Brown Dog Cafe & Wine Bar. We got here too late on our first night to have much more than a cheese board and some wine. (Second night was Super Bowl Sunday, and restaurant was closed.) But the owner, an affable Jersey Boy named Jim, was so welcoming, despite our late arrival. He joined us at the bar as he wound down, regaling us with stories and a photo album of his prize English bulldog, Rolex, who had apparently supplanted in Jim’s heart the chocolate lab for whom the restaurant had been named. Otherwise, we were content to enjoy the unusual menu of small plates at the MLI’s bistro, called taste, and the hearty Adirondack breakfast served in the hotel’s main restaurant, The View.

Hearty Adirondack breakfast sandwich at The View, Mirror Lake Inn

#4: Visiting a palace

Happenstance had it that the neighboring village of Saranac Lake was kicking off its annual winter carnival on the Saturday we arrived. Quintessential small-town charm and tradition. A palace built of over 1,000 massive ice blocks cut from Lake Flower in the heart of town, and magically illuminated from within. The “lighting of the palace” preceded a stellar fireworks display over the frozen lake. A wonderful 115-year-old Adirondack ritual to break the season’s monotony and celebrate winter’s brighter side. 

Inside the Ice Palace, Saranac Lake

#5: Walking/snowshoeing/skiing/skating/tobogganing/dog-sledding on Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake is not that big. Originally, it was called Bennet Pond, named for one of the founding settlers. But at some point in the late 1800s, with the advent of stagecoach and then train travel, the area began to attract tourists who would vacation at grand hotels and inns that sprang up around the lake. The reflective tranquility of the water prompted some to compare it to a mirror, and the more romantic name stuck (I have learned this while reading The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid, a fascinating collection of writings by Mary MacKenzie, a long-time town historian). But I think it’s even more beautiful in winter, when frozen over and covered with snow. At this season, it becomes like a big playground. People cross-country ski on it, traverse it on snowshoes or ice skates, and take dog sled rides. A toboggan chute at the lake’s southern end sends squealing riders out across the frozen expanse. This sure looked like fun…

…but ultimately, we opted to save our spines and invest in what seemed like a much more serene turn on a dog sled. We weren’t fully prepared for the extra gifts this team of handsome huskies bestowed!

Have you been to Lake Placid in winter? Please share any recommendations for fun, food, folly…

The ramble in pictures

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Chocolate-covered bacon and other Southern Adirondack wonders

17 Jan


It isn’t often that Hubby and I are up early on weekends. This past Sunday, we had occasion to be up with the sun, and decided to put the time to good use. We hadn’t taken any road trips in a while–for fun, we drive without maps or navigation and see how lost we can get within a 1-2 hour drive-time radius–and so decided to take a ramble in The North Country.

But like I said, we don’t use maps. So what started out with northerly intent ended up being westward wandering. At least in the beginning. Hubby suggested we start with breakfast at Shirley’s Restaurant, on the west side of town. Despite living in Saratoga for over 15 years, and passing this place dozens of times, neither of us had ever been. It’s been around for about 50 years, owned by the same family. I remembered news of the place’s namesake dying quite suddenly a few years back. But the restaurant was carrying on without Shirley, still being run by family members, so that’s nice to hear.

But I hesitate about going. As shallow as it is, I have been judging this book by its nondescript cover: a pretty odd 1960s brick edifice wedged between a Mobil station and a seasonal ice cream shack. Stepping inside, my outlook doesn’t improve much (bland, dated decor; drop ceilings and wood paneling; ho-hum breakfast menu). But the place is pretty busy for 8 a.m.–a mix of hunter/snowmobiler types, older couples, and a few families–so I think they must be doing something right. We seat ourselves, and the waitress arrives promptly with really good coffee, rattling off the morning’s specials. Hubby latches on to the homemade-hash-and-eggs special. I decide on the Eggs Benedict with home fries, and also ask for a grilled pumpkin muffin. Within 10 minutes, we are served up two piping plates of sheer breakfast bliss.

OK, so maybe that’s an overstatement. I mean, it’s diner food. But really, really good diner food. Check out these Eggs Benedict. Perfectly poached orbs atop crisp English muffins and two slices of Canadian bacon each, enveloped in sublime, silken Hollandaise heaven. The home fries are among the best I’ve had, not too salty/over-seasoned, not greasy at all, and absent those unsavory burned bits. Just uniformly browned and crisp, perfect for mopping up the extra egg and golden saucy goodness. And the pumpkin muffin is so good that Hubby–who isn’t typically a “sweets” guy, and who rolls his eyes every time I order this indulgent extra bit of carb “on the side” when we have breakfast out–sheepishly asks for half, and then wants to know if I am going to eat the rest. His homemade hash is equally as good (though not as pretty to look at, so no photo). Total bill comes in at under $20. This day is off to a good start. Fueled up and ready to hit the road with happy bellies.

(Important update! When searching online to see if Shirley’s had a website, I found this article that appeared recently in the Business Review. Apparently, Shirley’s was bought last month by a fashion designer and former president of a now-defunct horse racing facility (funny career combo) from Montreal. He isn’t/won’t be making many changes to Shirley’s, except for adding things like poutine…man, this place just keeps getting better. Next time: Lunch a must!)

We decide to start rambling northward by way of Route 9N, a winding but well-traveled road that travels north and west out of town, going through the towns of Greenfield, Corinth, and Luzerne, before looping back east and ending in the village of Lake George. We’ve taken this route before. Wanting to change things up, we opt to turn left off Route 9N on the outskirts of Corinth, onto County Route 10, following signs and heading west for the Great Sacandaga Lake. Our travels take us up, up, up, on a narrow and winding road–to where the snow from a few days ago still clings to the trees and the plowed banks seem curiously high compared to home–before we descend down, down, down, ending at the northern end of the Sacandaga. We follow the lake’s eastern/southern edge for a time, until we tire of it, and then, before we have to commit to going around the entire lake’s perimeter, we take a bridge (under sizeable construction, hence the crane) across to Northville . This is a huge lake. And sort of an odd one, too.

Former homes in the now-flooded valley

The Great Sacandaga Lake was formerly known as the Sacandaga Reservoir. It lies in a valley, and is actually a man-made reservoir created in the 1930s to control the disastrous springtime floods that impacted businesses and communities downstream of where the Sacandaga River meets the Hudson. Thousands of people then living in the reservoir area were displaced, and their homes were destroyed or moved to make way for the new lake. I used to work with someone who had a summer camp on the lake. He had a reputation for telling tall tales. He recounted stories of going diving in parts of the lake, where he could see the ruins of buildings that used to be in the valley before the flooding, things like church steeples. I couldn’t find anything about that sort of “Atlantis” online. But I did learn that there used to be a popular amusement park and railroad on the valley floor in the late 1800s. And that the reservoir was built at a cost of $12 million, fully funded by contributions made by area business owners who benefitted from the flood protection provided by the resevoir…not a bit of tax money used for its construction!

The fabrication of this lake renders it less appealing to me, and makes it much less authentically “Adirondack”, where it serves as a sort of southeastern gateway to the state park’s wild expanse. The views from the road winding along the lake are pretty enough. But knowing the history of this lake, I feel a sadness. And am haunted by thoughts of what used to be, before billions of gallons of water rushed in to drown the valley…A place where people lived and played and worked and died…gone, because a bunch of business people wanted to safeguard their downstream establishments from flood damage…

Which is why I am glad to leave the lake area, and to head north along the not-man-made Sacandaga River on Route 30. A tranquil stretch, with snow-laden pines and the occasional year-round cottage circled by chimney smoke. Glimpses of mountains in the distance, whose tree-topped peaks look like they are coated in confectioner’s sugar. I’d love to meander this stretch longer, right up to Lake Placid if time allowed; this route runs roughly parallel to the 133-mile Northville-Placid hiking trail, which I’d like to explore in the warmer months.

But Hubby and I make the decision to start homeward. We turn off Route 30 onto Route 8 and then Route 28, heading eastward now, back toward the Northway which will carry us swiftly back to reality and to home. But not before we make a quick detour to cruise the packed parking lot at the base of Gore Mountain, and then head into the village of North Creek. This hamlet is seeing a renaissance of sorts, since the Saratoga & North Creek Railway began running passenger service again this past summer, bringing tourists to the area for foliage in the autumn, Polar Express rides at Christmas, and now skiers. We are hoping to land a nice hot cuppa at Sarah’s Place on the main drag, but abort when a bevy of downstaters fills the place and begins barking out their cappufrappelattecino orders to the overwhelmed hipster behind the counter. The price of success, I guess.

One last stop before we hit the interstate: Oscar’s Adirondack Smoke House in Warrensburg. This place is legend. A mainstay for 50 years, Oscar’s was leveled by a fire in 2009. But liked a smoked pig with wings, it has miraculously taken off since. Oscar’s has all manner of smoked meats, from beef and pork, to venison and boar. Not to mention cheeses (some with smoked meats in them, of course!), sauces, local foodstuffs, desserts, and…wait, what’s that? Do my eyes deceive me? Could it be? Is that for real, or have we been on the road too long? Chocolate-covered bacon. Oh yes they did. Hubby gags at this, but I jump at the chance to experience this taste sensation, adding a few pieces to the armful of edibles we have gathered to take home. Verdict? Smoky-salty-sweet yum.

A mere thirty minutes later, we pull back into the driveway. A fun ramble, a few new discoveries. And the fixins for dinner later in the week…

Want to ramble? Map below…click on the pins for descriptions of the route along the way!


The path less traveled: Spa State Park rediscovered (alternately, The Geyser Fallacy exposed)

10 Jan


I often take for granted our proximity to the Saratoga Spa State Park, and all that the park offers. In our youth, it was the perennial field-trip-and-class-picnic destination. In adolescence, the site for those first rock concerts “alone” (you know, when you and your Huey-Lewis-and-The-News-loving posse got dropped off by your folks for a night of quasi-freedom, then had to return to reality three hours later, piled into the back of the family Buick wagon…so uncool).

Now, in adulthood, we like to think we have a more mature and sophisticated appreciation for the park. We see the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra perform at SPAC in the summer. We lounge at the I’m-too-sexy-for-this-scene Victoria Pool during the two weeks it’s open (or so it seems). We enjoy ogling The Fancy People in their Ferraris at the Saratoga Automobile Museum in the fall. But ultimately, the Spa State Park is still a big, beautiful, mostly free, year-round playground. In the spring, Hubby and I enjoy riding our bikes there. In summer, we chill curbside with our camouflaged beers and listen to bunches of rock concerts for free outside the SPAC gates. Snowy winters sometimes find us there on snowshoes or cross-country skis. But we rarely take the time to explore the hidden patches of the historic park by foot.

So on Sunday, we decided to take advantage of the relatively mild and dry weather, and to stretch our legs before an afternoon of TV football playoffs (read, “napping”), by taking a hike through the park. What started out as a stroll on the park’s access road soon deviated, to a new path (to us), a more recently marked and contiguous “5 Mile Trail”. What a find! And given the absence of foliage and undergrowth, what a nice way to take in different views of the park.

We picked up this trail off North South Road, across from the golf course, and followed its meandering route. Atop a ridge overlooking Geyser Creek, down to a grassy (not snowy…eerie for January) knoll, along and across the creek at the park’s southern end, up and around the more far-flung picnic pavilions, along the freshly restored Vale of Springs…a serene walk, filled with simple surprises: red squirrels, a mysterious pine cone pyramid (work of the red squirrels), solitary “taking of the waters” at the various springs in the now-deserted picnic area, a lone moss-covered picnic table, tufa…

Wait…what? Tufa?

You know, those other-worldly, flesh-and-rust-colored mounds that we see at the base of the park’s geyser (which isn’t a geyser at all, but more on that shortly) and along Geyser Creek (near the pedestrian bridge that crosses into SPAC): Tufa. A sort of limestone, made up of accumulating mineral deposits from the natural springs. The one pictured here is from the incredibly mineral-y Orenda Spring, from which you can taste a tapped sample, about 30′ up and 30′ back from the base of this chalky, cheese doodle-y mound. And I am amazed to learn that this stuff accumulates at a rate of about a half-cup per 100 gallons of water…Am I the only one freaked out by this figure? I mean, given that no one ever turns off these natural springs, it would seem that these mounds might overtake all of Saratoga in the not-too-distant future. And then we’d know this charming hamlet as…Saratufa?

And the whole geyser thing…So hard to stomach that we proud Saratogians have been (and continue to be) duped! For years, along with “health, history, and horses”, we have bragged about having “the only geyser east of the Mississippi”. Well, thanks to the beautiful signage installed in the park to celebrate its centennial last year, we learned on Sunday that this is patently wrong. We cannot boast having a geyser. What we have, occupying its own tufa island in the middle of Geyser Creek, is a spouter.

Island spouter sign reveals The Ugly Truth

A geyser is an erupting spring whose waters shoot up and out as a result of heat-driven forces inside the earth (think magma and volcanic action), often accompanied by steam and vapors. We do not have this. What Saratoga has is a spouter. This looks like a geyser to the unenlightened, but is actually the manifestation of trapped gases present in Saratoga’s subterranean mineral waters. The irony of this is not lost on me: Saratoga is full of (not-so) hot air. Spouting crap for all these years. Ain’t that a gas?

Nonetheless, “Geyser” sticks. It has to. We have a road named after it, along with a few housing subdivisions, an elementary school, a creek, a bed-and-breakfast, a park, a mineral spring, and probably some sort of gelato flavor or panini in one of our downtown eateries. “Spouter” just wouldn’t do. But now we know.
So, a winter Sunday ramble in Saratoga Spa State Park…educational, invigorating, enlightening. And a perfect precursor to football-watching (napping).

The ramble in pictures 

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