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Pioneer Valley Food Tours highlights Northampton eateries

  • Deborah Christakos, right, of Pioneer Valley Food Tours, talks about a lemon blueberry cake made at Woodstar Cafe in downtown Northampton at the first stop on a circuit of Northampton eateries. Staff PHOTO/Andy Castillo

  • Christakos, center, talks about South River Miso sold at Cornucopia Foods in Thornes Marketplace during the tour. Staff PHOTO/Andy Castillo

  • Deborah Christakos at Northampton’s Tuesday Market.  Contributed Photo/Bryan McCreary

  • Steve Ledford, center, and his wife, Diane Ledford, right, both of Connecticut, sample cheese and West County Cider at Provisions in downtown Northampton on the tour. Staff PHOTO/Andy Castillo

  • Christakos pours lemonade for her tour group at Dobra Tea. STAFF PHOTO/Andy Castillo

  • Cheese and West County Cider at Provisions in downtown Northampton Staff PHOTO/Andy Castillo

  • Deborah Christakos of Pioneer Valley Food Tours slices cucumbers, which she later tossed with a dressing made from South River Miso, at Cornucopia in downtown Northampton, Sunday, July 23, 2018. Gazette Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Christakos talks about the offerings at Iconica Social Club to her group. Staff PHOTO/Andy Castillo



@AndyCCastillo
Friday, August 03, 2018

W arm sunlight evaporated  rainwater  covering an outdoor seating area  at  Woodstar Cafe in downtown Northampton one recent Sunday as six people gathered around to watch Deborah Christakos, owner of Pioneer Valley Food Tours, slice up a small blueberry lemon cake.

“I’ll help you with one bite,” said Isabel Yalouris of New York City, as she reached a fork across the table toward the plate in front of her mother, Charlotte Karney of Cambridge. Karney, who is Christakos’s cousin, quickly moved her dish out of reach.

They were on the first stop of the tour, which took about 2 ½ hours, included seven stops at restaurants and specialty food stores throughout downtown Northampton. Woodstar Cafe was chosen to highlight its vegetarian offerings. Others were

picked to focus on other aspects of the city’s culinary scene, like Belly of the Beast, selected to show off its fried shan tofu, and Iconica Social Club to spotlight its cold pressed juices.

Also among the group were four people from Connecticut.

Christakos told them that the blueberries served on the side of the fluffy, light cake were from Sapphire Farm in Williamsburg, which is run by Woodstar Cafe’s owners, Dmitri and Rebecca Robbins. “Lemon and blueberry go really well together,” she said.

Christakos started the Northampton-based tour company last September as a way to help promote the area’s food scene. Since then, she says, she has led more than 25 tours, attracting local people, prospective home buyers and others passing through from out of town.

“People bring their kids to college. They drive through here on their way to Vermont or New York, and maybe they’ll stop, but I don’t think they get a feeling of how much food is a part of life around here, and the quality of it,” said Christakos, who spent decades working in restaurants including stops in France, New York and San Francisco.

Every tour is different, she says, and each stop is curated from a pool of about 20 local businesses and restaurants, based on seasonal food selections, availability of staff members, and the time of day.

Among those who took Sunday’s tour were husband and wife Matt and Alana Ledford of Connecticut, who brought their parents, Diane and Steve Ledford, on the tour as a way to experience the area’s culture.

“It sounded interesting, and a fun way to explore a new area,” Alana Ledford said.

As they ate their cake, Christakos told the group members about Northampton’s reputation as a center of varied and high quality restaurants, noting the close connection most of the eateries have with area farmers.

"Here, the access to local agriculture, in terms of small and high quality producers, is better than anywhere I've ever lived," she said. "It's a very personal relationship. You know the land. You know the owner. You know the producer."

After everyone sampled the lemon blueberry cake, Christakos led the way across Masonic Street to Iconica Social Club on Amber Lane for buckwheat potato waffles served with watermelon, radish, and mint juice.

As they sat beneath a shade tree sampling the food, Iconica co-owner Em Withenbury, described how she and her partner in love and live, Fitzpatrick Mulvaney, spent two years renovating the building before opening last year. She explained how each juice the retaurant serves is cold-pressed in-house using only three ingredients.

These types of details, which patrons might not learn on their own, give customers a better appreciation for flavor and food in general, Christakos said.

Christakos says she learned to appreciate nuances in flavor while studying culinary arts at Ferrandi school in France. Then, she worked in restaurants in Canne, France, New York, San Francisco, and Boston, over about a decade. About 15 years ago, she moved to the Pioneer Valley seeking a quieter lifestyle for her children. Simultaneously, she taught cooking classes, something that she still occasionally does.

“Living and working in New York was great. You can get the best ingredients you want. But the tie to (ingredients) is different, because it gets trucked into the restaurants,” she said. Being close to food sources here is a boon to the restaurants, she said. “The people who've come from the outside, who take the tour, definitely think that's special.”

As an example of a new restaurant that values the connection to local farming, Christakos noted that the owners of Belly of the Beast on Main Street, wife and husband Aimee Francaes and Jesse Hassinger, decided to open in Northampton last year because agriculture is so accessible.

 There the group ate fried shan tofu, made from locally sourced ingredients including chickpea flour, and washed it down with Northern Lights American pale ale from Element Brewing Company of Millers Falls.

Next Christakos led the way up Old State Street to Provisions on Crafts Avenue for a selection of local cheeses paired with Redfield Cider made by Shelburne Falls-based West County Cider. There, Yishi Li, a cheese monger, explained how each cheese is made and described what to expect when tasting the cider.

“It drinks a little like a rosé,” Li said.

Around a high top table, the group sampled the cider and cheeses — Ascutney Mountain cheese made by Cobb Mountain of Vermont, Willoughby made by Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, washed with Blushing Star from Liquid Riot Bottling Company, and Moonlight Chaource from New York —  and they also had a chance to explore the diverse selections of other cheeses, wines, ciders and beers, offered at the store.

For businesses, Christakos’s tours provide a chance to meet customers, both old and new, on a personal level and in a way that’s not possible during busier times, said Nate Clifford, general manager at Cornucopia Foods, an independent grocery store in Thornes Marketplace, where the group stopped next.

There, Christakos sliced fresh cucumbers and tossed a salad with a vinaigrette dressing made from South River Miso of Conway, which is sold at the store. Christakos made the dressing beforehand. She noted the miso’s versatility as an ingredient that can inject salty flavor into a variety of dishes.

“She came along and had this great enthusiasm about the store and the Valley, and we jumped on,” Clifford said. “It’s brand new faces every time, and they’re enthusiastic about what we’re doing here. We’re down in the basement of Thornes, and although we’ve been here for 38 years, almost 39, we still hear people come in and say ‘I never knew this was here. This is so cool’ … That sort of irks me.”

The group ended their tour with lemonade at Dobrá Tea and frozen yogurt from GoBerry on Main Street, where, Christakos explained the yogurt-making process.

Looking to the future, Christakos says, she’d like to expand out of Northampton and begin hosting food tours in other Pioneer Valley towns like Amherst and Easthampton to expand the message that the Pioneer Valley is a food destination.

“We all live here, and sometimes we take for granted that the food is so high quality,” she said.

How to connect

Tours, which are about $50 per person and take into account food allergies and preferences, can be booked online at www.pioneervalleyfoodtours.com. Groups, which must include at least four people, meet at Pulaski Park, where Christakos gives an overview of the region's topographical features and farming history, before leading to the first destination.

Christakos’s South River Miso Vinaigrette

2 teaspoons South River Sweet Brown Rice Miso

2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar

⅓ cup canola oil

In a small bowl, whisk the rice vinegar into the miso until it is evenly mixed (It will be chunky). Add canola oil in a stream, whisking until it’s emulsified. Pour just enough to moisten greens. No additional seasoning is necessary.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.