Monday, June 20, 2016

Heirloom Market at Comstock Ferre

Imagine one of America's oldest seed companies combined with a grocery store and cafe featuring local and organic foods, situated in beautiful historic buildings in one of the prettiest towns in Connecticut. If you imagined correctly, you'll be picturing Heirloom Market at Comstock Ferre.

Variously called "the oldest continuously operating seed company in New England" or "the oldest continuously operating seed company in the United States" or "one of the oldest seed companies in the United States," Comstock Ferre has been in the seed business since 1820. Or perhaps 1811. Whatever, it's wicked old, okay? The seeds are still here, in colorful packets arranged on old-fashioned wooden shelving in the market's upper level, but it's not just gardening supplies that lure passers-by to this serene space on Main Street in Wethersfield.

Downstairs, there are baskets of organic produce and shelves stocked with healthy grocery items and locally-made foods. There's also a little cafe selling fresh juices, coffee and tea, baked goods, and more.

The decor is as rustic and adorable as you'd expect. (You did imagine vintage farming equipment suspended from the ceiling in that little exercise I gave you above, right?) People work on their laptops in a bright little nook by the door, and children play among the outdoor tables near stands full of plants for sale.

While I was sitting in the sun under a red umbrella outside of Heirloom Market, it occurred to me that if this place was located in New York City, you'd have to shove ten people out of the way just catch a glimpse of a seed packet and you wouldn't even dream of getting to sit down to eat your food. But luckily for us, it's not.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Mystic Seaport, Revisited


I know, I know. You read the thing at the top of the page that says this blog is "devoted to unusual, unexpected, offbeat, off-season, underrated, and underappreciated" places and then you read the title of this post, which says "Mystic Seaport," i.e., one of Connecticut's most popular tourist destinations. In June, no less. Believe me, I think that is dumb and hypocritical too. And when I went to Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium last weekend, I had no intention of blogging about it.


I went because it was Connecticut Open House Day, which meant a small discount on admission to the Aquarium (yes, this post is primarily about the Seaport; more on the Aquarium below), and because I wanted to see how the Seaport, which I'd visited on many a school field trip a million years ago, held up as a destination for grown-ups.


And the answer was: surprisingly well. Well enough, in fact, that I thought it deserved a blog post: Mystic Seaport, an unexpected and underappreciated activity for people who are not children on field trips.


Because it turns out that the Seaport, which I'd remembered as a place to climb around on boats, listen to costumed people talk about building barrels, and buy little wooden seagulls, is in fact quite an attractive place to simply walk around and explore.


As a kid I didn't realize, or perhaps I just didn't care, that the buildings in Mystic Seaport's "recreated 19th century seafaring village" are authentic - that is, they were not constructed in 1980 as part of a plot to bore groups of children.


Some of the buildings were originally located nearby; others were were brought to Mystic from all over New England. They were all assembled to form a little town, centered around a green with a gazebo. You can go into each home, business, or other institution to learn about that particular aspect of 19th century history, or you can decide you did that enough times in elementary school and just admire the atmosphere created by the different structures gathered along the docks.


Beyond the village, there were other parts of the Seaport that I appreciated anew upon seeing them with grown-up eyes.


There are special events; last weekend's was a sea music festival, with performances throughout the day at different venues.


There are artworks I would have been bored by as a child but loved viewing now. On exhibit now is a lovely collection of American coastal art that will remain in Mystic through January 2017.


There's a wonderfully creepy room full of figureheads, looking simultaneously imposing and lifeless detached from their ships.


There's an amazing scale model of the Mystic River in 1870, "over 50-feet long [and] built to the scale of 3/32 inch=1 foot, or 1/128th." Its tiny people tend minuscule livestock and live in painstakingly crafted miniature houses along a waterfront where wee boats rest in little coves while ships that look huge even in this glass-case world are constructed in teeny shipyards.


And of course there are the historic ships, which I looked at not as playgrounds but as reminders of this area's past. You can't really comprehend, when you are 8, what it means that the Charles W. Morgan is the last wooden whaleship in the world, or that the Emma C. Berry was built in Noank, and is the oldest existing example of a well smack or "Noank smack."


Another new-to-me Seaport experience was the second floor of the Museum Store, which houses a bookshop dedicated to all things maritime. This would be considered a destination in itself if it was located in another Connecticut town. 


There's also an art gallery, which I thought was fun for a quick look around just to marvel at what rich people are willing to pay for things, but which according to its website is "the nation’s foremost gallery specializing in contemporary marine art and ship models...exhibit[ing] the works of leading maritime artists from across the globe." And purchases support the Seaport's preservation efforts, so I now feel slightly guilty and I'm glad that there are rich people willing to pay for such things.


And although I didn't partake, there are all sorts of boating excursions offered here, from short cruises to schooner sails to rental rowboats.


It's also worth noting that admission is good for two days if you return within the week, so while it's very expensive to get in here, you can get a lot for your money if you plan it right.


A quick note about the Aquarium. That, sadly, did not hold up quite as well as the Seaport. I remember finding it vast and impressive, but as an adult it struck me as smaller and cheesier and - although I appreciated the beauty of the marine life far more than than I probably did as a child - a little depressing. I'd keep this one in the children's category, unless you're truly an aquarium fan or have never seen a diverse assortment of fish up close before. Because it's still pretty cool to see those stingrays slide past you with their flat faces like the expressionless face emoji.


If you do return to Mystic Seaport, or if you're visiting for the first time, don't neglect nearby downtown Mystic, which offers - among many other things - a boat-load of better places to eat than the Seaport's disappointing little "cafe and bake shop." And if the surprisingly classy Museum Store isn't exactly the kind of tacky tourist trap you were hoping for, head to Old Mistick Village, which is a tacky tourist trap, but in a good way.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Nutmeg Poisoning

-I often wish I could go to sleep and not wake up until the trend of travel writing being almost exclusively food writing in disguise is over. But I do enjoy when food writing comes over to the travel writing side, especially when it involves travel in, or to, Connecticut. So I love Alycia Chrosniak's Hartford guide on Food52.

-I write a lot about Jewish history in Connecticut, both on this blog and elsewhere. If you like the stuff I've written about this elsewhere, stay tuned, more is coming, and if you're into Connecticut's Jewish history, watch the Old State House's program about how Jews in the Nutmeg State gained religious freedom.

-On that note, in May I went to the premier of Harvesting Stones, a documentary about Eastern Connecticut's Jewish farmers. I don't know how many other options will exist to see this film in a theatre, but if you get the chance, and you're interested in the topic, I recommend it.

-The NYT has a little slide show and a story about the summers Martin Luther King Jr. spent working in the tobacco fields around Simsbury.

-Saturday, June 11, 2016, is Connecticut Open House Day. Yesterday, I was happy to return to WNPR's Where We Live to participate in a conversation about some of the best attractions to visit on Open House Day (or any other day, really!) You can listen to the show here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Secret Garden

It seems I'm all about secrets lately. Last week I wrote about a hidden trail in the Salem woods and how Connecticut's "average" places can be pretty amazing. This week's post is about a very different sort of lesser-known attraction in the opposite corner of the state, and there's nothing average about it.

The Hollister House Garden in Washington is a lovely surprise in a region of Connecticut that's already renowned for lovely surprises. Inspired by classic English gardens, George Schoellkopf, then a dealer of early American antiques and folk art, began in 1979 to transform the land around his 18th-century country house. Out of a rugged slope once used for agriculture, he carved an exquisite terraced garden, the evolution of which continues today.

Wandering between bright and fragrant flowers, you're led along paths that twist and turn and divide. Every choice reveals a different view, whether it's another path, lined with blooms; an intimate nook, where a chair awaits; or a grand vista that gives you a greater sense of the garden's scope. Through archways and hedges, you glimpse perfectly situated benches and expertly laid out plantings. The garden's different sections, whose names ("herb garden," "walled garden," "sunken terrace") hint at their appeal, blend seamlessly with the natural landscape that surrounds them. A brook flows throughout the property, forming a little waterfall in one secluded spot and, elsewhere, a calm surface to stroll or sit beside and stare out at the old stone walls climbing the hill in the distance.

Anchoring the garden is the Gideon Hollister Homestead, built around 1770 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Hollister was a prominent resident of Washington, a soldier and farmer who also operated a sawmill and trading post on this land. The simple farmhouse he built remains largely unchanged to this day. And while most of the attention paid to the Hollister House Garden goes, rightfully, to the garden itself, what struck me was the way the landscape - both what grows naturally and what has been carefully planted - enhances the sense of the home's history. While a garden of this type would not have been found here in Gideon Hollister's day, its mix of formal and informal elements nonetheless creates an atmosphere that complements and magnifies the charm of the house and the land. (This is what you might call the essential philosophy of the Litchfield Hills: respect and preserve the past, and add to it only what makes it even prettier.)

Today, Holister House is still owned by George Schoellkopf (who, with his partner, lives here part-time) as well as by a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the property. The garden is open to the public (and almost free; there's a $5 suggested donation) on Fridays and Saturdays from May through October, and for groups by appointment. It also occasionally serves as a spectacular setting for special events. (See the Hollister House Garden website for details.)

I don't always tell readers of this bog to run out and experience some sight or attraction right now, but this time I'm going to strongly encourage you get up to Litchfield County and see this garden before it closes for the season. There are only so many weekends in a summer, and you will not regret spending part of one of them here.


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