I’ve been coming to a writer’s retreat in Ashfield, MA, the beginning of the Pioneer Valley, for seven years now, and I’m still mystified by this place: The Ashfield population as of 2010 was 1737. The median income was about $52,875. Much of Ashfield looks like this:
Yet, here’s what they have that I don’t at home:
- a wonderful hardware store owned by two women with a corgi. In the winter the woodstove cranks and the ladies never stop being cheerful.
- A much better than average pizza place, last time I checked.
- An amazing meeting place called Elmer’s that has a few groceries, serves New Orleans-style breakfast, lunches, and dinners on Friday. It has a real bakery that makes sure the town is never without excellent scones, muffins and homemade bread.
I’m pretty sure the people at Elmer’s have no idea there is bad coffee in the world. The Elmer’s staff serves their organic, free-trade coffees with an “of course, here’s your wide, white cup of strong, milky latte (milk from the organic cows up the street), and it will go perfectly with a newspaper and a seat on Elmer’s front porch; can I get you anything else?”
Freshly baked baguette in satchel, life is perfect.
The one gas station in town has a small convenience store attached to it. Today I bought some local honey and freshly picked blueberries there. This 7-11-look-alike is also a source for yet another wonderful homemade bread. That’s two homemade bread sources in a half-mile, and I swear the hardware store sometimes sells homemade bread, so make it three.
The mystery endures: why in a tiny town like Ashfield, MA are homemade bread, good coffee, and local blueberries convenience foods, and where I live they are rare?
I’m not done yet. The other thing Ashfield has is a raw milk. Fabulous yogurt. Local Paneer cheese.
I consume more yogurt than those Russian ladies who lived to be 120, so when I discovered Sidehill Dairy’s yogurt the first time I came to Ashfield I knew I would be able to write well here. Go to the Sidehill Dairy website just for some great reading.
Amy Klippenstein and Paul Lacynski are the Sidehill people. They have 35 Normandes and Jersey cows. The website reminds us the fields in which the cows graze (the cows have names) is certified organic, but sometimes the winter hay is not, only because Amy and Paul would rather purchase their local friends’ hay which is grown well but not necessarily organic, rather than increase the fossil fuel burden of trucked organic hay.
Sidehill sells raw milk, which many people claim is much healthier as the nutrients, including vitamin D, have not been blasted out of it through pasteurization, a process that saved many lives but supposedly made what’s left of milk less worthy of consuming.
Sidehill milk isn’t homogenized either, meaning it’s not shaken so much that globules of cream blend in with the milk. In other words, the Sidehill cream floats to the top. The Sidehill people reference a study that links homogenization to heart disease. Those little fat particles have something in them called xanthine oxidase that causes plaque. Before we started homogenizing milk, those XO guys were large, and got caught in our gut and digested properly. With homogenization, the particles are so small they get through, and head to the arteries. That’s a simplified version, but here’s a link to a discussion of it.
The Sidehill yogurt is light and tastes like fields; I swear. It’s a bit runny right now, and that’s because, the Sidehill website tells me, the proteins in the pastures grasses take a dive mid-summer, making the yogurt a little thinner. I still love it.
Although Sidehill sells their yogurt far and wide (I’ve even found it in Formaggio in Cambridge), Massachusetts law requires that farms can only sell raw milk from their premises; Here is the Sidehill store, a small hut with a couple of refrigerators in the middle of some Ashfield woods. Just follow the signs.
My favorite discovery this year is the Sidehill Paneer cheese, which I brought straight home to serve with the local tomato I bought at the convenience store.