Regional Smoked Trout from Vitas Gerulaitas' Aunt; International Honey
A friendly old Lithuanian woman, aunt of the late Vitas Gerulaitis, purveys excellent smoked trout near Woodstock. Actually, she said, Smoked Fish & Honey is her son's place, but he wasn't around when we stopped in, after hours of determined searching. It's a house, with the entrance to the store part via the back porch. Finally finding it would have been doubly momentous, because of the high quality of the fish, even without the lady's sad tale about the tennis great's bereaved mother, or the spaghetti squash she gave us for free.
The quest brought us to the leafiest road we happened upon during a weekend of wandering around the Catskills, gazing at foliage. Not shown on our Hagstrom state map, it's called Wittenburg Rd., and it runs south from Rte. 212, starting just west of the irritating tourist village with the famous name. Peaking autumn turned Wittenburg into a gently curving tunnel of spectacular color, with blazing red-and-yellow mountains intermittently visible in the distance. We had it to ourselves.
We went several miles down Rte. 212 to Ashokan Reservoir (where some of our tap water supposedly comes from; I'm happy to report it appeared to be sufficiently guarded) without noticing any house numbers. The Best of the Hudson Valley & Catskill Mountains, Fourth Edition, lists Smoked Fish & Honey at "189 Wittenburg Road, Bearsville." The special appeal of fish and honey for sale in a place called Bearsville stood out from the book's other, no doubt fine, recommendations. But locating Bearsville didn't get us to Wittenburg (the book should've mentioned that you pick it up near Zen Mountain Monastery). And the address "189," we learned during our second tour of the whole of the road, is incorrect. Cruising in the other direction proved rewarding anyway, as we spotted a small pond with a beaver lodge in its middle.
On our third pass the setting was still lovely, though it was getting late for lunch. No signal on the cellphone. At least if we found Fish & Honey of Bearsville, we figured, our appetites would be appropriately ursine. I assumed the Zen monks wouldn't know from animal products, so instead asked the proprietor of Wittenburg Market for directions. It's a tiny general store?the only well-marked business along the way. Inside a woman was baking rolls. The man at the counter wore denim overalls, tortoise-shell glasses and a thick, gray beard. I asked, jokingly, if he was from around there. He replied, seriously, that he lives in Florida and was only up for the week. Yet he knew where Fish & Honey was! Three doors away, the house with the old fire truck on the front lawn, he pointed. We bought a pair of still-hot sandwich rolls from the Floridian non-mountain man, and thanked him.
It took much noisy shuffling and a few shouted hellos to bring Vitas Gerulaitis' aunt to the retail portion of her home. In this kitchen converted for the sale of homemade foodstuffs, a framed collage of Sports Illustrated photos and 80s magazine ads, all featuring the same outrageous blond mane, invites questions. (It wouldn't invite anything other than respectful silence from the point of view of visitors equipped with the powers of spontaneous recall necessary to access, despite a context of smoked seafood anticipation, seven-year-old news reports of Gerulaitis' tragic and senseless death.) It was the mishandling of a two-dollar auto part that led to the athlete's carbon-monoxide poisoning, which in turn caused the mental breakdown of his mother, our conversant's sister. She probably tells the story as often as she explains that she has no filets, only whole smoked salmon and trout, $6 and $7 per half-pound. It didn't feel like that, though.
We left with two trout, a squeeze-bear of fresh honey and renewed appreciation for the unknowable way in which paths meander and obliquely converge. In her backyard our hostess insisted that we also carry away at least one spaghetti squash from the overflowing bushels there. We tried to politely refuse, but she insisted. "They're for nothing," she said with her accent, somehow communicating that she didn't have a use for them, but we did.
The first trout yielded two divine sandwiches with surprisingly little effort. Whole smoked fish flesh can be hard to wrestle off the bone. This stuff, though, was cooked through in smoke. The aroma was fulsome?undoubtedly still haunting the car, which isn't ours?yet the trout's true flavor was not overwhelmed. Wild, fresh fish, it stood up to whatever Lithuanian smoke-seasoning technique it'd been subjected to without drying or rolling over. A few autumns ago, I had a smoked trout epiphany with peppered eggs at a pub in the English Lake Country. This time, I ate with my hands, on a pile of crisp orange leaves near a stream, and squeezed honey onto my tongue for dessert.
As I write, our second Smoked Fish & Honey trout is making every last item in the refrigerator smell smoky just like it, as if to make certain we don't forget it after it's gone. As if we could anyway, let alone wanted to.
(My plan to make a glorious bagel sandwich from the smoked trout we took home was doubly foiled. The fish lost its moisture while exuding its scent. Worse, the bagel I'd picked up with asinine trust at Chelsea's Whole Foods turned out to be a prime example of that dreaded anti-bagel mockery, the White-Bread Ring. The hubris of the Whole Foods corporation is impressive. Maybe it serves them well where there are no other gourmet supermarket options. I'm sure bread-rings go over fine in Austin and Boulder. But to subject New Yorkers to this masquerading goyish travesty, as if neither toothsome crust nor doughy interior would be missed as long as the overall shape were correct, takes balls of a size not usually associated with the organics industry. Damn thing cost more than a real bagel, too. Message to Whole Foods' managers: Balducci's, Zabar's, Gourmet Garage, Agata & Valentina, Dean & DeLuca, etc., will gladly crush you and your offensive sham of a so-called bagel. And get those ridiculous carrots out of your store-made soups, too.)
Smoked Fish & Honey, 403 Wittenburg Rd., near the general store, Bearsville, NY, 845-679-4514.
Greeks Bearing Honey
The honey from Bearsville was decent?syrupy and golden light, with a soaring sweetness suggestive of fresh flowers. Yet it was absolutely slaughtered in a side-by-side taste test against this Greek product that my good-food-questing companion brought back from Germany. The jar was a gift from her hotel in Frankfurt, in recognition of Greece being this year's make-believe host nation at the International Book Fair (actually held, always, to the enduring chagrin of my girlfriend and every other publishing-industry professional with culinary taste, in Frankfurt).
The honey's brand name is Thassitiko, from the island Thassos, which is in the northernmost part of the Aegean. It's a brown, fast-pouring honey, with whole walnuts in the jar. I'm not a big fan of walnuts, overgrown stepchildren of the American mixed-nuts family that they are. You'd think that in honey they'd turn to gum. The Thassitiko walnuts, though, are crunchy and comforting in the way of old, well-oiled wood. Tasting the honey itself isn't like licking a ray of seasonable sunlight, made sticky for consumption. That's the Catskill homemade?almost pure pollen, it seemed. What the bees and Greeks of Thassos made is not a seasoning, but a dish. Its gooeyness isn't off-putting. At first taste, you might want it on your skin, even. Sample tests devolve into decadent, spooned meals. I can't describe the flavor any better than to say it makes me forget myself.
Garden of Eden markets are probably Manhattan's best spot for high-end and imported honeys. (Total brand Greek yogurt-with-a-sidecar-of-honey, carried by the 3rd-Ave.-and-23rd-St. Garden, provided our introduction to fine honey's everyday uses.) A recent survey of GoE shelves found two different kinds of Leatherwood from Tasmania, several farm brands from upstate, a white honey from Hawaii and plenty more. There was only one Greek kind. Called Orino, it has walnuts and comes in the exact same inverted-teardrop-shaped jar as Thassitiko. But it's from Crete, not Thassos.
I lit out for Astoria to check the Greek markets there. Christos Grocery, on 23rd Ave., just off 31st St., seemed my best bet. It's a tiny place, practically overflowing with shipped-in cheeses, olives and seafood. The clientele was old-country, the customer service vigorous. Aromas were extreme. Standing upright became difficult. I recall disappointment, then a transaction.
On the Manhattan-bound W train, I discovered that I'd acquired a one-pound jar of Attiki honey, some canned grape leaves (my favorite Mediterranean hotel-room snack?not a wise purchase for any other reason, except maybe camping) and a bunch of sardines from the salt-filled micro-barrel next to the cash register.
Attiki honey is also brown, and quick through its curved glass container. No nuts. No mention of island origins on the label. No enrapturing flavor, either. It is ethereally sweet, with flavor stronger than the domestic yellows but just as flat. I suspect it's made for tea, and will come in handy this flu season. After our single jar of Thassitiko runs out, and that won't be long now because of all the "testing," Attiki and Orino (and perhaps one or more of the intriguing Italian acacias available online, as well) will have to tide us over until next Frankfurt. Let me know if you're traveling there or to Thassos sooner than October '02.
Meanwhile, I have some sardine-related work to do. What I got at Christos turned out to be a fifth of a pound for $1.18. It was the perfect amount of fishies to fill a halved Portuguese roll. They'd been precooked in the prime of youth for bones-and-all munching. Boldly, I made my sandwich without first rinsing the salt from the sardines' moist skin, thinking myself a robust and sea-loving fellow. I lasted two bites. After a thorough rinse, I found the desalinized, reassembled sandwich more enjoyable. It even tasted slightly of sardine. Again, though, I had to halt progress for fear of becoming desiccated.
With less than 50 cents' worth of salty sardine remaining, I set a pot of water to boil. My idea was to imitate the East Village's excellent Italian restaurant Frank, which used to serve an entree that arrives as nothing more than a portion of plain pasta topped by a few of Frank's fearsome, custom-supplied anchovies. You toss the bowl around and the little fish disintegrate, coating the spaghetti with an evenly dispersed layer of undiluted 'chovy power. I had fresh ziti on hand.
It worked okay. Sardine meat has more structural integrity than anchovies, but, tossed with my ziti, the desired fishy paste did indeed form. The remnant nuggets proved good for nothing (except maybe camping), so I set them aside before enjoying my jury-rigged sardine treat. This was lunch as Greek comedy?the ziti-toss made for a muscularly oceanic yet refreshingly edible third act. Next time I'll try soaking 'em overnight. I'll let you know.
Garden of Eden, 310 3rd Ave. (betw. 23rd & 24th Sts.), 228-4681; 162 W. 23rd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 675-6300; 7 E. 14th St. (betw. 5th Ave. & B'way), 255-4200.
Christos Grocery, 29-27 23rd Ave. (31st St.), Queens, 718-545-3931.
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