Isabella Freedman
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Isabella Freedman Retreat. A Wonderful World in NYC’s Backyard

Enjoy the pictures

Several friends had been telling me about the Isabella Freedman Retreat, at the border of Connecticut and the Berkshires (hence the name, Connecticut Berkshires), just two hours of GWB, so I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Sarah Chandler at the Retreat to give a couple cooking demos the weekend that followed Shavouot, which celebrated the merging of their farm, Adamah, with Hazon. The theme of the weekend, The Torah of Food, was right up my alley. My husband and I went with my daughter in law Ruthie, and my granddaughters, Musia, Sarah and Chaya Rachel.

The excitement began early for us about twenty miles from the place, as we drove up the quaint roads that led up to it and promised a great treat. Miles and miles of breathtaking scenery, state parks, rivers, lush vegetation (the Appalachian Trail runs right through the Retreat).  The children were not the only ones squealing with delight, and couldn’t get enough of the pastoral setting of the Retreat: the lake, the beautiful mountains, the walking trails, the exhilarating smell of blossoms in the air, and the easygoing charm that pervaded every nook and cranny.

We found our rooms comfortable and welcoming. Workshops took place throughout the weekend. The girls wanted to shape the challah loaves with the delicious whole grain dough the baker, Daniella (a.k.a Danny) had prepared for shaping. Many little hands braided, unbraided and rebraided the loaves, which served as our bread for the whole Shabbos. Dinner, served buffet style, as were all the meals, was a real showcase for the Retreat and their philosophy of food. Except for the two meals I demonstrated, all meals were prepared by the talented Chef Adam SaNogueira, whom I had met on several occasions in recent years in New York where he used to live, one of them an Upsher (boy’s third birthday party) for my nephew Ari Kirschenbaum‘s son, Chabad Prospect Heights, so I already knew what fantastic meals he was capable of whipping up. There are three incredible recipes in particular, make that four, I would love to coax out of Chef Adam, who is now the Retreat’s full-time Chef: His meatloaf, his potato mushroom burgers, his lusty kimchi bloody marys (served at kiddush time with grey salt-dipped radishes, smoked salmon-wrapped goat cheese, and rugalach), and his three-grain hot cereal. Chef Adam, please share!

The reverence for food was evident everywhere and at all times. None of those wasteful buffet displays so many hotels are known for which are frowned upon even as guests gorge on them. These spreads are short and sweet, to the point and wonderful, each meal a fully-stated expression of their philosophy of food: wholesome and nourishing. I was reminded of the lyrics of an old French song: “It was nothing but a piece of bread, but in my soul it burned like a big feast” We couldn’t get enough of the  delicious braised mustard greens, fermented veggies, crisp pickles, yogurt, muffins and granola (all for sale too: Inquire about what farm stands they will be at!). There was no mistaking the respect for the sizzling freshness of the foods, all of which are grown right on their farm, and the no-nonsense purposeful use they make of absolutely everything they grow; some people’s compost is some chickens’ dinner, from discarded egg shells to potato peels and absolutely everything in between, nothing whatsoever goes to waste. If we didn’t take the children’s free-form shaping of the bread loaves too seriously before shabbos, we polished them off at meal time: why oh why can’t we find challah so delicious at our neighborhood markets? All the wonderful meats are supplied by Naftali and Anna Hanau at Grow and Behold (hey Naftali, did you get my message? I want to tinker with some goat meat, and try some delicious stuff with it. Seriously! Can we please discuss this?)

My cooking demos took place Saturday afternoon (Mostly Raw: all our ingredients were prepped in advance) and Sunday morning (Whole Foods: Ancient Additions to the Modern Kitchen), and all the food we made at these two demos constituted all the food served at the meals that followed the demos, for all the guests,  a tour de force of sorts, which was made possible by the priceless assistance of Chef Adam and his kitchen crew. Our fun salads were a huge hit on Saturday night dinner: Celery salad, radish salad, fennel salad, panzanella, quinoa tabouleh, fresh corn dill salad, Moroccan spicy lettuce chick pea salad, fruit salad. Sunday lunch we served the mostly-Moroccan meal we prepared at the demo: steel-cut oat soup; cabbage apple salad; fennel, olive and lemon tajine (yes, with preserved lemons); sea bass with pomegranate sweet and sour sauce (oh boy!); almond, honey and olive oil spread (Amlou), date nut power bars. All recipes were excerpted from my latest cookbook.

I still can’t believe that Saturday morning we climbed up to the spectacular overlook point, with three children age four to nine: What troupers they were! Oh by the way, please remind me NOT to go climbing with a Pucci-print knit shabbos dress, sandals and delicate long turquoise earrings, definitely not climbing gear. Saturday night we made lip balm and kimchi, and sang around a camp fire. One of the guests started…. and actually finished,  Miss American Pie, belting it out with a little help from his friends. Sunday morning the children milked the goats (fresh goat milk: wow!), delightedly submitting to their licking and romping: Go inner-city kids! They went boating while I gave my demo, then came back just in time to “sell” my cookbooks to the guests. One of them even told a friend who wanted to play “I can’t come now, I am working!”

Taking everyone back from this sprawling magical setting to our congested city dwellings threatened to be a sobering experience: There are wonderful things you just can’t take with you! Thank you everyone at the Retreat, Sarah and Liz and Adam and Danny and many more, the devoted staff members, all the wonderful guest speakers and all the great people we met: We will be back Gd willing!