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Mountain Home Magazine

Hat’s Off to the Finger Lakes

Laura Winter Falk

I’m not a hat wearer and don one only when the wind and falling snow are fierce. Matter of fact, I can still hear my mother asking those three typically motherly sentences as I headed for the door: “Did you take a sweater? Is your underwear clean? Are you wearing a hat?” This varied only slightly with the season, with a scarf replacing the sweater in winter. But there was always the “hat” question. You know, Irish skin, the sun, etc.

Despite her entreaties, the hat came off almost immediately on leaving the family grounds. However, lately I’ve been thinking of investing in some sort of cap and then finding one of those places that will embroider a message front and center above the cap brim. “Tour Guide,” I’ll have it say, because invariably I find myself driving out- of-town guests and visiting family around this area I love so much. We hit favorite places: Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon, Watkins Glen, and every art and historical society museum in this part of the woods—and even the woods themselves. (I’ve got a few spots I lovingly call “Kodak Moment.”) And invariably my cargo will ask about the wineries. They also want to know about the “good” restaurants. Heck, most of my friends have a connection to the culinary arts, so that’s natural.

Around and around the lakes we go, stopping at my favorite wineries and eateries. (If only there was a bridge in mid-Seneca Lake!) We chat, admire the waterfalls, and gossip about others in our chosen field. But I always thought something was missing. While I knew a few facts about the Finger Lakes, it wasn’t until I read the new book called Culinary History of the Finger Lakes: From the Three Sisters to Riesling that I realized there are fascinating stories to be told that will keep those visitors enthralled. Perhaps they’d be so grateful for this outpouring of statistics and lore that they’d offer to buy lunch or dinner. One hopes.

The “three sisters” in the subtitle intrigued me. I had never heard that line except when I was dragged by my mother to a Syracuse ladies’ store with that name to sit patiently while she decided on a blouse or (worse) a slip. Who knew that it was a title bestowed on corn, beans, and squash by the Native Americans in this part of the country?

The Start of Grape Culture

The book tells its story in chronological style, so it starts back in the 1820s. Who would have thought that a clergyman would start the Finger Lakes as a grape-growing area—at least on a good scale? In 1829 a Reverend Bostwick planted Catawba and Isabella varieties on his Hammondsport land, and by 1860 there were 3,000 acres along the lakes. By 1900 there were 20,000 acres and fifty wineries in the area. These vintners and grape growers prospered because of access to the Erie Canal provided by two canals: Cayuga- Seneca and the Crooked Lake Canals. The area became the “fruit basket” of the state, and shipments of fruit were sent west to Chicago and southeast to New York City.

Growers had help. The New York State Agricultural Society was formed in 1832, and this led to the founding of Cornell University and its School of Agriculture. The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva (established in 1880) became linked with Cornell in 1923. It is thriving today, helping farmers get the best out of their land. And Cornell’s Cooperative Extension provides education on many levels for farm folk and consumers and many locations in our area.

More Fascinating Stuff

You’ll find lots of interesting stories in this book researched and written by Ithaca resident Laura Winter Falk. The historical narrative begins with

that 1829 start of grape growing and wine making. It moves along, with each chapter ending with recipes and a suggestion of what regional wines to serve with them (recipe and suggestion both provided by an area chef). There are seven chapters and about eighteen dishes in all. I might add that the author lists most of the esteemed restaurants in the Finger Lakes area. It’s a great resource.

I was fascinated by the tales of what the surviving area wineries did to partially offset the impact of Prohibition. Fascinating, too, is the history of the introduction of hybrid wines and then the great breakthrough to Vinifera grapes. This is the riveting story of Charles Fournier and Dr. Konstantin Frank. Both men are the reason “Riesling” is part of the title of the book. Today that wine has a starring role. The two men discovered this grape’s affinity for this wine region: the result is superior wines with “a unique balance of fruit, mineral and acid character.” The wines are heralded all over the world, winning competition after competition. I also learned (I love statistics) that between 2006 and 2011 the total vineyard land grew by 50 percent.

How to Give a Fig

I got to the last recipe in the book and realized I had to share it with you. So I got permission from the recipe’s creator, Emma Frisch of Ithaca. She has her own food blog called Frisch Kitchen ( She’s been a finalist of the Food Network Star and is a real cheerleader for the area’s bounty. This is a recipe that can be made any time of the year, but why not save this recipe to whip up a batch for people you love on February 14?

Here goes—so simple and so good. As with the other recipes in the book, Emma suggests a pairing. In this case it’s with Ports of New York Red Meleau, thus proving that the area’s output can include fortified wine. (And before I forget it, you’ll enjoy reading about the sparkling wine that has been an area staple for years—and has won a great number of medals here and abroad for several wineries. I won’t call it “Champagne” because this ain’t France, friends. Its quality can stand on its own. Meanwhile you can also open a bottle of that to enjoy with your truffles.)

Fig and Pecan Truffles

Yields 24 truffles

  • 1⁄2 lb. dried black mission figs
  • 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 2 Tbsp. water
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 3⁄4 c. heavy cream (try to avoid ultra-pasteurized) 1 c. pecans
  • 1/3 c. cocoa powder

Remove the stems from the figs (Emma says “take a nibble”). In a small saucepan over low heat (I used my double boiler placed over but not touching simmering water) add the chocolate chips and water. Stir until smooth.

Stir in the butter until the chocolate becomes smoother and shiny. Drizzle in the heavy cream stirring to mix everything thoroughly. Remove from heat.

Stir in the fig pieces. Then pour the mixture into a deep baking dish and refrigerate until the mixture hardens. (Emma advises licking the pot. I heartily agree.)

While the hardening takes place, prepare the cocoa and pecans. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Grind the pecans into a fine meal in a blender or food processor and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes (this develops flavor). Transfer the pecans to a plate and toss with the cocoa.

Remove the chocolate from the refrigerator and, using your hands (your best tools), roll the chocolate into small balls and roll them in the pecan and cocoa mixture. Serve or store in the refrigerator.

In the back of the book you’ll find a bibliography, a handy index, and a listing of the recipes—about eighteen in all, as well as a biography of the author. I learned that Ms. Falk is the president of Experience! The Finger Lakes Touring and events company based in her hometown, Ithaca. No wonder the book is a valuable resource for an amateur tour guide like me.

Capping It Off

Wasn’t I talking about caps at the start of this? Proofreading this has given me a brilliant idea. I’m uncapping a bottle of a local, delicious bubbly—a nightcap to cap off my review.

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