January 29, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 37°F


Farm-to-Table tours take guests to local farm and winery

A van steers toward Lively Run Goat Farm. From within, the passengers catch the sight of two horses’ rumps, their tails bouncing gaily to and fro. A road leads up to the main barn, and on the porch a sign reads “Cheese Shop.” On the steps, Buster, the farm’s resident hound, barks ardently, his breath steamy in the air.

These are the first moments of Experience! The Finger Lakes’ Farm-to-Table Wine and Cooking Class Tour, an all-day venture that president and owner Laura Falk said she hopes will change the way people view farm-to-table dining in the Finger Lakes. Falk said the tour embraces her and her husband’s dining philosophy, which focuses on fresh, locally produced ingredients that go from the ground to the plate with little lingering in between.

“The idea was to tell the story of what farm-to-table is all about, why it is important to this community, and then actually have you live it,” Falk said.

The seven-hour tour, which gives patrons an opportunity to explore a farm and winery, and enjoy the spoils of local Finger Lakes markets, is a labor of love on Falk’s part. She said she hopes at the end of the experience, patrons will have a newfound appreciation for their cuisine.

“It’s all about learning where your food is coming from so you can appreciate the passion that goes into it,” Falk said.

The guests are served a meal of chicken, lentil bean stew, a roll and a house salad Saturday.
Rachel Orlow/The IthacanThe guests are served a meal of chicken, lentil bean stew, a roll and a house salad Saturday.

The tour features three locales, all of which immerse visitors with a behind-the-scenes look at the processes of three local establishments: Lively Run Goat Farm, Silver Thread Vineyards and Red Newt Bistro.

The tour begins at Lively Run Goat Farm, a dairy farm that dishes out flavorful cheeses, owned and operated by Susanne Messmer.

Within Lively Run’s walls sit behemoth pasteurizers, which Messmer dates back to the 1920s. Along the walls, plump cheesecloth sacks hang one after another. They drip as moisture seeps from the soon-to-be cheese they envelop. This process hardens the cheese, with softer cheeses like feta dangling for less time than their harder cheeses, such as their famous Cayuga Blue.  

Every locale featured in the Farm-to-Table tour allows the tour group to let their palates explore samples of Lively Run’s array of cheeses. These include a savory feta and an aromatic chèvre with a peppercorn twist.

Shannon and Paul Brock, the owners of the tour’s second stop, Silver Thread Vineyards, said they take pride in their local identity and their homegrown product.

“We’re a small winery,” Shannon said. “We grow our own grapes, we make our own wine here … we’re really all about making a product that is expressing the climate and the soil and the people that live here in the Finger Lakes.”

Shannon stands in the front yard of Silver Thread Vineyards, which is flanked by a view of Cayuga Lake. She leads guests into the winery’s barrel-rooms, educating listeners about the winemaking process while filling a few glasses. It’s this behind-the-scenes material, Falk said, that demonstrates the passion in the establishment.

“The wine experience is about tasting the wines but also learning about the how the wine is getting into the bottle,” Falk said. “You’re learning about the process. You’re feeling the passion behind the product.”

Tour guide Rachel VerValin said she believes giving patrons a peek behind closed doors also increases the intrigue of Experience!’s tour.

“It blends all the great things about hospitality — teaching people about what they’re eating and what they’re drinking and telling them interesting stories about it and just making a memorable experience,” VerValin said.

Celebrity chef Samantha Buyskes prepares a meal for the Farm-to-Table tour guest at Red Newt Bistro. Buyskes has been featured on The Food Network
Rachel Orlow/The IthacanCelebrity chef Samantha Buyskes prepares a meal for the Farm-to-Table tour guest at Red Newt Bistro. Buyskes has been featured on The Food Network’s “Chopped.”

As the glasses empty at Silver Thread and suppertime looms, the tour journeys to Red Newt Bistro. Upon entering, cheese sampling and wine tasting is already under way, and an espresso machine hisses in the background. Guests are lead into the bistro’s kitchen, where chef Samantha Buyskes, who is known for her appearance on the cooking show “Chopped,” leads a cooking demonstration.

Buyskes leads the class effortlessly, consistently shifting her attention from her burners to explain her technique, process and ingredients. In the spirit of the tour, Buyskes informs onlookers about the source of each component of her meal.

“My focus for the last decade has been on sourcing locally,” Buyskes said. “Our butter is locally made, all natural, from grass-fed cows,” she continued, holding a hefty jug of butter, just one of her many locally acquired ingredients.

The kitchen experience is highly interactive. While two other chefs busy about, crafting dishes, Buyskes invites guests to get an up-close view of the preparation of the meals they will soon devour.

Patrons ladle servings of lentil bean stew into petite ceramic cups. Its flavor is powerfully spiced and delightfully zesty. Paired with a sumptuous Lively Run goat cheese salad and finishing with caramel-drizzled chai honey cakes, the meal is a showcase for the flavors available in local markets.

However, a full belly isn’t the only thing patrons will leave the tour with. Perhaps the biggest take-home is the sentiment to take note of local markets, despite some elevated prices, something tour guest Basilia Zagrobelny of Ottawa said as she mused over the entire experience.

“I think that’s the message,” Zagrobelny said. “Don’t be afraid to make the effort, don’t be afraid to spend a couple extra dollars for a quality product or a local product if it means supporting someone’s livelihood.”

With the sun nearing the horizon, the van zips away from Red Newt Bistro. The tour has concluded, but Falk said she hopes her guests’ journeys have not. She said she hopes their new knowledge about the Finger Lakes simply whet an appetite that will keep them coming back.

“The goal is that you’ve come here and we have just scratched the surface of understanding why we live here,” Falk said. “Why you’ll just be dying to come back again. Hopefully, we have ignited a passion for what is going on here that will have people call back and say, ‘Laura, what are we doing this year?’”

The next tour is on April 20. The tours will run until July 20.

Steven Pirani can be reached at spirani1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @stevenpirani