07/18/2013 03:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Shangri-La in Our Own Backyard


From summer's scorching urban perch, do you ever long for fresher, greener pastures?

When heat rises from the concrete in waves, humidity hangs on the air in heavy vapor, and warmed chewing gum pulls up off the sidewalk and sticks to the soles of my shoes, I find myself gravitating to the farmer's market. Through the steamy streets it beckons like an oasis, bright with colorful vegetables. The leafy greens seem displaced in the city smog, evidence of a more verdant world.

On a free day this week, I went looking for such a verdant world and found one only 30 miles out of Manhattan. Up along the west side of the mighty Hudson River, the Stone Barns Center lies nestled in the hills just north of Sleepy Hollow. After blistering midtown, the farm is a sight for sore eyes, a balm on the senses, 80 acres of green fields and foliage that seem to suck up the sticky haze and exhale balmy calm.

Built in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. as a dairy farm, then remodeled by Peggy Rockefeller for cattle breeding, the stone barns look as substantial as Chartres. They stand tall and stately, with slate roofs and conical towers, as expansive and generous as their philanthropic donor was in dedicating them to local food and organic agriculture.

The center as is exists today, a memorial to Peggy Rockefeller who died in 1996, was created by her husband David and her daughter, Peggy Dulany, who together co-chair the current board of directors. They have succeeded in creating a nearly Platonic idyll: butterflies flit above the flowers, bees hum among the blossoms, and sweet zephyrs waft in the air, even downwind from the routing pigs. Strolling through the gardens' neat pathways, it seems a veritable Eden.

The center is bustling with developing life forms, including livestock, produce and children. Kids gather eggs from the hen house, some of their tiny hands no bigger than the eggs. Vegetables growing in the neat fields and greenhouses include the expected tomatoes and basil as well as more unusual fare such as hakurei turnips and finale fennel. Compost culled from farm waste contains field cuttings, manure and restaurant scraps; it's as dark and rich as coffee grinds and keeps the beds and fields fertile. Even the outhouse waste is recycled back into the farm; a circle of life, indeed.

The poultry quarters are as big as some New York apartments. Turkeys roost and coo in airy shelters, the flock flows organically around the hillside like schooling fish. Chickens of all shapes and sizes speckle the fields. They move around the farm in coops on wheels, like nomadic tinkers. The portable henhouse parks and lowers a plank to let the chickens down into the field where they strut and peck within the confines of a mesh fence. When they've had their way with that bit of ground, they file back up the plank into the little house and trundle off to greener pastures.

Like the ancient Greek youth who led privileged lives until they reached the age of sacrifice, sheep and pigs live a luxurious life before butchering. With generous pens and bucolic turnout, they too are rotated around the farm to keep the fields fresh with balanced nutrients. Like their Rockefeller benefactors, these animals enjoy the best the Hudson valley has to offer.

The bounty of the fields is available in the shop. Along with a varied selection of cookbooks -- I bought one on modern Persian cuisine -- are a range of farm products from long-stemmed garlic to pickled sunchokes. I picked up bacon, lettuce and tomato fixings for one of the best BLTs I've ever made.

The café offered irresistible squares of finger-food desert for the trip back to Manhattan -- pistachio shortbread, a melt-in-your-mouth pairing of a butter-base biscuit topped with a nutty aspic. While driving south I tried to keep the crumbly bits in my mouth from dropping into my lap, savoring the flavors along with the day's experience. The visit left a good taste in my mouth, in every way.

Most lasting, I took a sense of comfort from the farm and its great stone barns, which lend a sense of permanence to the place. While the flora and fauna transform seasonally around them, their substantial structures inherently suggest that they and their mission will endure. In our era of shifting sands, rising seas and exonerated murderers, it's reassuring to know the great stone barns will stand sentry again next year to preside over another growing season. And provide a respite from the inevitable heat.