Agnes Devereux of the Village Tea Room
Agnes Devereux never intended to own an inn or a restaurant. As a young girl in Ireland, she saw how hard her mother worked at it. But then, living and working in France and later in New York (where she tended bar at one of the temples of gastronomy), Devereux never strayed far from her roots, which seem anchored to the kitchen. What started as a tea room (perhaps the ultimate demonstration of hospitality and civility) quickly morphed into a full-scale restaurant. Devereux opened The Village Tea Room in New Paltz two years ago, serving traditional Irish fare (along with Italian, Indian, French and American) and— though she had never baked professionally— spectacular baked goods.
I had an interior design business in Manhattan before we moved up here. I had worked at Union Square Café—I was always fascinated with the food there, and the farmers’ market. I cooked a lot, just for fun. I lived in Paris for two years before I came to New York. The woman I worked for wasn’t very much into food, but the culture of France is about food. I came to New York and I would see incredible food and taste it—and it would taste like nothing. I would see this gorgeous apple and buy it and have a mouthful of mealy stuff. When I discovered the farmers’ market in Union Square, I thought it was amazing. That was the first time I had Ronnybrook Farm milk, Bread Alone bread—all the things that come from the Hudson Valley.
We came here for the Waldorf school. We were expecting a second child and wanted a Waldorf education and couldn’t afford it in Manhattan. I wanted to bring my background together—my interior design background, my restaurant background, my love of food—and so we came up with this idea to do a little tea room.
Our house was a bed and breakfast when we bought it and it came with this building, which was a rental. The oldest part dates to 1833, and to bring it up to code we had to do an incredible amount of work. For instance, the ceilings were about 6 feet 3 inches, and code is 7 feet 6 inches, so all the ceilings had to be raised. A million other things had to be done. Oh my gosh, we would never have made any money just selling tea and scones, so we expanded the whole business plan to make it a full-scale restaurant.
We reused as much stuff as possible. We had to pull out a lot of really nice old wood because it didn’t meet code anymore, so we couldn’t use it structurally. The counter downstairs is faced with a lot of the old wood. The beams were put back up decoratively. The shelves that hold the wine downstairs—that’s all old wood from the building. We put linoleum on the floor instead of vinyl because there’s no off-gassing and it’s a very green product, and it has an old-fashioned look, as well. It’s made from linseed oil and flax and has natural antibacterial properties, so I think it’s a really good thing for a restaurant.
Her enthusiasm for the restaurant has never faltered, despite the monumental difficulties of converting it into a modern restaurant. In fact, if anything, the project widened her circle of friends.
We moved here and became part of the [Waldorf] community, but when we opened the restaurant, we really became part of the greater community. We have met so many people here that we would not have met had we not opened the restaurant—certainly there are a lot of Irish people around that I didn’t know existed.
The man who put in the stairs used to come to baseball practice with the man who owned this property when he was a kid; the man who worked with the plumber used to work in the restaurant business and he gave me a great idea while he was here working. It was amazing what a collaboration and ideas came from all over the place. I was walking out of my house one day and a man came up to me and said, ‘I heard you own an Aga—I have an Aga, too. The man who did your counter tops also did mine.’
We’re a little community of Aga owners. It’s a stove that’s on 24 hours a day, so you need to be using it a lot to really get your money’s worth out of it. But it makes the most amazing bread—crusty and fabulous—and all you have to do is shove it in there. You could rinse a chicken, dry it, stick it in legs all akimbo, and it would come out juicy. It just makes you look good. They’re incredibly efficient.
They were invented by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. He won the prize for some scientific discovery, then he was blinded in a laboratory accident and he had to stay at home. He was just appalled that his wife’s life revolved around trying to get the stove up to temperature to cook. He invented the Aga Rayburn (that’s the full name) for her.
I grew up with one. It’s what my mother had. It just recently kicked the bucket—she had it for 65 years.
Life (well, at least food) is a lot simpler in Ireland. Butter—a creamy orange color—comes from grassfed cows. (There are no feedlots in Ireland—all the beef is grassfed, too). There’s no question of anything else. So, how does someone who was brought up on natural, local foods deal with the vagaries of the American food supply? Simple: with a firm commitment, due diligence and large doses of flexibility.
We were new to the Hudson Valley, so it was a lot of work to find things. I met Gayil Greene through the Phillies Bridge Farm Project, and she connected me with a lot of sources and people. We read The Valley Table, which was an incredible resource. And you get on to the internet and you connect with one place and then another and talk to people all the time about looking for, like, eggs in the wintertime. (The people I buy from in the summer never have eggs in the winter—their hens don’t lay in the cold weather.) For the honeybee cake and madalines and our pastry cream we only use farm eggs because you won’t get that beautiful color otherwise. They cost more than double what factory eggs are.
It is a lot of work. [My husband] Dan goes to Pete Taliaferro’s [Taliaferro Farm] during the season four times a week; he goes to Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, which is a hike, to get cheese. Phillies Bridge sometimes delivers, sometimes they don’t. Meadowview farm doesn’t deliver, so you just work it out.
I try to be really flexible with the menu—if [the farmers] have it, then I put it on; if they don’t, I don’t. If they have Jerusalem artichokes, I’m going to serve Jerusalem artichoke soup until they’re all gone, and if somebody complains that we’ve had Jerusalem artichoke soup for two weeks, that’s kind of the nature of cooking seasonally. For Christmas, my staff gave me a gift of dinner at Stone Barns, which was wonderful. Beets were all over the place. Beets in this and beets in that, but it was great. How many times do you have the opportunity to explore the different ways you can eat a beet? It was wonderful.
In the winter, I love things like apples and pears and dried ginger and dried fruits. When I buy strawberries, I only buy them locally—I don’t try to stretch the season and get ones from California. I hate to get them if they’ve been kept in the fridge for any length of time. It’s a revelation to get a strawberry that was picked and it’s still warm from the sun. It’s just amazing. We make strawberry shortcakes with those and they are just stunning.
I don’t get everything locally and I don’t get everything organic, but I get some things organic, some things locally. The problem is, even in the summertime, organic carrots are more expensive than organic chicken and I wouldn’t be able to charge what I would need to. I’d love to buy biodynamic—I think that’s amazing—but there isn’t anybody around here doing that.
We use Cabot butter, which I consider to be a high quality butter. The eggs are Feather Ridge Farm, or they’re farm eggs. (Most bakeries buy their eggs in buckets—they’re already pasteurized. I see bakeries advertising “shell” eggs. Everybody presumes an egg comes out of a shell. They don’t realize that it comes shelled into a bucket that’s been pasteurized (that’s what hotels use for scrambled eggs).
We’re buying our maple syrup from Lyonsville Maple Sugar House. They’re fabulous. We get our mesclun from Sorbello’s, in Highland. That’s a fantastic salad—Dan goes over there several times a week to pick it up. I buy from Pete—his mesclun is amazing, too. Braising greens I get from Pete during the year (he makes this incredible mix with tatsoi and bokchoy and baby chard and baby mustard greens—love it.) In the winter, I have to resort to mixing together kale and chard and things like that.
I use Coleman beef, which is antibiotic-free.
The milk is not homogenized, so there’s cream on the top. People will walk over and say, ‘I’m sorry, the milk is bad.’ That’s cream on the top! We use Ronnybrook, which is a huge cost for me. It has a really short shelf life because it’s not ultrapasteurized, and it’s not as stable, even when you cook with it—if the cream puffs don’t sell tomorrow, that pastry cream doesn’t hold. It’s a huge commitment. (Children need whole milk with lots of cream. When we bought Ronnybrook before we opened the restaurant, the kids would fight over who got the plug of cream at the top. They had friends over who would taste little bits of it and be completely grossed out because it tasted sour—the texture was of something sour, so they were not liking it at all.)
Devereux’s vision for the restaurant was simple: Not too fancy, but not too casual. It would feel warm, and because the rooms are small there would be a sense of intimacy, like being in a room in someone’s home. The cuisine would be evocative of her childhood, but made more modern. What she serves is partly based on what she learned form her mother, partly based on her own “peccadillos”—her love of polenta, for example, or for lemon, almond and chutneys.
I have to say, my mother was a very good cook. [She had] a small, familyrun hotel, what’s called in Ireland a guest house. It had 10 bedrooms and my mother did all the cooking— breakfast, lunch, dinner (actually breakfast, dinner and supper—you have your main course in the middle of the day). I never thought that I would want that life for myself. [My sisters and I] just loved baking. We started with a cake in Ireland that’ s called a rock bun. I don’t know any equivalent here. It’s kind of a shaggy, sconey-type of a thing. They’re called rock buns because they’re all shaggy—they look like a rock. When I was a kid that’s what you started making. It showed you the technique of rubbing butter into flour. (You don’t see people doing that anymore because they use either a mixer or a blender. But that’s where the whole idea of a baker having “cooled hands” comes from—if your hands are too hot it will melt the butter.) I worked up to more sophisticated things.
When I was about 12, I had a subscription to a pastry magazine. We were a big dessert family—we had dessert every day and on Sundays we had two. I would make the second dessert. I made all kinds of whacky things out of my magazine. I can remember once making this trifle called Danish Peasant Girl with a Veil. My three sisters were, like, that is such a stupid name, it’s going to be awful. It was whole wheat bread with melted butter in it and sautéed apples, layered with chocolate and had whipped cream on top. We really liked it. It was so odd. I’d love to find the recipe again.
I grew up with well-done meat. Americans think if anybody cooks their meat well-done that they’re a bad cook, but that’s just the style of cooking in Ireland. We had lots of fresh vegetables and we had salad. We made everything from scratch— there weren’t any powdered mixes. People who I know grew up on TV dinners put up their nose to Irish food. And I’m like, excuse me?
Ireland always has had great baked goods. Great. It’s a different kind of baked goods— like, sponge cakes not made with butter so they’re lighter and filled with whipped cream and jam. On the other side, traditional Irish Christmas cake is a very heavy, liquor-laced fruit cake covered in marzipan and then a hard icing. You make it in September and it’d be ready to eat by December— and it would take you until summer to finish it.
I didn’t want to open a restaurant and serve food to people that I wouldn’t serve to my family. I wouldn’t feel good about cooking that kind of food. I wanted people to taste home cooking at its best, which is always difficult because everybody’s mother created the best meal they ever had. I wanted to have simple things, like roast chicken, but really good chicken, really juicy, with a simple gravy and not just speckles of sauce dotted around big empty spaces of white.
But I didn’t want to confine it to just my heritage or what my mother cooked; I try to mix homier foods from other cultures. I like Indian food—anybody who has an Indian mother loves her dal, so I put dal in with the breadsticks, which is more Italian. The lemon polenta cookie is a crumeri—that’s not a cookie you find in a bake shop in Italy, you find it in someone’s home. While cream puffs don’t fall into that category, a lot of the things are simple, like our chocolate cake.
I have a real soft spot for honey and I read all these things that are happening to the honey bees. Honey—you think it comes from bees who go to flowers. But no, they feed them glucose in industrial situations, for, like, those jars of honey you get cheap at supermarkets. They don’t go out to flowers. How much more can they remove things from nature?
I wanted to do something that really celebrated honey and honey bees—a dessert that didn’t have refined sugar in it (I know a lot of people are concerned about eating a lot of refined sugar). We came up with the honeybee cake using Demerara sugar, which is a sugar I grew up with in Ireland. Unlike light brown and dark brown sugar (refined sugar that has molasses added), it’s naturally colored. It has a really nice texture. It’s like sugar in the raw. Rose Levy Beranbaum, in her Cake Bible, has a fabulous butter cream recipe made with honey—I used it all the time for desserts for my kids’ birthdays. I had been using Widmark Farm honey, which is in Gardiner, but they seem to have closed down, so we’ve been buying organic honey from United Natural Foods. It’s not local—I really wish we had some local honey.
So many things in bakeries today come premade. I took one of the people who works in the kitchen here into Manhattan to the New York Cake and Baking Supply Store. Up on the shelf, not refrigerated, in big, long plastic tubes, is “Bavarian Cream for Bakeries,” which is what people put in cream puffs. What kind of shelf life does that have? What’s in it to make it have that shelf life?
To me, it’s nothing to make a sponge cake or to whip something up like that because I’ve been doing it for so long those techniques are second nature to me. It’s hard if you’ve never baked anything. But baking is one thing you can practice at home. It would be delicious. It would be fun. It’s also a life-sustaining activity.
Of course, there’s always tea.
Always. In Ireland, tea is an everyday part of your life—it’s not some precious kind of service where you sit down with white gloves. In America, I saw tea as being very tweedy and British, or very hushed and Zen and Japanese. I wanted to take away all that kind of fussiness and just make it sort of everyday—but do it right.
First, it has to be boiling hot water. If the water is not boiling, the leaves cannot be expressed—it’s called the “agony of the leaves.” They expand. When you use those little metal balls, the tea can only expand to the size of the ball—the flavor’s going to be expressed to the space of that metal ball. We use bags that are gussetted, so there’s lots of space for the tea to open up. We bought a machine to boil water continually all day long. It looks like an espresso machine but it just has boiling water—220°—all day long. In Japan, I’m told green tea is supposed to be made with 190° water. But we gave it like that to people here and it wasn’t hot enough. So we use boiling water for all of them now. It just makes a huge difference in the taste of the tea.
High tea is actually supper. Afternoon tea is a very British concept that started as something to break the period between lunch and supper. (I think it is supposed to be the Duchess of Edinburgh or somebody like that who started it.) It features three tiers (always three tiers): finger sandwiches (very lady-like), scones with clotted cream and jam, and a plate of assorted treats, or tartlets.
We serve afternoon tea all day. It comes with a pot of tea, and we take the three sandwiches we have on our menu and make finger sandwiches out of them. (It absolutely kills me to do it because you have to cut off the crusts and you waste so much.) There are people who love our afternoon tea and they’ve had it everywhere in the world. There are children who come in at least once a month and have the kids’ afternoon tea.
It’s a juggling act: Two elementary school-aged children, a fulltime restaurant putting out breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. In the tightly fit, second-floor kitchen, the Tea Room crew dances in and out of each other’s space; a delivery is received; a farmer awaits payment; it’s time to pick up the kids from school. Devereux is calm, reflective, cozy.
My whole menu is not based on what I ate as a child. I didn’t grow up eating Dingle pies, but I ate a lot of lamb and mutton growing up. I was in the second-hand bookstore here in New Paltz and I found this cookbook from Myrtle Allen, who was a famous Irish cook. She started a restaurant called Ballymaloe House, and there was a famous Ballymaloe Cooking School, which her daughter now runs. She is sort of the Julia Child of the whole cooking scene in Ireland. She had these mutton pies, which are from the Dingle area. I’ve been there. It’s a stunning area and because it has mountains right by the sea it has a lot of sheep farming and a lot of fishermen.
The pies are made like a ravioli thing for the fishermen—they heat them up in a can of hot water on the boat, and a sheep farmer would take it up the mountain for lunch for the day. It was made with mutton scraps, cumin seed, diced onions, celery, carrots. But I knew mutton would not go over here; I do ground lamb. We tinkered with that whole recipe quite a bit and the shape we have now is more like a Cornish pasty. When I used to make it at home I’d make it in a nice big ramekin. I’d put the meat in, then top it and bake it. I just love the chocolate Guinness cake, which is a Nigella Lawson cake (she’s British). I found the Guinness créme anglaise —a whole other idea—but it goes great with the Guinness cake. The Guinness makes the cake that intensely black color, which you get in commercial baked goods when they use super-alkalized cocoa (Oreos are made with that). This [cake] gets it from the stout. I just love it. So complex—like a real grownup’s chocolate cake.
Originally, the potato Toussaint tart was a recipe from the Savoy region of France. I discovered in research it was only invented in the 1980s—I thought it was one of those ancient French recipes. It was invented by the Reblochon cheese makers to promote Reblochon cheese. I made it for a long time with Reblochon—that cheese is so stinky and redolent, and it gets really runny. It’s fabulous.
When we opened the restaurant, I didn’t want to get cheese from France, so I was looking for another cheese. I found the Toussaint cheese, which melts really beautifully and has a more subtle, but really delicious flavor. We basically adapted the recipe (which was a gratin) and made it into a tart with the Toussaint cheese. It’s very French, but it’s modern French with a Hudson Valley twist.
The restaurant business is not all about food, however, as Devereux learned from her former employer, Danny Meyer (of Union Square Café fame). More than food, Meyer’s restaurants are about hospitality, she says. “Always err on the side of generosity,” was the message she got from him. Not a bad work lesson; not a bad life lesson.
We loved the city and I do miss it, but you’re traveling all the time on the subway with children and they’re exposed to all kinds of things that normally you would never want them to be. And they have a disconnect to their food.
In the city, we belonged to Urban Organic—every week a box of organics would show up at my door. But you’re still completely disconnected where it came from. My father was a pig farmer and having grown up around a whole farming community—I just felt they’d miss out on so much if they grew up in the city and not know how food was grown and where it comes from.
That’s what I love about the Phillies Bridge Farm project—[the kids] can pick so much stuff and that’s what really connects them back to the food. It was amazing— they didn’t eat string beans until we had a share at Phillies Bridge because they went and picked them, and sugar snap peas—right off the vine. They picked their own raspberries, cherry tomatoes—all of that stuff. It just transformed their way of looking at food when they went and picked it. They love going to the farm; they consider it “their” farm. They feel that they intimately know the rooster, the sheep and the goats—they visit them all the time. And every year they see the barn swallow that comes and nests where the cows are. It’s a beautiful farm aesthetically, and it’s wonderful to drive down that driveway, lined with trees, and that old farm house is just gorgeous. The whole harvest room—it’s such a beautiful farm.
Going there every year is so important. Every Saturday, early in the morning, every summer, they go there. They used to go to farm camp—not at Phillies Bridge, but at Four Winds Farm—which is a wonderful experience, a kind of Huckleberry Finn summer, like chasing snakes in the pond, gathering eggs and swinging out of trees. [My son] is in third grade now, and farming is a subject in the third grade, so every Monday they go to Four Winds and do farm work—meaningful work, not playing at farm. They actually shovel manure and stuff like that. It’s good for them.