Rustic Meets Organic at Niles Gourmet

Niles Gourmet Country Market and Bistro is all about wood. Wood heats the adjoining home of the proprietors, Sandie and Eric Becker. A wood stove heats the market and bistro throughout the cold months that bring harsh winds to its hilltop location between Skaneateles and Owasco Lakes. Most importantly, wood fuels the cook stove that creates the hearty and complex organic dishes that Sandie serves to a loyal following of customers who are simply looking for something different.

How much wood is used in the course of a year? “A lot,” explains Eric. “I split it all myself. Each year we use enough to the fill the backyard – about two full semi-trucks filled with logs.”

Even the market and bistro itself is made completely of wood. Eric, a former building and landscape craftsman, assembled the log cabin-style building himself. Sandie helped scrape the logs before they were moved into place. The resulting structure, straightforward yet alluring, feels as if it is the embodiment of its two occupants, both of whom constantly move about attending to their duties. Eric repairs, arranges and plans expansions. Sandie, of course, cooks and cooks and cooks some more. “I make everything from scratch,” she reminds me. “We aren’t used to sitting down while we’re in here.”

Laying the groundwork
Sandie and Eric Becker are relatively new entrepreneurs, the bistro being only two years old, but it is clear that their business pursuits are deeply ingrained in their chosen lifestyle. Both natives of Ithaca, they worked at Cornell for many years in operations-support roles. Along the way, as Sandie reflected on her roots (her grandfather was a butcher; her mother owned a restaurant), she began to develop a penchant for cooking, a skill for which she has never received formal training. At first, she hosted dinner parties with friends. Word spread, and soon she was asked to cater the social engagements of others. As her abilities grew, she became involved in the culinary community in Ithaca, conferring with trained chefs. It became apparent to Sandie that she had a future in the culinary arts.

The Beckers moved to the rural community of Niles in 1998, a location where they felt they could mix their desire for self-sufficient country living with their plans to open a market and bistro. To create the operation they wanted, however, took some time. By strongly adhering to the principles of organic farming and cooking, Sandie set out to become acquainted with local and regional suppliers. “We investigated local farms. We talked to people. We visited specialty shops. We wanted to know where our products were coming from.”

An organic theme
There is hardly an item for sale within the market for which Sandie does not have some sort of story. The large variety of both common and rare consumables are all organic and each was selected after Sandie sampled them through her own experiences or through references by others. A packet of frozen salmon, for instance, elicits a story about a couple who hand catch the fish in Alaska and sell fillets throughout the country. While all the basic culinary bases are covered, and then some, the ad hoc acquisition of certain brands leads to some eclectic choices. The market offers honey from Spain, oil from France, and sea salt from Ireland. The unifying factor in all of these choices is that Sandie believes that these are the best quality organic foods that she can offer.

The restaurant portion of the market is comprised of a handful of tables that stretch out onto an outside patio during the summer months. The door to the kitchen is open and accessible to curious patrons who want to see the centerpiece of Niles Gourmet: the cast-iron wood-burning cook stove.

Sandie first came upon the concept of cooking with wood when she witnessed the preparation of an Amish meal, and she knew that mastering a wood stove would help her create the dishes she wanted. “It’s a chore to learn on, but now I’d rather cook on that than any other stove.” Sandie believes that the nature of the stove allows her to cook evenly and deliberately, imparting the natural flavors within the foods.

The menu at Niles Gourmet is in constant shift, based on the supplies Sandie happens to have on hand. Generally, there are several meats available, including a sampling of local wild game, lamb, duck, venison, buffalo and occasionally ostrich. The menu also offers a variety of vegetarian options using the fresh vegetables grown on the premises. An endless mix of pastas and pizzas are available. While she has not kept an official tally, Sandie believes that her most popular dish is pumpkin ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. Because Sandie cooks everything from scratch, customers can inquire about changing any elements of the dishes to suit their tastes or dietary needs. Homemade desserts and air-roasted French-pressed coffees round out the menu.

Sandie emphasizes that all her ingredients are fresh and organic and that all the meats are from animals raised in especially humane farms. She believes that organic food is healthier for many different reasons, although she has a simple compelling point for those who do not seek organic food for health reasons: “It tastes better,” she exclaims. “It really does!”

Homespun ambience
The overall dining ambiance that is created in this environment is open to interpretation. Noting her roots, Sandie explains that she is trying to create a rustic Italian-style kitchen that one might find in northern Italy. Some visitors pick up on this emphasis, while others relate their surroundings to other homespun eating establishments still found in rural Europe. No matter each final conclusion, Sandie feels that she has succeeded in creating a unique dining experience that appeals to Old World sensibilities. The Beckers defer to the many visitors from all over the East Coast and Canada who return to Niles Gourmet to eat in surroundings they find charming and different.

Niles Gourmet Country Market and Bistro welcomes new customers who are looking for good food and unique products. Eric and Sandie Becker will continue to expand their establishment with the addition of an outdoor brick oven in the summer of 2009, and they have a rooftop deck planned for the future, so diners can view both Skaneateles and Owasco Lakes from their perch during nice weather. With their passion for organic living and eating, the Beckers hope to continue to share their bounty with the Finger Lakes community for some time to come.

Niles Gourmet Country Market and Bistro is located at 4588 Grange Hall Road in Niles. To learn more about them, visit www.nilesgourmet.com or call 315-784-5015.


by Jason Feulner