GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — I pride myself in knowing the hidden gems of South County.
In fact, I am even smug when I send people to Baldwin's for vanilla extract, or to Rubi's for real, French hot chocolate and an oyster feast (I even know the names and tastes of the oysters nearly every week). So when my boyfriend arrived last Sunday morning with a handful of specialty meats and a jar of sweetish, sharpish gourmet mustard, I knew I had missed something big. I swallowed my pride and in between savory bites of blood sausage and eggs I finally bit the bullet.
"So, uh, where'd you get all this stuff?" Chew, chew, savor.
"Sure you did," I said, scraping the last remnants of food off of my plate with my fingers and a fork.
That's when he busted out the secret.
"Maria's European Delights," he said. "I can't believe you, of all people, haven't been there."
I remedied that situation very quickly. Late Wednesday afternoon, after taking out the garbage, watching my laptop die and blogging about insects, I finally made it to 67 State Road for a serious taste of Eastern Europe at its very best.
Let me begin by saying, don't be scared. Much of the packaging at Maria's is inaccessible if you can't read Polish or Russian or German. Thankfully, there are self-explanatory pictures and some English phrases to guide you along. There is also Kryzysztof and Maria Sekowski, husband and wife owners of Maria's, who clearly relish the chance to talk mustard, honey, salami and whatever else comes up while a customer is sampling the plethora of specialty smoked meats and cheeses.
The Sekowskis, natives of Poland, haved lived in the Berkshires for nearly three decades. They opened the deli on Route 7 in 2007.
"We have a lot of Hungarians, Germans and Polish people who come in here," said Kryz (prounounced "Chris"). "And I have a rule that when a new customer comes in that I have them taste things before I tell them what it is. That way there is no judgment, just flavor."
Flavor abounds at Maria's, and the proprietors are very happy to have customers sample the goods and discuss, in depth, the merits of every flavor, before purchases are made. Maria's shelves are lined with mustards of all kinds, rich chocolate (including Milka, which is a coveted item among my children), concentrated juices in flavors such as cactus, rosehip and gooseberry, 20 different kinds of pierogis, pickled vegetables, strudel breads stuffed with apricot, apples, cheese, you name it. They even have caviar (red or black), as well as a wide range of smoked and pickled fish.
My senses were about to explode, but fortunately Kryz led me to the meats and Maria began slicing samples to get me focused. Actually, before any serious ingestion took place, I was given a small cup of sour cherries to try. I devoured them, relishing the sweetness and another familiar flavor that I finally was able to place after I drank the remaining juice at the bottom of the cup.
"Whoah! Is that rum I'm tasting?" I asked.
Maria just smiled.
The tasting began with a soft, mild-tasting pate that I recognized immediately as something my grandmother made years ago – chicken liver pate. Done right, of course, with very little of the irony aftertaste. Next was a thin slice of Danish bacon (all of the meats at Maria's are precooked and ready to eat). Very little fat, very much flavor. Next came the stuffed bacon, the center of which was speckled with spices such as pepper, rosemary and sage.
"This is very good with smoked cheese," Kryz said. I perked up like a hungry dog.
"You have cheese, too?" It's a French thing, I swear.
Lots of cheeses, each one with a unique flavor and texture – smoked goat cheese, sheep cheese that crumbles like feta (without the salt), buttery Swiss. I finally settled on a sharp, heavily smoked cheese somewhere between Swiss and gouda.
As I was reeling from the several rounds of tasting I saw it, right there on the counter in front of me. If it weren't for the fact that I was in public and wearing a very expensive camera around my neck, I would have cried.
"You have Halva?!" I picked up the generous block of sesame paste speckled with pistachio nuts.
"Yes, we can only get that kind at one place in the middle of Brooklyn. It's very special."
Yes, it is very special. The whole thing. I am hesitant to post this blog because I feel like Maria's is a secret that I want to keep to myself and let others discover in their own sly time. But, here you are.