Dishing Up History

To say that Karen Scalia, owner of the fledgling Salem Food Tours, is a bundle of energy would be an understatement. Scalia offers intimate and upscale historical walking food tours that are quickly gaining popularity among locals and tourists alike. She leads her guests through the narrow cobblestone streets of downtown Salem with great enthusiasm and a deep knowledge of the history of local food, as well as the flavor of maritime history, creating a tour of pure delight.

Karen Scalia

Scalia has a deep respect for local food sourcing, preparation and artful presentation. A foodie at heart, she has a background in tourism, performance art and marketing, so the idea for this business—a unique blend of history and food—came naturally. “Walking and talking” and meeting new people is her passion, but Scalia is only the “side story” of her innovative business. Her real desire is to give an accurate depiction of Salem’s history, and to allow local shops, restaurants and chefs on her tour to shine. As a result, each of the stops along the way are not only visual, they also engage each of the five senses.

It’s Saturday afternoon and my fellow tour members and I are deeply ensconced in the hubbub that is The Witch City in mid-October. Although crowded, it is a beautiful fall day, sunny and unseasonably warm. As we gather near the Friendship at Derby Wharf, Scalia greets each of us with a huge smile and a bottle of water while we get to know the other members of our group.

She begins with what is probably a little known fact: renowned chef, Scott Conant, of Food Network’s “Chopped,” is actually a distant relative of Salem founder, Roger Conant, whose statute can be found near Salem Common. After sharing these tidbits of information and undaunted by the crowds, Scalia sets off with us in tow with her Salem Food Tours’ clipboard, sporting her knife and fork logo,  held high.

Our first stop is The Picklepot on Pickering Wharf where we meet with proprietor David Bowie, who gives a most delightful lecture on salt and pepper. This man knows his world spice trade history, which took place from wharves right outside his door! Bowie cuts wedges of apple for us, which enhances the flavor of the salts and tones down the bite of the pepper, and we agree that the flavors are surprising and delightful. I walk away with another fact I hadn’t known before: apparently all the “really interesting” spices are grown within 15 degrees of the equator.

At our next stop, Scratch Kitchen, Chef Owner William Fogarty provides samples of New England Clam Chowder prepared from an original 1880s recipe, along with tart homemade pickles, hand-cut, bacon-dusted French fries (you must taste to believe!) and one of his specialties—house-made ketchup. Chef Bill sources his ingredients locally, and one has only to read the chalkboard conveniently hanging above the counter to see where the week’s produce and meat comes from. A delicious stop!

Next, the owner of Comida Mexican Taqueria delights our taste buds on our third stop with a just-the-right-amount-of-heat sampling of rice, black beans, homemade pickled onion, homemade salsa and jack cheese, topped by choice of meat. I choose the pulled pork, which spent 13 hours stewing in a crock pot with various spices. It melts in my mouth.

Our next two stops are visual only, since the shops are bustling with other activities: Pamplemousse, a purveyor of fine wines, craft beer, specialty gourmet foods and oodles of kitchen gadgets is having a mead wine tasting, appropriate to the season. AromaSanctum Perfumes offers house blend and custom-blended fragrances, bath and body products, gift sets, and essential oils, along with beautiful, hand-blown perfume bottles. Both worth a visit!

Next up is Milk & Honey Green Grocer where owners Bill and Sharon Driscoll explain their philosophy of thoughtful ingredient sourcing from small local family farms. We dive into the beautifully prepared platter of treats which includes sliced organic apples, Hannahbell cheese from Shy Brothers Farm (which actually did look little bells and were delicious and creamy), and crunchy Putney Pumpkin Crackers with dried cranberries and thyme, which makes a perfect backdrop for thick tart slices of Great Hill Blue Cheese. Taza Chocolate from Somerville provides a surprising twist of flavors that is out of this world. An added bonus: after your Salem Food Tour, mention the tour and receive 10% off your purchase.

Next door is Salem Wine Imports. Stepping over the threshold is like entering a small intimate Tuscan wine cellar. We try samples of several fine Italian wines, carefully selected by owner Eric Olson, and sold at all price points. Be sure not to miss their wine tastings on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Next up is Life Alive, an innovative organic cafe that combines healthful ingredients in surprising and delicious ways. Life Alive’s manager, Christina, offers samples of The Swami, a warm, unprocessed whole meal of delicious ingredients in a bowl (think broccoli, greens, brown rice, carrots, tamari almonds and raisins), topped with a tangy curry sauce that also helps aid digestion. Followed by a decadent sampling of local vegan organic chocolates from a new Salem startup—The Brindled Hound—this stop is also a winner.

And finally, Executive Chef Doug Papows and his amazing staff spoil us with a multi-course finale at the amazing 43 Church. While every tour is special and shares a last-stop-finale, the special arrangements for our tour include an elegant and sumptuously-prepared Fall feast of baked Wellfleet Oysters with pumpkin seed jalapeno pesto; confit heirloom lamb abbey apple with duck confit and parsnip crisp; phyllo-wrapped “purple haze” (aged goat cheese with hints of fennel pollen and lavender) paired with orange whiskey marmalade; Classic Carbonara with house-made linguini and house-cured pancetta with Grana Padano shavings; Lamb Osso Bucco with house-made handkerchief pasta (made by Sous Chef Kirk Vanacore), roasted grape tomatoes, spinach and feta; and a cassoulet consisting of braised pork, lamb, veal, boar cranberry sausage, pheasant cognac sausage, and fried duck tenderloin.

The succulence of these dishes is unbelievable. Just when we think we can’t eat one more thing, out comes feather light chocolate cake (made by Pastry Chef Saskia Nugent), layered with rich raspberry chocolate ganache.

Near the end of this incredible tour, the sky clouds over and rain begins to fall, but our spirits are not dampened one bit after a fantastic afternoon of interesting history, good food and new friends. Schedule tours at www.salemfoodtours.com or at (978) 594-8811. Tours are offered year round, and each one is uniquely designed to stop at a variety of tour partners, the links for which can also be found on the website.

Robbin Lynn Crandall is a self-employed Food & Travel Web Copywriter, Freelance Writer, and self- proclaimed foodie. She specializes in working with restaurant and travel business owners to improve their marketing strategy & social media presence, along with a slew of marketing materials, including menu copy & design. She can also be seen roving the North Shore, reviewing local restaurants as the North Shore Food Examiner for Examiner.com. In a prior life, she was a paralegal and decorative glass painter in San Diego, until she finally landed in New England. She loves snow, and never more than when someone else is shoveling it. You can contact her at robbin.lynn.crandall@gmail.com.

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