Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Explore Salem MA through a Local Lens with Salem Food Tours

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia - Ye Olde Pepper turtle candy
Ye Olde Pepper Companie turtle candy
If there is one thing us folks at New England Fall Events have learned in our autumnal adventures it is that hidden treasures in New England reveal themselves when you least expect it. 

In September, while visiting the Salem Spice Festival, we were introduced to Karen Scalia, owner of Salem Food Tours.

There stood Karen with her cheerful smile plying the crowds and cinnamon sugar donuts from a local bakery. It was here that we learned about Karen’s unique walking food tours through Salem’s historic district and thriving culinary scene.
We were intrigued to learn about her tour and quickly consulted our busy events calendar to see how and when we could be sure to squeeze a tour in.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events -The Philips House
The Philip's House carriage house.
Less than a week later we returned to the coast to join up with Karen for our first Salem Food Tour. Although the details of where we would visit and what we would eat remained a happy mystery, our tour confirmation letter did provide a thorough rundown for how to prepare for the afternoon. 

Having driven to the tour directly from NH’s Portsmouth Fairy House event that morning without so much as a snack, we arrived for the 1:45pm tour with a grumbly tummy and the familiar fog of low-blood sugar. 

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia
The tour heads downtown after a visit
at The Philips House in Salem.
Lucky for us, Karen greeted us at the check-in table at our tour meet-up spot The Phillips House with a decadent tray of turtle candy for us to sample from Ye Old Pepper Companie, a Salem candy company that first hung its shingle in this seaport village over 200 years ago. Needless to say, the chewy, rich, crunchy decadence of the turtle reset our low-blood sugar in record time!

After brief tour guest intros, Karen handed the proverbial mic over to Julie Arrison the museum manager of the 200 year old historic home on Chestnut Street. Owned by various local families and eventually becoming a carefully preserved historic museum home upon the death of its owner Stephen Phillips in 1971. 

True to our tour’s food theme, Ms. Arrison guided us through the dining room’s lovely collection of fine china, gave us a peek into the kitchen featuring its coal-burning Walker and Pratt cast-iron stove, and facilitated a fun round of guess-the-antique kitchen gadget in the narrow pantry.  

Upon exiting the home, we were invited to take a gander at the antique car collection inside the carriage house. With a horse-drawn buggy, a Model A Ford, and a pair of Pierce Arrow limos, the carriage house was a quaint step back into time.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia Flying Saucer Pizza
Mouth watering pie from the Flying
Saucer Pizza Company on Washington.
Chatty and in high spirits, the tour goers left Salem’s historic McIntire District as we followed Karen on a scenic Autumn walk towards the vibrant center of town. Moments after we sat in the outdoor patio chairs at the Flying Saucer Pizza Company before three piping hot pies were presented to us for our pleasure. 

As we folded the cheesy slices and wiped the chunks of marinara off our chin, Karen highlighted why this colorful pizza joint is an important part of the local-food supported economy.

While we chewed, she talked enthusiastically about the many budding Salem businesses within eye-sight. 
“When you return to Salem, you won’t want to miss that terrific shop where they have the very best…” she’d point across the plaza. Drawing our attention to another she’d insist that “if you are looking for a nice place for brunch, you can’t miss…” and then would list a number of special attributes to a particular local boutique or breakfast nook.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Milk Honey Grocer
Salem Wine Imports and Milk & Honey
Grocery are side-by-side on Church St.
After a scrumptious round of pizza, our group began to feel quite merry and social. As Karen can attest, leave it to food to relax everyone and to get folks laughing, smiling, and enjoying one another’s newly forged friendship.

We journeyed up Washington over to quaint little Church Street where we ducked into the Milk & Honey Grocer

“This is a perfect spot to gather a wonderful lunch for a picnic,” says Karen, doling out slices of freshly-baked fruit pie. “While we are here, pick up some prepared foods to take with you. Everything is made on-site with the best ingredients. Look around!” 

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Far from the Tree Cider
We couldn't resist bringing some
Salem hard cider home with us,
Content to follow her recommendation, we noshed on apple cake and speared flaky pie crust with our forks while meandering through the aisles buying cheese or sweets. 

Our fourth stop was just next door at Salem Wine Imports. Cozy, brick-walled, and filled floor to ceiling with imported and local wine and hard ciders, the shop couldn’t have been more charming. 

Owner Kathy Gednis ushered us into the tasting room where we helped ourselves to a glass. The wine poured freely as Ms. Gednis shared with us the origins of the two featured wines. We perused the shelves and left with a bottle of Salem’s own Far from the Tree craft cider to try at home.

Zig-zagging through the streets, Karen’s arms pointed at this seafood joint here and that Italian trattoria, all the while sharing tidbits about a restaurant’s history or a chef’s singular vision. She made recommendations for memorable date-nights and highlighted which spots were perfect for an impromptu drink with friends. Karen’s passion for the vibrant local food scene and the various boutique owners and restaurateurs burned bright all afternoon. She invited us to look beyond the familiar or what we thought we knew about modern-day Salem, and experience the many devoted small businesses which are the heartbeat of the beautiful city.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia
Salem Food Tour-goers posing
with the Bewitched statue.
Sometime between Karen eliciting our solemn promise to return for a meal at her favorite Italian spot and guiding us to the top spot for a double-scoop sugar cone, it dawned to us that Karen Scalia is indubitably the Angel of Salem Small Business. She is a reverse-walking, convivially talking, one-woman Yelp who filters our attention to Salem’s five-star pearls. 

Moreover, it’s clear that every word or effusive recommendation that she shares is genuine, personal, and heartfelt. She has a deep respect for the people who are buoying the local economy and she seems thrilled at the opportunity to impart these gems to those of us fortunate enough to join her for a tour.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Aroma Sanctum
Aroma Sanctum on Central St. 
Sated from the wine, the tour headed through the tree-lined back streets to our next stop at Aroma Sanctum. This wondrous little shop has an extensive display of perfume samples in glass bottles—essential oils, natural fragrances, bath and body products and more. 

With fragrances for men and women, we all enjoyed sampling the various perfumes while the kind and patient owner fielded our many questions. We bought a bottle of jasmine perfume and, with flu season approaching, a vial of the owner’s special germ-fighting oil blend called Essential Defense 5.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia - Scratch Kitchen
Scratch Kitchen's by-scratch approach
to food will make your taste buds sing!
After a short walk down the block and around the corner we arrived at Scratch Kitchen. As the name implies, if it’s not made from scratch it won’t make it on your plate. Our group divided ourselves among the barstools overlooking the kitchen and listened to sous chef Peter Spaneas talk about Scratch Kitchen’s commitment to serving and supporting local and regional food producers, craft beers, ciders, small batch wine, and sodas. 

Nothing escapes Scratch’s by-hand approach, not even the homemade ketchup we dipped our bacon-dusted rustic fries in. This talented kitchen revels in curing their own meat so it should probably come as no surprise that the restaurant retains the sumptuous aroma of smoked pork (which features prominently on their menu). There is a scruffy, bearded, macho-ness to Scratch Kitchen and everything on their menu will tempt you to over-order just because you can’t bear not to try something. 
Alas, this was a food tour and our stop at Scratch was woefully brief but we made a point to return several times since to work our way through the menu.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia - Salem Spice
Our salt tasting at Salem Spice.
Though our bellies enjoyed a temporary rest during our visit to Salem Spice on Wharf Street, our taste buds took part in a selected salt and pepper tasting. 

With its rich history rooted in the spice trade, Salem is a fitting place for a spice store of this magnitude and variety. A wall of rubs, spices, and salts of every origin covered the shelves and walls of this fragrant store. 

We left the tasting armed with an espresso salt to try at home and followed our fearless leader to our next and final stop on the tour.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia - Brodies Seaport
The seared scallop and risotto tasting/
at Brodies Seaport restaurant.
Owner Joel Votto warmly greeted our tour upon entering Brodies Seaport restaurant. Situated on a convenient, people-watching stretch of Derby Street we’d barely taken our seats before the plates of Frangelico-seared scallops came streaming from the kitchen towards our table. The chef’s offering was elegantly presented sitting atop a butternut squash risotto. Overly generous chef Mike topped us off with a steaming chocolate bread pudding—come on

It was here at Brodies that we wrapped up the Salem Food Tour four hours after we began. By then, all the tour-goers had become fast friends and lamented saying our farewell. We snapped our final pictures together and parted ways.

Karen Scalia’s tour was a truly remarkable afternoon of food and good company and it’s impossible to imagine a tour infused with more love, passion, and joyful sharing than this one. Karen is an outstanding ambassador to the Salem food and business community and a gift to locals and tourists alike. Even as frequent visitors to Salem, we learned so much more about the city than we already knew and appreciated how her chosen tour stops reflected the Salem’s history with food and trade, bringing the experience full-circle.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia - Brodies Seaport
Brodies Seaport owner Joel Votto
chatting with the Salem Food Tour
Karen offers the full, multi-hour Salem Food Tours year-round and each adventure includes a minimum of five tour visits. Her tours rarely deliver the same combination of stops and, because she leaves the food tastings up to the whims of the chefs to use what’s freshest at the moment, it’s always a surprise what delicious treats will be tasted.

During the month of October when the number of pilgrims to Salem kicks into high gear, Karen holds her multi-hour food tours to Monday through Friday only but she offers her morning Coffee Walks 7-days a week.

On a Coffee Walk, with a cup of joe in hand, Karen will guide you through the scenic streets of Salem on a whirlwind 90-minute tour pointing out a variety of must-see, must-try, must-shop goodies while giving you the lay of the land for your Salem visit. 
Salem Food Tours even offers gift certificates which would make for a very memorable present for foodies and friends alike.

Salem Food Tours - New England Fall Events - Photo by Karen Scalia - Brodies Seaport
Outstanding chocolate bread pudding
at Brodies Seaport Restaurant

Tips for Taking a Salem Food Tour

  • Arrive with an empty stomach.
  • Enjoy the company of making new friends—nothing brings people together like good food!
  • As much of the tour is walking outdoors, wear comfortable and sensible shoes for navigating Salem’s cobble-stoned streets and dress for the weather (breezy near the water, sunscreen)
  • Register in advance on the Salem Food Tours website. Karen will email you a confirmation with details about where your tour will meet, parking info, where your tour will end, and other helpful info.
  • Tours are 21+ events since wine may be served on the tour. 
  • Tours are offered rain or shine. Don’t let a little rain deter you, just bring an umbrella.
  • Bring extra money for goodies. Your tour ticket covers the cost of all the food samples on the tour. You are not required to buy anything from the retail shops on your tour but we couldn’t resist buying their wares and you probably won’t be able to either.
  • Tours last about 3.5 hours but Karen advises it’s helpful to keep the end-time flexible in case we take extra time at a given stop. Our tour lasted nearly 4 hours and the time flew by!
  • If you are short on time or prefer an abbreviated tour, consider Salem Food Tours’ 90-minute Coffee Walk to give you a survey of Salem’s culinary hot spots and must-shops to inspire your visit.
  • Remember, it’s kind and customary to tip your tour guide.

~ Several of the photos in this article are credited to The Salem Food Tour ~