Play, the Spillian Way! A Manor House in the Heart of NY’s Catskills Mountains Invites Guests to Explore or Do Nothing
By Cathie Arquilla
Here is your permission to play. Let go of productivity. Revel, jest, rebel, unplug and just be.
That permission has been issued to you by a grand house in the Catskills of New York state known as Spillian. Leigh Melander made up the name for Spillian, which is an old English word meaning, “to play.”
And that’s just what she had in mind when taking on the project of creating Spillian – to invite guests to be frivolous and have fun while in the cradle of a big house.
Leigh explains that her hope is to “Open people’s imagination and sense of connection.” She admits that it’s always a jazz riff at Spillian, the dynamic ever-changing depending on the guests and the program.
Built by the family behind Fleischmann Yeast in the late 1800s, Spillian now has 8 rooms and sleeps 16 to 18 guests. It is located on 33 acres on the western side of the Catskill mountains in Eastern NY.
However, the Catskills are not technically mountains. They are a dissected plateau. This is a factoid I learned while on a Food to Table Farm Tour during a Forage Your Feast, Mythic Catskill Adventure curated by the Spillian team.
This is one of four Mythic Weekends when rooms are available individually.
The rest of the year, Spillian is a destination for family and corporate retreats when the house is generally rented as a whole
We reveled at a mixology cocktail contest. We felt a sense of connection, talking with new friends over a five-course tasting meal. Did we rebel? Yes.
Taking the weekend for yourself to explore the Catskills, to walk in the woods, chase chickens, feed cows, sniff smelly cheese, do yoga, sit by a fire, taste hard cider, or potato vodka – without your list, agenda, and hopefully phone… is rebelling! Rebelling against all those endless and relentless to-dos at home.
Our Forage Your Feast Mythic Weekend started Friday evening.
We arrived at a glowing house with a wrap-around porch. A cozy victorian sitting room right out of an Edith Wharton novel with fire ablaze was just inside.
Hearing voices in the bar, we followed and were welcomed by friendly hellos and introductions. Leigh situated us in the Four Seasons Room overlooking the pond.
We were just in time for cocktails, and I tried a “smokey” vodka tonic. The bar has a smoker, which gives the drink a campfire smell, conjuring laughter and whispers around an outdoor firepit.
Our dinner was a charcuterie masterpiece on a massive wood slab featuring local cheeses and meats. In homage to the Fleischmann family, a gluten bread, fruit bread, and coco bread were featured.
The bread recipes came from Fleischmann’s own 1915 cookbook, and they were deliciously dense, layered, and weighty, especially the gluten one! Paired with wine, cheese, dried fruit, and savory meats, it was the best kind of nosh dinner.
Get to know the Catskills through Table to Farm Tours
Saturday, post buffet breakfast (eggs from Spillian chickens), we boarded the Table to Farm Tours van. Table to Farm Tours is connected to over 40 different farmers and farm-related businesses.
Their curated tours dig deep into the soil of the Catskill people and their businesses. Owner and guide Kevin DePodwin gave us a crash course on Catskill history, geography, geology, gossip, and lore.
The plan was to hit five local farms and businesses that were rooted in the Catskills for generations. And so that we did!
Highlights from the “Forage Your Feast” tour include:
Vodka tasting, potatoes courtesy of 6th generation Barber’s Farm. Named 1857 Vodka for the year the Barbar family established their farm.
We tried: The Classic, good for mixing and The Signature, more for sipping (and my favorite), and Purple, from purple potatoes.
A bone broth stew slurped at Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store & Cafe, served by the family’s oldest daughter Saoirse and her mother, Shannon Hayes. Shannon runs the joint, is the chef, and also a blogger and cookbook author.
Saoirse and sister Ula, who often waitresses on roller skates, are Sap Bush Hollow’s third generation. The beef broth took a mere 72 hours to make.
Feeding the cows behind a family-run maple sugar enterprise called Buck Hill Farm.
Filling maple tray molds to make tiny acorn candies was pretty fun and gooey too!
Meeting Ryan McGiver of Scrumpy Ew Cider, who converted the “drinking shack,” he used to break into as a teen, to a full-fledged hard cider brewing, tasting and selling business. Yes, we tasted cider!
Smelling and tasting Harpersfield Cheese. We met feisty cheesemaker and owner Corrine who likes to get creative with her cheeses, to impress herself more than the city folk who she says, “pay too much for it!”
Did you know?
The most surprising thing I learned from Kevin was something most New York State school children (including my own) are taught in elementary school.
More than 90 percent of New York City’s drinking water is from the Catskills. The water is carried through a 92-mile aqueduct and tunnel system- the world longest- built over a century ago. It is also one of the largest unfiltered surface water systems in the world.
Revel in a fancy dinner from local ingredients at Spillian.
A big dining room table is the beating heart of Spillian. About 25 diners sat down to a five-course tasting menu designed to celebrate the Catskill farmer, the land they toil, and the bounty it produces.
A warm frisée salad was followed by mascarpone tortellini in brown butter and pesto. Venison was next, dressed with housemade roasted beets and a bit of caramelized red onion chutney.
Our hostess Leigh explained that the fourth course, a medley of hominy, squash, and bean, was known as a “three sister dish.” Beans, corn, and squash get along when you plant them together, like three sisters. By now, Chef Christian Van Etten had gotten our attention.
The stuffed quail, plump with apple, sausage, rutabaga, and onion, had me thinking… this dinner rivals a tasting meal served at the James Beard House in New York City.
Lastly, as diners went from acquaintances to friends, dessert was presented. It was maple custard ice cream stabbed with candied bacon, over cornbread. The meal was extraordinary.
To play or do nothing
Sunday morning, it snowed. A gentle yoga class was offered in the front parlor, followed by a chutney making lesson from Chef Christian. But these were mere suggestions. At Spillian, you’re invited to unfold as far into a snow day as you like, whatever that means to you.
Is it a book by the fire, a walk in the woods, or just playing?