Global Gourmet: Four Markets Bring International Flair to North Street
When you need a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, you pack the reusable totes and head to the local supermarket. But where do you go for a bit of gooseberry conserve, cassava couscous, stuffed cabbage rolls, or broad-bean noodles?
Until recently, the answer was Albany, Springfield, or even farther afield. But these days, North Street in Pittsfield is a hot spot for international foods, with four ethnic groceries catering to very different palates.
Tucked between narrow storefronts on the north end of the street, Berkshire International Market has been offering African, Caribbean, and Latin foods since 2009. Owner Goundo Behanzin, a former accounting teacher who hails from the Ivory Coast and Benin, settled in Pittsfield with his wife in 2004. “I had been teaching students how to set up a business,” Behanzin says. “So I thought, why not open my own? And North Street had good foot traffic.”
Latinos typically drop in for comfort foods like frozen tamales, dried fish, and plantain chips. Meanwhile, African locals are thrilled to pick up traditional foods such as goat meat; African chicken (tougher but more flavorful than U.S. varieties); and products derived from cassava root, such as dough and attiéké, which is similar to couscous.
These, along with Latin American culinary and medicinal herbs—from epazote to cancerina bark—are the store’s treasures. Behanzin also plans to import African crafts like masks, baskets, and drums. “It will be a little piece of Africa on North Street,” he comments.
Diagonally across the street sits the Asian International Market, owned by Phillipines-born Virgin Galliher. She met her husband, a native of Dalton, while studying in Hong Kong, and moved to the Berkshires in 2006. Galliher was quickly discouraged by the need to drive to Albany or Hadley to find authentic Asian foods. “I met a lot of Asian women who complained about the same thing. So I decided I should bring it here,” she says.
Like Behanzin, Galliher chose her location for the visibility, but says that most customers now find her through Facebook or word of mouth. Among her best-sellers are several varieties of rice, ramen and other noodles, and common Asian cooking ingredients—palm sugar, fish sauce, sriracha, ponzu, fresh seaweed—that are almost nonexistent in mainstream markets.
The energetic, multilingual Galliher is happy to lead a tour of the store and point out the more unusual items, like dried star aniseed, cassava balls, dried mushrooms, and Indian sauces. Galliher says, “I tell people, ‘If you can’t find something but you have the box or label it came in, bring it in and I’ll try to find it for you.’”
Maria’s European Delights is the newest of the North Street groceries, but it’s the oldest business. Owners Krzysztof and Maria Sekowski emigrated from Poland more than thirty years ago, and worked at Rising Paper in Housatonic. But when the company folded in 2007, they decided to parlay their love of food into a unique grocery and deli catering to Central European—primarily Czech, German, Polish, and Hungarian—tastes.
After five years of hidden-gem status in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it plaza on Route 7 in Great Barrington, in January the Sekowskis moved into a generous store/café space almost smack-dab in the middle of North Street. Fans have discovered prepared foods such as golompki (stuffed cabbage rolls), bigos (hunter’s stew with kielbasa), and salatka jarzynowa (vegetable and egg salad), as well as twenty varieties of pierogies. Some make daily pilgrimages to the deli counter, which boasts a dozen sausages, even more cheeses, and meat lover’s delicacies like pâté-stuffed bacon and head cheese.
If there was any concern that Maria’s might falter without proximity to the large Polish population of Housatonic, Krzys puts that to rest. “We’ve done twice the business in this location than we did in Great Barrington,” he affirms.
At the southern end of North Street is the quirkiest of the four markets. Sheffield, England native and IT professional Alan Greaves, who relocated to the Berkshires after meeting his wife while on vacation here in 1999, relates a food-shock experience similar to Galliher’s. “There was nothing familiar in a 150-mile radius,” he recalls. “I sometimes drove to Boston, New York City, or Canada just to find products.”
In 2011, Brits ’R’ Us opened its doors, to the delight of local Anglos—Greaves notes that there’s an “island” of Brit expats in Great Barrington, as well as a Scottish contingent in Lee—and Anglophiles. Most come in search of frozen meat pies, Yorkshire pudding mix, Irish scones, and Marmite (a yeast-based, love-it-or-hate-it spread; Greaves, for the record, hates the stuff). Customers can also load up on Indian sauces and chutneys (hugely popular in England); conserves like gooseberry and tawny orange; blackcurrant soda; McVitie’s digestive biscuits; and biltong, a spiced South African jerky; plus kitschy Dr. Who and Brit collectibles.
Greaves, whose business has grown almost entirely by word of mouth, is hoping to open a second location in Albany in the fall. It’s part of his mission to spread the word about authentic British foods. “When I first came to the U.S., I kept hearing about Thomas’ English Muffins,” he says with a chuckle. “There is no such thing in the U.K. The only place you’ll see them is in a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich. I want to give people the real thing.” —Robin Catalano
Berkshire International Market
340 North Street
Asian International Market
375 North St.
Maria’s European Delights
146 North St.
Brits ’R’ Us
80 North St.