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The Buddhapesto clan: (l-r) Zane, Maria, Gregor and Edison.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

The Basil Express

When Maria Gandara discovered pesto, she began experimenting with a recipe of her own—an experiment that is now a rapidly growing family business

By Meagan Murray

 

Four and a half years ago, Maria Gandara would tuck her children into bed only to find herself working hours into the night sewing buttons and lapels onto vintage clothing as her only means of work. A wife and mother of two, Gandara had given up nursing school six years earlier, upon finding out that she was pregnant with her first child, son Zane Raven (now 10). Her husband, Gregor Trieste, an actor, was doing some commercial painting and carpentry work to support the family at the time as well.

“I’d be sitting there working late at night, and my hands were bleeding,” Gandara says now. “We were making a living; I was making it at my own pace, and I could stay home and be there for the children, but I kept thinking, ‘It’s still not enough.’ ”

By the time their second child, now-6-year-old daughter Edison Blue, was 10 months old, the couple knew that they needed to find a better way to financially support their growing family.

Gandara was still working as an at-home seamstress for the New York City vintage clothing line of close friend Sharon Broit, who suggested Gandara to try and market the homemade basil pesto she served to her friends, who loved it and jokingly referred to it as “organic crack.”

After bringing up the idea to her husband, the couple decided to give it a shot, and went for a test run at a local farmers’ market. “I thought Sharon was crazy,” says Gandara. “But then after the first week of going out there, hundreds of orders came in. Ever since then we’ve been crazy; I don’t know whether to hug her or hurt her,” she says jokingly.

Buddhapesto, named on a whim after the family’s pet Chihuahua, Buddha, has since been an ongoing organic-pesto presence in the Hudson Valley. Gandara and Trieste operate their family business directly from their home in Cornwallville, Greene County, and supply their pesto to more than 30 stores in the Hudson Valley, along with routinely attending five farmers’ markets in the region and the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival each September.

Gandara is still reeling from the response that she’s received from her product. The recipe is simple enough; her ingredients, which she’s happy to reveal, include fresh basil, Italian parsley, pure olive oil, imported pecorino Romano cheese and pignoli nuts, fresh garlic, tri-colored pepper and sea salt.

When people ask her why they should choose her pesto, she simply attributes it to the painstaking procedure that goes into each 8-ounce container. Gandara rises between 3 and 4 AM to chop, blend and package her pesto, a daily ritual she follows to make sure her product is always fresh.

“Yes, the ingredients are pretty simple,” she says. ”But it’s the measurements and the love and the really hard effort and consistency that I’ve been putting into it over the years. The fact is that [Buddhapesto] started out with just the love, and trying to keep our family together.”

Trieste cuts in at this point: “It started with desperation too,” he reminds her with a laugh.

Gandara’s daily efforts leave their mark: As she receives a visitor, her discarded, splotched apron lies nearby (having just finished a batch of pesto 20 minutes earlier), and a distinct aroma of garlic and basil with a hint of cheese seems to cloak the house. “We’re desensitized from the smell now,” says Trieste with a grin as he leans back.

This is literally one of the first few moments that he and Gandara have been able to relax in the past few days, but they’re in good spirits. It’s not hard to see why: In addition to their weekly orders from Hudson Valley stores and farmer’s markets, Buddhapesto has just completed production of and shipped out its first order to the international organic food chain, Whole Foods Market.

After making several attempts themselves at getting in touch with Northeast company representatives, a buying manager from Whole Foods finally approached Gandara and Trieste in November 2006.

“I’m at a festival in Warwick cutting up pesto when a Whole Foods card flashes in front of my face,” Gandara remembers excitedly. “I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?’ ”

One month later, they signed with a distributing company, McMahon’s Farm, in Hopewell Junction. Today the family business has an official contract with 16 Whole Foods locations in New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut; Buddhapesto is due to hit the shelves by this week.

“Now that we see what’s really happening to us, we think, ‘Wow, we really are in the infancy stages of our business,” says Gandara. “We don’t have any idea what this rea*lly means. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought when I was younger, [that] I want to grow up and be a pesto maker.”

Gandara had never tried pesto before she moved to California more than 20 years ago. But after sampling what she still refers to as “the elixir of the gods,” she began experimenting with her own recipe. Over the years, she worked at perfecting it, and her pesto became a hit among the small circle of family and friends to whom she occasionally served it.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about it,” she says. “You’ve got all of these palates to please, but after years of trying and really honing in the ingredients and measurements, I’ve stuck to a flat-across-the-board-to-the-masses approach.”

One thing Gandara and Trieste are especially proud of is the fact that they keep their product as local as possible. Local basil farmers supply their produce from May through September. During the colder months, Buddhapesto ships in basil from Georgia, Florida and California to keep up with the demand.

In the spring, their pesto was sent for microbiology testing at Cornell University to pass inspection for the Food and Drug Administration. Buddhapesto was officially approved for refrigeration storage up to six weeks. When researchers suggested that lemon preservative could be added to tack on a few extra weeks of shelf life, Gandara and Trieste refused, because they wanted to keep their product as natural as possible.

The couple believe their commitment to freshness is necessary to keep their promise of providing a wholesome food to the community. While the long hours and relentless routine of prepping and processing can seem tedious, Gandara and Trieste say the labor is worth it.

“We do work hard,” says Gandara. “And most of the time we’re really tired, but we know that it’s going to take us to a new place. I kid you not, he and I have gone 24 hours without sleep, but we don’t grow tired of it.”

“People will say to us, ‘I love your pesto, but you must get tired of hearing that; I’ll shut up,’ she adds. “I always say, ‘No! I’ve been up since 3 o’clock in the morning. I need you to be giving me these accolades because without it I’m just thinking to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing? Why am I doing this?’ ”

The couple claim that besides providing for the family, their main ambition is giving back to the community. Trieste, who follows the natural elements of Buddhist religion, says it would be improper for them to use his self-designed image of Buddha on the product’s label unless he were able to give back in “full circle.” Originally from Woodstock, Trieste and his family have a close relationship with the local Buddhist community and their leader Lama Pema, and he plans to donate a portion of Buddhapesto’s profits to two of Lama Pema’s learning and spiritual schools in Nepal and India.

Gandara is hopeful for what the future will bring, but still judges her success simply by looking at her family. “We are a circus act,” she says. “I used to do it when the babies were really little; I would have one on my back while I was cutting the bread, and serve the pesto while holding one of my babies.”

“I guess my goal is to meet Oprah and hear, ‘Hello, and today we have Maria with Buddhapesto. There’s a pound of pasta and a Buddhapesto under your seats for each of you,’ and everybody claps,” she says laughing. “I mean if Oprah gives me the thumbs up . . .” She trails off as she gestures sky-high.

Coming back down to reality, she looks across the room at her family, knowing that there are countless 8-ounce containers yet to be filled with pesto. She smiles. “Even if I work to the bone like this for the next 10 years, at least I know that it’s going to the next point,” she says. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re not finished coming along.”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

As the summer’s sticky heat inspires dreams of air conditioning or the beach, a toothsome, seasonally appropriate alternative will be offered next Thursday (Aug. 9), at New World Home Cooking Co. in Saugerties: a backyard hoedown! Chef Ric Orlando and his crew will cook up a Tennessee barbecue with smoked pork, grilled trout, white bean chili, corn on the cob, fried green tomatoes, salads, sweets and more. Beer, wine, root beer, lemonade, and mint juleps also are included, for $35 per person (plus tax and tip). Dinner runs from 6 to 9, and includes a set of live music. The restaurant is at 1411 Route 212, and you can reserve seats or get more info at (845) 246-0900. Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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