Vermont Gobble-Up, Take Two

In food on 11/30/2009 at 4:22 pm

As soon as we decided to retire the other half’s annual Pre-Thanksgiving full court press food bacchanalia this year, I exclaimed, Let’s go back to Vermont! I guess despite the gustatory disappointments during our Fall Foliage romp, we were smitten enough with the rolling eye-candyscapes that we were willing to give it another try.

Since we aren’t hardy enough to attempt winter tent camping, we decided to stay at a bed and breakfast establishment. Trolling the net produced an opportunity to kick our feet up on a farm B&B. That was the rustic bent we required. Hollister Hill also promised to fill our sleepy bellies with fresh-off-the-manure produce. A tiny beacon of hope dawned on the food horizon…

We then scrambled a bit to find a place to eat on Thanksgiving. After remembering a brochure about Vermont farm stays, I found another farm that would have served us dinner every night too, but for double the price. Alas, they were booked up for non-guest meals which are the bargain at only $20/head. The owner of Liberty Hill recommended the free church lunch in nearby Rochester.

In Stowe, there were several pricey options at $75pp for a buffet spectaculaire, but we settled on the a la carte at The Whip Bar & Grill. On the drive up, we did the traditional alt-Turkey meal at the only open Chinese take-out in downtown deserted Rutland, featuring the begrudged son of the owner, an ex-pat from Boston who was secretly hatching plans of escape. He wanted to know the going rates of apartments in NYC.

It was here I decided to begin my unofficial sociological survey on the state of Chinese ‘cuisine’ in the Green Mountain state. I asked my host why he opened up a restaurant in Vermont. The reply, No competition. Vermont is surprisingly the only state I’ve been to where there is consistently no Chinese take-out place to be found, nor nary the whisper of any authenticity that riddles Flushing Chinatown. Every city/town/village/patch of dirt on the ground usually has at least one stand-by stalwart. The omnipresent tentacles of Cantonese-American food somehow totally by-passed Vermont.

I asked where the Chinese marts were. He said, There aren’t any. We get our food trucked in wholesale from Albany (which is 2 hours away and in another state!). Hmm…if I were to move here, how would I survive? The next day, we made a road trip to Hanover, NH and discovered a tiny ghetto-fabulous Asian mart behind a fancy coffeeshop in the hub outside Dartmouth campus. It promised tasty homemade dumplings and thousands of Asian products, yet failed to open at the listed time.

On our way to Stowe, we stopped for a quick pork fried rice fix at the Hong Kong, across the street from Ben & Jerry’s HQ. Pork fried rice is like the vanilla ice cream of Chinese take-out. If they do that basic staple right, there’s hope for the rest. All take-out places may have the same menu, but the quality definitely fluctuates. This was the best one yet.

The counter girl and I chatted, so I continued my academic inquiry. Q: Why are there no real Chinese restaurants in Vermont? A: Oh, you mean home-style food? No one’s gonna wanna eat that! Umm…I do and so do other foodies. Don’t tell me Vermont has no real foodies!  This woman had immigrated from Canton, was eating real Chinese food at home, but cooked take-out slop and called it ‘Hunan’ or ‘Szechuan’ or ‘Cantonese’? For shame, peddling crap when you know it’s not what Chinese people really eat!

I was noticing a couple Thai and Vietnamese joints here and there, which I didn’t have a chance to try. The other half postulated that Caucasians may gravitate to those cuisines because their languages use Romanized-type alphabets, so it doesn’t seem as ‘foreign.’ This way, they are able to serve something more akin to the real cuisine than the totally made-up junk that is Chinese-American take-out. The dissertation research continues…

Our Thanksgiving dinner ended up being totally inedible, except for the free bread which was a honey-oat Pullman loaf, made on the premises. We were promised the same menu as the fancy pants buffet upstairs, but were told while ordering that this was not the case. Buyer beware of the white meat-only option. Our dining companions at the next table didn’t seem too pleased with the sole-Thanksgiving scrapple. I ended up getting a roasted duck which was dry, cold, and looked like it was heated up by going for a dip in the deep fryer. The other half’s Cornish game hen wasn’t as horrible. The only semblance of Thanksgiving was the pumpkin pie for dessert, garnished with lacework of eggnog and made palatable by a dollop of freshly-whipped cream.

I guess that’s what you get for not making your own meal, which by all accounts and tradition, should be spent at home, slaving for hours in the kitchen. That’s why we remedied the situation by buying a 30lb turkey (their smallest!) from our hosts at the farm. It has been patiently thawing since 9am yesterday morning when we drove it home. It’s still mostly frozen.

There are a couple bright sides to this trip, food-wise. First, the breakfast served up every morning by Farmer Lee was hearty, fresh and as promised, off the land. It’s just too bad my stomach doesn’t wake up until after 10am. The other half relished each piece of thick bacon, chunk of maple-glazed ham (maple from trees on the property, ham/bacon from pigs raised in the barn), slice of broccoli-tomato frittata (eggs with yolks orange like the setting sun), piping hot muffins slathered with home-churned butter and homemade jams (rhubarb marmalade, strawberry and blackberry) and glass of Jersey cow raw milk (from udder to lips).

The farm also featured a store that sold the following:

Beefalo is explained by Farmer Lee (short for Leonora) as 37% bison-cow hybrid. The breeders figured out that’s the exact percentage that will still retain reproductive capibilities of the resulting calf. They also had roasting chickens at $3.75/lb. We asked about other offal, like tripe and trotters, but Farmer Bob said the slaughterhouse wouldn’t give it up, citing some obscure Vermont law against it. The other half is looking into it. I think they’re basically retaining 50% of sellable product as a ‘commission.’

The happy accident in this whole trip was the discovery of the existence of a potential foodie hub in Montpelier, the tiny state capitol. We reason it as necessarily more urban and urbane because it’s secretly a college town (two colleges at the top of the hill) and the presence of New England Culinary Institute, whose famous alums include Alton Brown (whose show Good Eats is much beloved by the other half) and a former representative of the USA at the Bocuse D’Or, Gavin Kaysen.

The no-billboard law in Vermont must be infecting its inhabitants, because you wouldn’t know you’re even eating at an NECI-run establishment. See, the whole school and restaurant is housed in the building labeled ‘RESTAURANT.’ Eating dinner at the Main Street Grill opened my eyes to a new way of European cooking, where each detail in the sauce, garnish or vege is given a purpose and place. Even the plates were hot.

We had originally planned to dine at Mr. Pickwick’s, a British pub in Stowe that serves wild game, but luckily, they had venison and lamb, which we ordered. The venison medallions were seared but still red in the center, juicily gamey. The sauce was an elderberry gastrique, just tangy enough to sing against the umami meat. The perfectly cut sticks of carrot and dice of turnip sat on a bed of dark green kale, all just-cooked through. The carb was a spiral swirl of sweet potatoes and regular.

The lamb was a duo of braised and seared loin, also expertly prepared. We ordered a cheese souffle appetizer which was garnished with pickled apple and red onion that was offset by a few celery leaves. Very unique and interesting. The only low note was the dessert, a pumpkin ice cream-filled cream puff. The ice cream seemed to lack the richness you expect from cream.

The next trip up-up-town will require a very thorough sampling of other restaurants in Montpelier, especially all the ones that trumpet the use of local food. Any small town with a fantastic co-op like Hunger Mountain is headed in the right direction.

P.S. The Skinny Pancake was finally patronized upon the insistence of the other half. It is definitely more of a skinny chewy pancake than a thick crepe.

  1. overheard at Nha Trang, the other half’s favorite pho place in Manhattan chinatown: i’m not gonna eat anything i can’t read!

    -portly middle-aged Caucasian woman tourist

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