Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Vermont Hard Cider Tasting Project

The sweet-tart crunch of an apple straight off the tree is hard to beat,

but it’s also one of those rare fruits that tastes just as good—and sometimes even better—baked, 


and pressed into cider. 

Cider’s cousin, hard cider, is all the rage in Vermont right now, although it’s really a resurgence of a once thriving colonial industry. I have to confess I’m a little late to the party. Doubtful that I would like it, I only tried my first hard cider this past summer. I was intrigued, and it inspired me to embark on a Vermont Hard Cider Tasting Project, similar to the Beer Tasting Project I undertook back in 2012. Chris enthusiastically agreed to join in. 

We started out at Citizen Cider in Burlington, venturing into their industrial-meets-cozy tasting room on a drizzly afternoon. The garage door windows open onto an elevated deck overlooking  artsy Pine Street, infusing the space with a comfortable, cool vibe—a “Cider for the People, Made by the People” vibe, as their logo states. We settled in at one of the communal wooden tables and ordered. Chris had done some advance research and zeroed in on a glass of The Full Nelson. I decided to go in without preconceptions and ordered the $6.00 tasting flight of five ciders on tap. 

Beginning with Unified Press, their popular flagship cider, I quickly determined it’s too sweet for me, even though it’s categorized as off-dry. It might be just right for many other palates, but it’s the kind of cider that made me previously think I wasn’t a cider person. Not giving up yet, I moved on to the Wit’s Up. Made with a Belgian beer yeast, it’s pleasantly dry, perhaps Citizen’s driest. It tastes more like a beer than a cider to me, but not as heavy. On a warm day, it would be especially quaffable. This was promising.

The Stan Up was next, a lively, bright cider, on the tart side. It’s made from an heirloom apple blend by Stan, the owner of Happy Valley Orchard in Middlebury. We’ve been picking apples there for years, since our girls were little, so that connection endeared it to me. I also sampled the B-Cider, a blend of cider and honey from Happy Valley’s own bees, described on Citizen’s menu as “a taste of the full circle of life on the orchard.” That’s a beautiful thing. B-Cider has a wonderfully floral perfume, and although sweet at first, it has a dry finish, almost like a wine, and a slight fizz. I was coming around.

My favorite one, though, is The Full Nelson, a rare new taste sensation for me. I have to admit I was skeptical when the menu described it as a cross between an IPA, a champagne, and a hard cider, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t accurate. Aged and finished with Nelson Sauvin hops, it’s yeasty and complex and left me wanting more from Chris’s glass. It’s the cider that won me over.

We’ve made it back to Citizen twice since then, bringing some friends along, enjoying more of The Full Nelson and some tasty pub fare, and once catching an excellent band in town from Philadelphia. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the food and drink scene in Burlington, and I’m glad we can pick up a bottle of The Full Nelson right in Bristol when we want to enjoy it at home.

The next stop on our Tasting Project tour was Woodchuck Hard Cider in Middlebury, one of the largest cider makers in the US. This wildly successful company just opened up an impressive new facility that can fill 600 bottles a minute, or 3 million a year, according to the friendly server in their elegant tasting room. 

They give you four samples on the house and after that you need to pay for them, a more than fair deal.

I started off with the Local Nectar, made with 100% Vermont apples. Unlike Citizen who sources all their fruit from within 150 miles, Woodchuck, given the volume they produce, has to look elsewhere for many of their apples. This homegrown cider, though, has a subtle mustiness and goes down easy. Next up was the Ciderbration, a very apple-y cider but perhaps a bit too much like juice. The Hopsation, a “hop forward cider,” is their original small batch cider infused with Cascade hops, a winning combination in general, I’ve discovered.  Very clear and light, it’s their driest, but not quite dry enough for me. I prefer a more hoppy contrast to the apple’s sweetness, although I think my palate is drier than most. But for those who like a mildly sweet beverage that’s lighter than a craft beer (and gluten free; ciders are riding that wave) and much better for you than a soda or sugar-sweetened juice cocktail, this cider would be worth checking out (we tried some at home too). 

The server added a fifth cider for us to sample, the Amber, saying it was the original and everyone should try it. Crisp and balanced, it has a classic cider taste. My favorite of the batch, though, was the Smoked Apple. Infused with deliciously smoky applewood, it has just the right amount of smoke. For those who like flavored ciders, Woodchuck has a wide array, from Chocolate Raspberry to Pumpkin, to Coconut Pineapple. That’s not really my thing, aside from the Smoked Apple, which I will seek out again. Besides, I like Woodchuck’s motto: “Give a ‘chuck.”

The next two tastings Chris and I conducted at home with ciders produced by smaller cider makers. Shacksbury Cider’s The Basque, is actually produced in Spain and then bottled in Shoreham. The owners also import cider from England, but have recently released in limited amounts a cider made from local “lost apples”—apples they’ve foraged from trees homesteaders planted specifically for homemade hard cider over a century ago.

The Basque is unfiltered and fermented with wild yeast, rendering it cloudy and golden, similar to an unfiltered pale ale, but without the carbonation. Its label describes it as extra dry, which is accurate; I’d say it’s a bit too dry even for my palate. It has a bold, citrusy tang with a musty finish, and is a whole different animal from the previous ciders we tried. A t$14.99 a bottle, it’s the most expensive cider for sale at the Middlebury Co-op. Shacksbury is getting a lot of media attention, so some people must love it, but for us it’s a yet to be acquired taste. We're interested though in giving their local lost apple vintage, called 1840, a try.

Finally, we picked up a bottle of Flag Hill Farm’s Vermont Cyder, “with a y,” that is. 

Perusing the shelf of local, artisanal ciders at the Co-op, I was swayed to buy this one by the sign underneath it citing a New York Times description: “cider with the soul of wine.” The packaging does resemble wine more than anything else, from the shape of the bottle to the cork that seals it (the same goes for The Basque). And the cider itself is indeed more similar to wine than to the sweeter ciders at Citizen and Woodchuck (except for The Full Nelson which really does, amazingly, resemble champagne). It’s definitely dry, but not as dry as The Basque, and I tasted sour apple and earth. As for the bouquet, the best way I can describe it is that it smells like fall. 

Made with wild, organic apples and no additives or artificial ingredients, Flag Hill Cyder is fermented with wild yeast and aged at least one winter. At 8.5% alcohol, it’s the most potent of the ones we sampled (the others hover around 6.9% or lower); again, like wine, a cider meant for sipping.  It sells for $9.99 at the Middlebury Co-op but, alas, is available only in Vermont, in limited release. I usually lean toward red wine and Chris toward craft IPAs, but I can see the appeal of mixing it up and sharing a bottle of this cyder along with a hearty braise or stew on a chilly fall evening. 

So I guess I could say I’m a cider convert. Vermont was dubbed the “Napa Valley of hard cider” in a recent article, although I think Sonoma is more apt, and more preferable to most locals. Either way, I’m glad that hard cider is back, and is here to stay.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Inconstant Gardener (or Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Gardening)

First official day of fall today, although we had our first hard frost a few nights ago, always a more definitive marker for the end of summer than a date on the calendar. It’s felt like fall for a few weeks now, though, with Isabel back at college and Faye absorbed in her busy high school life. Chris is back to teaching, and I’m trying to buckle down to a more productive work schedule myself. At the same time, September weather is usually the best of the year, with clear skies, crisp air, and a gentle sun. It drifts through the skylight above my desk, pulling me away from my computer and outside for a hike, bike, kayak or, so I can reassure myself I’m still being productive, to the garden.

It’s harvest time—time to collect the fruits of spring and summer labors—so being in the garden doesn’t feel like a chore in the way it can when battling weeds in mid-July. In actuality though, I’ve been harvesting since late spring when the first of the baby lettuces came in. But September is what most people consider to be The Harvest, and it carries metaphorical weight. As I gather tomatoes,

tomatillos, kale, and the last of the basil (which turns black if touched by frost), my mind wanders as it usually does when I’m in the garden. That’s probably one of the reasons I’m drawn to it. 

Maybe because everyone is back to school, I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned from gardening. Life Lessons, of a sort. Here are four to start: 

You get out of the garden what you put into it. Except when you don’t. This applies to most things in life, of course—relationships, parenting, friendships, work. In general with the garden, I find that the more I nourish the soil organically, and weed, and water, the more bountiful the produce is. 

But some years I put in a lot of effort and the returns are disappointing for reasons beyond my control, like the tainted compost that wrecked our soil two years ago, or too much rain, or an invasion of beetles. Sometimes, however, the opposite is true. I put in hardly any effort at all and the returns keep on coming. Raspberries are like this. We planted a row back when we bought the house over twenty years ago and have done nothing but sporadic pruning ever since. Yet every year we get a month-long supply of exquisite, plump berries. Go figure.

It’s nice to share. Not that I hadn’t learned that already, like most of us did back in kindergarten. But we have a way of forgetting that one, don’t we? My garden is small, only about 30 square feet, but it produces more than enough for my family. Giving away extra produce to my neighbors feels good. Inviting them to come over and help themselves while we’re away on vacation is so much better than coming home and finding fruit and vegetables rotting on the vine. I also welcome the wildlife that help themselves, like the bunny I regularly catch hopping stealthily out of the Swiss chard as I approach. I find partially chewed chard leaves strewn in the overgrown paths, but there’s plenty of chard for us both. 

 The same goes for the birds who devour our blueberries

and the squirrels who stand brazenly in the middle of the yard holding an apple in their delicate hands.

Perfectionism has no place in a garden. Except when it occurs naturally, that is, like a single, perfect Sun Gold tomato warm off the vine, 

or a gorgeous head of radicchio just waiting to be plucked. 

I get a certain satisfaction out of weedless, straight rows of seedlings in late May, I have to admit. But within a few weeks, it’s a losing battle with the weeds and somehow those straight rows have gone all crooked. That used to bother me and drive me out there to yank up the weeds until I’d give myself tendonitis in my elbow (twice). But over time I’ve learned that there are a lot of weedy, crooked things in life that you sometimes just have to accept. Instead of fighting it, I try to nurture the beneficial plants as best I can and strive to find the beauty in the whole plot.

Savor every season. We have a short growing season here in Vermont, and for that I’ve learned to be thankful. Even though every year I wish it would start about six weeks earlier, by the end of the season it feels like just the right amount of time. I’m the main gardener in the family, so it’s a lot of work. Chris helps out a bit with the heavy lifting, and when the girls were little they sometimes joined me to pick peas or dig for potatoes,

but now it’s usually just me out there (well, me and Callie) from seed planting to putting the garden to bed in early November.

This past summer, though, Isabel needed to earn some extra money to bring back with her to New York, so I hired her as my assistant. What a brilliant idea this turned out to be. She’s a diligent worker—between the two of us we got an enormous amount accomplished and even dug up and replanted two flower beds that have been on my list of things to do for several years now. Plus I got to spend a lot of low-key time with her when we had nothing else to focus on but thinning radishes or picking green beans.

More than once I had flashbacks to her dancing around in her bathing suit tossing dirt in the air while “helping” me prep the soil for planting, or Faye delighting in finding earthworms and carrying them around by the fistful. I smiled in recalling those times, and I smiled this summer while Isabel worked beside me. 

There are many recipes I could share that celebrate the bounty of the garden, but I’ve chosen a simple one: Raspberry Vinegar. The fruit is a family favorite, and whenever I taste its incomparable flavor I think of the girls when they were babies in front packs. With each of them, I used to stand in front of the raspberries, pulling off a berry and holding it for them to take. They’d stuff the berries in their mouths, little legs kicking with glee. Soon enough, they were reaching for their own. Raspberry season is short, but so very sweet. Preserving the berries’ vivid color and flavor in a mild vinegar that you can keep through the winter and drizzle on salads and other dishes is one way to make them last. 

Raspberry Vinegar
Makes 2 cups

2 cups mild vinegar (preferably white wine or champagne)
½ cup fresh raspberries, washed (you could use fresh herbs or herb blossoms instead)

Sterilize a 16 ounce glass container and its lid (canning jars work well with two-piece lids). Insert the raspberries into the jar and pour the vinegar over them so they’re completely covered. Seal the jar and store in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks. 

Using cheesecloth (or a paper coffee filter) strain the vinegar and discard the berries. Pour the strained vinegar into a clean glass container. If stored in a cool, dark place, the vinegar should keep its flavor and color for 3 months. To double the length of time, store it in the refrigerator.

*Avoid using any metal utensils or containers while making or storing the vinegar.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Island Time

When most people think of Vermont, one of the first things that comes to mind is the Green Mountains, thanks to their popular ski slopes and hiking trails. But an equally notable natural resource, and a highlight of the state for me, is Lake Champlain. Friends from out of state are often surprised to hear that it’s the sixth largest freshwater lake in the country, after the five Great Lakes. Spanning 120 miles along Vermont’s western side, it’s flanked by New York’s Adirondack Mountains and also offers spectacular views of the Greens.

We live about 20 minutes due east of Lake Champlain, so in the summer it’s a big draw for swimming, kayaking, and sunset viewing. Learning to sail on the lake is at the top of my bucket list. It’s home to 70 islands, the largest of which are ideal for biking, so last weekend Chris and I decided to explore the southern part of Grand Isle, an area known as South Hero. To get there, we biked across the Island Line Trail, a narrow causeway that crosses the lake, joining a suburb of Burlington with South Hero. The ride across is a spectacular four-mile trek over the water, with sweeping views in all directions.

The Island Line Trail used to be a railroad line with a swing bridge that allowed boats to pass through. Since the swing bridge is no longer there, a 20-passenger bike ferry now transports cyclists and pedestrians across the 200-foot gap. 

The ferry’s affable captain told me that he makes the crossing around 50 times on a typical day. Chris and I hopped aboard with a handful of other people--locals, Québécois, and out-of-staters--and were on the other side in less than 10 minutes.

Grand Isle County lays claim to the state’s longest growing season, which makes for a thriving agricultural region and good food and drink to be had. We pedaled along dirt and two-lane roads, past orchards, 


and small-scale farms,

never far from a glimpse of the lake. For lunch, we stopped at the Accidental Farmer Cafe, a modest roadside stand tucked in between an orchard and a farm.

The Accidental Farmer himself, Mike, hand rolled some local, grass-fed burgers for us as he talked about life on the island.

Although he’s not an actual farmer, he says he “cultivates the farmers” by using as much of their produce, meat, cheese, and other products as he can in the tasty fare he serves up. We couldn’t resist ordering one of his juicy cheeseburgers, but his other more creative, global offerings—such as nachos served not on chips but on local fingerling potatoes—were very tempting.

After lunch, we walked next door to Allenholm Farm for a classic Vermont dessert—a maple creemee.

Back on our bikes, we looped around to the western side of the island to take West Shore Road hugging the coast. The wind picked up and it started to drizzle just as we were approaching Snow Farm Vineyard. Perfect timing!

The first commercial vineyard in the state, Snow Farm was established by its forward-thinking owners in an effort to retain agricultural land in the face of pressures to develop. The island’s more temperate climate allows Snow Farm to grow French hybrids, along with Pinot Noir and Riesling, under the direction of a winemaker who studied with the best at the University of Dijon in Bourgogne, France. (I also studied there while in college—not winemaking, although I did my share of extracurricular sampling.)

Chris and I shared a tasting, which they nicely let us split since we would be getting back on our bikes.  I was impressed by the smoky Baco Noir and also the Gewürztraminer, whose minerality is balanced by lush peach.

Back outside the drizzle had stopped, but we still had to ride against the wind back to the ferry. We pedaled hard up a couple hills, and then we rounded a bend and came upon a field edged by trees. On practically every tree, someone had placed a colorful birdhouse. Hundreds of them.

In this technological consumer age when we’re constantly bombarded by corporate efforts to “surprise and delight” us, this simple display made us literally stop in our tracks, genuinely surprised and delighted. And it was just one of several instances that afternoon, during the course of our twenty-mile bike ride, that had this effect on us.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Southern Exposure

I’ve been on the road again, this time to the Southeast, specifically Virginia and North Carolina. We packed up the car and drove down, crossing the Mason-Dixon Line near the town in Maryland where I spent most of my childhood. Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as a Southerner. Maryland, despite being below the Line, was technically a border state during the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam, which resulted in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, was just down the road, but at the same time one of my high school acquaintances was a direct descendent of Robert E. Lee. And the street I grew up on has a former slave auction block, now partially obscured by some shrubbery, on one of its corners.