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.

When I headed to North Carolina for college, I was taken aback when some of my new Southern friends referred to me as a Yankee. This wasn’t a term I associated with myself either. I hadn’t really heard it used outside of the baseball team prior to that, but it was just one of many cultural particulars I would learn during my time in North Carolina—shagging, gatoring, Hey y’alling and Yes ma’aming, and dressing up for Demon Deacon football games being some of the others. After college, I lived in Richmond for a year—just a couple blocks away from the famed (or infamous) Monument Avenue—and then stayed in Virginia for graduate school. I moved north to Boston after that for a job, and it was then that I met Chris, a New Yorker who had spent some time at a rival college in Durham. Moving even farther north to Vermont, we settled in and made our home.

Every now and then, though, the South calls me back. My mom and sister live there, as do extended family and many very dear friends. Not disregarding its history, there’s a lot to love about this part of the country—the enchanting, gradual unfolding of spring, the softly melodic accent, the scent of boxwood and magnolias in the moist air, and the warm embrace of Southern hospitality, to name but a few. Chris and I even named one of our daughters Caroline in part after our fondness for the place. 

And then there’s the food. Tomato pie and fried okra. Shrimp and grits.

Sweet potato biscuits with thinly sliced ham. She-crab soup.

Chopped barbecue and a basket of hush puppies. Crab cakes with remoulade and Old Bay.

Even the names of the foods roll off the tongue like poetry.

Of course I can’t forget pimiento cheese. Also called the pâté of the South, this creamy spread is ubiquitous in the region. It dresses up a sandwich, or is the sole delectable ingredient between two slices of bread, grilled or otherwise. Served with crudités or crackers, it’s the ultimate picnic, or tailgate, food.

Pimiento cheese is not something I ever see up in the North, but once I’ve crossed the border into Virginia I can’t get enough of it. The ingredients are pretty simple: grated cheddar, mayonnaise, and chopped pimientos, but house variations are endless, with each chef or home cook adding his or her secret addition. 

Back home, I like to make it with a Northern twist, using Vermont Creamery’s Fresh Goat Cheese as a base instead of mayo, combined with Grafton Village’s Three Year Aged Cheddar. It’s hard to find pimientos in the Northeast, but jarred roasted red peppers work just fine. A splash of apple cider vinegar, a pinch of ground chipotle, and some snipped garlic chives from my herb garden round it out. 

It’s a true North-South mashup and, when slathered on my breakfast bagel, it tastes like home.

Pimiento Cheese (Vermont Style)

Makes about 2 cups

2 cups grated Vermont cheddar, loosely packed
4 ounces Vermont fresh goat cheese
¾ cup roasted red peppers (jarred), drained and finely chopped
½ teaspoon apple cider vinegar
pinch of ground chipotle
freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon snipped garlic chives

In a medium bowl, combine the cheddar, goat cheese, and red peppers, mashing with a fork until the mixture is blended. Add the vinegar, chipotle, and black pepper and stir until the spread is relatively smooth. Fold in the garlic chives. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours before serving (to allow flavor to develop).

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Big Boy

I just graduated—from a small, charcoal kettle grill, that is, to a 6-footer, gas/charcoal combo grill that I’m affectionately calling The Big Boy. It’s an impressive piece of equipment, with cast iron grates and a warming center in both sections, and a side burner that I haven’t even tried out yet.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Route 100 (Partial) Food Tour

Food tours are all the rage these days, but much as I love food I have yet to sign up for one. I prefer to explore an area on my own and discover its food personality based on my own and my companions’ tastes. In Vermont, legendary Route 100, described as one of the most beautiful roads in the world, lends itself well to a self-guided food tour. Extending the length of the state from Canada to Massachusetts, this scenic route skirts the Green Mountain National Forest and runs parallel to the 273 mile Long Trail, a precursor to and inspiration for the Appalachian Trail. Known as the Skiers’ Highway, this two-lane byway connects many of Vermont’s major ski resorts as it meanders across farmland and alongside rivers, past covered bridges

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bizarro McDonald's

Very few American cities can claim to not have a McDonald’s within their limits, but Burlington, Vermont, is one of them. A while back a Golden Arches did exist downtown, but in an unusual turn of events, it quietly closed its doors. After an inspired renovation, The Farmhouse Tap & Grill opened up four years ago in its place to fanfare that hasn’t stopped since.

Monday, April 7, 2014


In celebration of my fiftieth birthday, Chris and I recently went on a long-awaited trip to Morocco. Morocco is a country that’s intrigued me ever since I read the novel The Sheltering Sky, one of my Top Ten, over twenty years ago. I had never been to Africa before, nor to an Islamic country, and it proved to be no less fascinating and enchanting and bewildering than I had anticipated.