Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pumpkin-Free Zone

A little while back, while driving on the South Fork of Long Island, I got stuck in a major traffic snarl just west of “Pumpkintown.”

Yes, there is indeed such a supernatural place in Water Mill, Long Island, and literally thousands of people had decided to explore it on that fine autumn day. The massive pumpkins were outer-worldly. One man was seen wheeling a 50-pound orange orb in a baby carriage. The baby was nowhere in sight.

Once I got over my traffic stress, I had to wonder why the pumpkin gets so much attention. Sure, there’s the Cinderella story, and a pumpkin was required gear for the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow. But there are plenty of other deserving squash that exist on this planet, even if they don’t have a small Long Island community named after them.

Now, this might be heresy given the fact that Halloween is nearly upon us, but it was then and there that I decided I wasn’t going to be swayed by public pressure and allow a plump self-satisfied garish orange squash to hijack my autumnal celebrations. I would stand up for under-represented squash everywhere. Take acorn squash, for example. It may not be as famous as the pumpkin, but it is more surprising, with a dark green skin concealing a saucy golden flesh. It’s got plenty of fiber and potassium, and the acorn is a symbol of independence, so it’s quite appropriate to become the focal point of my pumpkin-free campaign.

If you’d like to join me in solidarity to support squash that deserve a fair shake, why not bake this delicious Acorn Squash with Wild Mushroom Cranberry Stuffing? I clipped this vegetarian recipe from Bon Appetit in 1995 and have been making it every autumn since. It can be easily doubled, or provide a hearty meatless dinner for two. The sweet yellow flesh plays nicely with the earthy wild mushrooms and sage, and the cranberries offer a nice burst of tangy sweetness. Every bite says “autumn harvest.”

Acorn Squash – Anonymous No More!!!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Got Syrup?

It is clear – even months before the annual sugaring season in February and March – that maple syrup pulses through the veins of Vermonters. It is the life blood of the state, blanketing every hill and valley with a glossy coating of sweet amber sap, even when the sugarhouses have gone dark and the steam has dissipated.

In October, the maple leaves turn an incendiary crimson red and the maple lover can find sugary maple leaf candies, maple dessert wine, maple ice cream, maple-flavored mustard, maple pumpkin butter, maple fudge, and shelf-upon-shelf of bottles and rectangular tin jugs of traditional maple syrup labeled Grade A Fancy, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. Fancy is the color of golden honey, Medium Amber resembles a wheat-colored pilsner and Dark Amber is the color of English stout.

In Vermont, maple syrup is magic. Native American’s called the sugar maple “Sweet Bud.” For the true enthusiast, a single word on a license plate declares a life-long devotion.

Nearly every farm seems to have a sugarhouse out back. We spot shiny tanks and miles of tubing in the woods, a sign of the annual sugaring season.

It will be several months before maple sugar production begins, but the family is on duty at Sprague and Son Sugarhouse on Route 100 in Jacksonville, Vermont, even during the fall foliage season. Sprague and Son is a sturdy wooden structure, trimmed in honey-colored wood panels, with shiny chimney pipes emerging from the roof. Cords of firewood are neatly stacked out back.

Karen Sprague greets us as we enter the sugarhouse. The day is warm, her hair is pulled back and she wears a sleeveless top. She is full of energy and bursting with information about the production of maple syrup.

“I married into the business,” she explains. The Sprague family has been collecting maple syrup in Vermont for six generations, and practices traditional methods of producing maple syrup. On the average, the Sprague family produces about one quart of syrup per tree each season, working from about 4,800 maple trees. Karen explains that the product of each sugarhouse is distinct and original.

“There are no two batches of syrup that taste the same, and no two sugarhouses that taste the same. We are all completely different.”

It was a commitment to sharing their craft with the public that inspired the Sprague family to build their sugarhouse on a main road. They liked the idea of inviting the public in, but the first weekend they were so busy with visitors, it proved a distraction.

“We actually scorched the pans,” laughs Karen.

Small glass vials filled with syrup line the window sill, showing the variation in color from the previous year’s batch. In the center of the room is a long metal pan, which sits atop a rectangular enclosed wood burning stove. The sap is stored by tanks at the side of the road, piped into this evaporator and then heated until it reaches the critical temperature that turns the mixture to syrup. The evaporator can hold up to 1,000 gallons of sap.

I learn that there is an instinctive feel to producing quality maple syrup. “My husband and father-in-law can determine when it’s syrup just by looking at it,” explains Karen.

I ask how she would describe the flavor of their syrup, and she gives her answer some thought. “Woody, because we burn with wood, so it does pick up a natural woody flavor.”

The finished product is stored hot in metal drums and eventually packaged in smaller batches.

Karen takes some syrup that has been heating in a metal box with a spout and pours it into Dixie cups for us to sample. We sip the silky liquid. It is a wild toboggan ride – clean, molten flavors of caramel, toasted nuts, sweet smoke and honey. We purchase several jugs of Vermont Grade A Medium Amber. The containers are still warm in our hands as the batch has just been bottled hours earlier.

I ask Karen about her favorite methods for using maple syrup in the kitchen. “I’m a vegetarian,” she replies. “I steam most of my vegetables and sprinkle them with maple sugar or syrup.” She drizzles sweet potatoes with maple syrup before baking, and her son is an advocate for using maple syrup as a glaze for pork or veal.

“You could get rid of every sweetener in your house for cooking or baking and use maple syrup,” Karen explains.

One gets a sense of the sheer excitement the Spragues experience each season as they produce a completely natural food product. “It’s the most amazing thing to take something from the tree that looks like water and see that liquid turn to syrup,” says Karen with a broad smile.

During the sugaring season, results are dependent on nature and what the trees offer. The Spragues have worked as briefly as four hours, or as long as 72 continuous hours done in shifts. The maple trees set the schedule.

“When the sap flows, you boil,” Karen smiles.

What better way to make use of my supply of Pure Vermont Maple Syrup from Sprague and Son than by mixing up a batch of hearty muffins for autumn, bursting with the flavors of New England?

Cranberry Maple Walnut Muffins

(Adapted from "The Official Vermont Maple Cookbook, Third Edition, Published by the Vermont Maple Foundation)

2 cups sifted flour
¼ cup butter
¼ cup sugar
3 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup chopped fresh cranberries
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted and cooled
1 egg
½ cup milk
½ cup Vermont maple syrup

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Cut butter into small cubes and cut in with your fingers until blended well. Add cranberries and walnuts. Beat together egg, milk and maple syrup and fold into dry ingredients until just blended. Fill paper-lined muffin tins 2/3 full and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Yield: 12 muffins.

Click here for more information on the history of Vermont’s maple sugaring industry. Click here for more recipes using Vermont maple syrup.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Vermont Gold

The town of Grafton, Vermont has been called one of the ten most picturesque spots in America. During the autumn foliage season, the views along the historic Main Street are burnished gold. Grafton is a quintessential New England village, the type that only seems to exist in a Currier & Ives print. There is a pointed white church steeple, a country store, a history museum and the Old Tavern Inn, which was built in 1801 and where charming wicker rockers are artfully placed along a rambling front porch.

Another kind of gold can be found in the nearby pastures – “Grafton Gold,” the three-year-old, extra-aged cheddar of the Grafton Village Cheese Company.

Grafton, Vermont is dedicated to tradition, and a simpler way of life, and cheese making is part of that tradition. The Grafton Cheese Cooperative was established in 1892 so that local dairy farmers could turn surplus milk into cheese. The cooperative was destroyed by fire in 1912, but re-opened by the not-for-profit Windham Foundation in 1964. There is much to learn here about the techniques employed to create world-class cheddar.

We enter the immaculate white clapboard structure, just outside the village, where cheese making has been underway since dawn. While parts of the process have been updated, Grafton Village Cheese still uses methods that originated in the 1800s. Long rectangular stainless steel vats are filled with pale, spongy slabs of bonded curds. Two men in crisp white uniforms will turn the slabs by hand. This process is called “cheddaring.” One man moves down along the vat and feeds each slab into a milling machine that shreds it into dozens of squiggly fingers that tumble into the vat. Another man tosses fists full of salt onto the shreds and a large automatic mixer crawls through the curds, turning the mixture over numerous times. Eventually, the other man takes the curds by the handful and packs them into 60-pound size metal boxes, pressing the mixture in carefully and closing the lid. The boxes will be placed under pressure for 14 to 16 hours to squeeze out as much moisture as possible.

In the tasting room and retail shop, Wendy Brewer, the marketing director, willingly answers my barrage of questions while I indulge in a progressive sampling of classic cheddar aged one, two, three and four years. The longer the cheese ages, the sharper it becomes and I tremble with pleasure as a chunk of four-year-old cheddar explodes in my mouth. It is vividly tangy, buttery and nutty all at once.

Wendy explains that the cheese making technique for cheddar is designed to squeeze out as much moisture as possible. This will deliver the dense, crumbly cheddar texture. Grafton maintains high standards for the milk used, which is locally sourced from Jersey cows on 38 farms.

“We’re doing our part for family farms,” says Wendy. She explains that Jersey cows produce premium milk with high protein and high butterfat, ideal for “Grafton Gold” and the company’s wide selection of award-winning cheddars. Demand for Grafton cheddar continues to increase nationwide and the company plans to open a second production facility in Brattleboro, Vermont. Clearly, I am the ideal customer for Grafton. I like modern and I like classic, so I purchase 1-year, 2-year, 3-year and 4-year cheddar. 2003 was a very good year, after all. I also pick up a recipe for Grafton Cheddar Cheese Soup, one of their collection of signature cheese dishes.

Later, in the emerald pastures behind Grafton Village Cheese Company, we strike up a friendship with a couple of “Grafton Girls” – a pair of fetching, honey-brown Jersey cows ready and willing to do their part for “Grafton Gold.”

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Apple Pie in a Bottle

The afternoon sunlight filters through the trees, and we hear the sound of water softly trickling under the footbridge as we make our way across. Just up the road, in the town center of Jacksonville, Vermont, we have passed a community pie sale that is drawing some attention.

This is apple orchard country, producing a yield that is good for pies and much more. The Vermont climate is too dramatic to cultivate grape vines, so the local wines are made from the fruit of the land. Everywhere we have walked, we have encountered gnarled and twisted apple trees, branches bending and studded with globes of red fruit.

We cross the North River, and enter the tasting room of the North River Winery, a tidy white structure attached to a red barn that dates to the 1850s and houses the winery.

I am somewhat ambivalent about fruit wines. In a side-by-side taste test, I’m likely to pick the Bordeaux every time. But, the homegrown quality and resourcefulness behind North River wines has intrigued me. Comparisons may be misguided. Apple wine is, in fact, a different product that harkens back to a day when thrifty homesteaders would ferment almost anything -- barley, rye, corn or potatoes. Even Martha Washington’s personal recipe collection includes directions for fermenting wines made with cherries, currants, lemons, gooseberries, blackberries and elderberries.

We step up to the tasting bar, and are greeted by an earnest young man who hands us each a list of wines. The North River Winery was started in 1985, and most of the apples used in the wine come from the nearby Dwight Miller Orchards, a certified Vermont state organic orchard. We start with a taste of Vermont Pear which is labeled “semi-dry” but is sweet and thick like nectar. Green Mountain Apple is more to my liking – its crisp, tart flavors reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc. The signature Rhubarb wine is perhaps an acquired taste, and while it might actually defy description, tart and earthy are two words that immediately jump to mind. Cranberry Apple tastes tart like a Thanksgiving relish and Blueberry Apple would make a nice topping for vanilla ice cream.

Finally, we sip Vermont Harvest, a blend of apples, cinnamon and Vermont maple syrup. Our host calls it “apple pie in a bottle” and it does conjure up flavors of the sweet finale to a fine autumn dinner.

The old saying, “an apple a day, keeps the doctor away,” actually has its roots in medieval times. Green Mountain Apple and Vermont Harvest could be an interesting way to get more of the health benefits of apples into my diet, so I purchase a bottle of each. It’s not as crunchy as the real thing, but I can use my imagination.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Chocolate Barn

In rural Shaftsbury, Vermont, cars from New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont are lined up outside an 1842 sheep barn for their afternoon chocolate fix.

The barn sits on the edge of Historic Route 7A. Shaftsbury was established in 1761 with its first settlers from Rhode Island. Shaftsbury was sometimes referred to as “Little Rhode Island.”

There is no clever, creative way to describe the exterior of the barn. It is painted a rich chocolate-brown, it is called “The Chocolate Barn,” and inside the barn you will find row-after-row of exquisite hand-dipped chocolates.

We climb the steps past an antique sleigh and enter. The Chocolate Barn was opened in 1976 by Lucinda Gregory, a collector of antique tin chocolate molds. The collection now numbers more than 800 pieces from Holland, Belgium, German and France.

The chocolate kitchen is to the left as we enter. Two young women work the window and behind them is a battalion of pewter-colored molds – Easter Rabbits, Father Christmases, Storks, Jack-O-Lanterns and Thanksgiving Turkeys are neatly lined along three long, narrow shelves. The effect is as though whimsical characters from Peter Rabbit, The Night Before Christmas and Dr. Doolittle have cued up for a military inspection.

The Chocolate Barn produces more than 65 varieties of chocolates as well as a celebrated recipe for fudge. We take some time to inspect the selection of chocolates, and the stock of rare chocolate molds, some of which cost upwards of 100 dollars. Some are flat molds used for crafting chocolate candies on a stick. Others open on a hinge and clamp together to create a three-dimensional chocolate original.

The section of hand-dipped chocolates and truffles would make Willy Wonka wilt. They are displayed behind glass, and – like the proverbial kid in a candy shop – we run our eyes along the line of perfect, pillow-shaped candies each topped with a squiggly chocolate swirl. There are Strawberry and Vanilla Creams, Coconut Bon Bons, Raspberry Jellies, Cordial Cherries, Peanut Butter Meltaways and Nougatines. In honor of Vermont’s state tree, we indulge in a handful of Maple Cream Chocolates that are delectably smooth with just a hint of buttery mountain sweetness.

Back in the car, I inspect my crisp white bag of treats and take note of the canary-yellow form tucked into the sack. There’s no website – just a charmingly old-fashioned mail-order approach to satisfying a sweet tooth.

The Chocolate Barn is at 5055 Historic Route 7A, Shaftsbury, Vermont, 05262. Phone – 802-375-6928.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Oh My Gouda!

If you travel west on Route 11 -- just past the town center of Londonderry, Vermont -- a battered green farm truck is tucked into the pasture that creeps up to the southern side of the road. Atop the truck cabin roof is a sign, hand painted in red block letters with an arrow that reads “Vermont Cheeses.”

We turn right and climb the dirt road to Taylor Farm. At the top of a small hill is a rustic, fire-engine red cheese house and shop. On the hill beyond, we can see the shiny apparatus of a working dairy. A woman with a kind smile, wearing layers of flannel, strolls down the hill to greet us and takes us into the shop.

The woman is Mimi Wright, sister to Taylor Farm’s cheese master, Jon Wright. Taylor Farms produces award-winning Gouda cheese from raw cows’ milk, totaling 70,000 pounds annually.

“Why, Gouda cheese?” I ask Mimi as she invites us to sample cubes of traditional Gouda and maple smoked Gouda.

She tells us, “That’s what worked,” and that few dairies in Vermont were producing Gouda cheese, so therein was the opportunity. And, as Taylor Farm keeps a herd of 55 Holstein and Jersey cows, it made good sense, since the Holstein breed originated in the Netherlands where Gouda was perfected.

Using toothpicks, we pierce several cubes from the tall mound of traditional Gouda. It is a sunny golden color and tastes rich, tangy and creamy. The maple smoked Gouda is buttery, smoky and sweet and was awarded 1st Place by the American Cheese Society.

There is a window that separates the cheese house from the retail shop. Mimi points out the brine bath and I can see stacks of traditional Gouda sealed in bright red wax and wedges of maple smoked Gouda sealed in chocolate-brown wax, aging to perfection.

Vermont farmers have produced cheese since the 1800s. Taylor Farm is a member of the Vermont Cheese Council. Three-dozen cheese makers produce more than 100 varieties of small-batch artisinal cheeses. Jon Wright has produced his award-winning Gouda for eight years. Mimi prepares all the baked goods for the shop and we purchase a crusty loaf of her oat bread made with curds and whey from the dairy and sweetened with honey. Mimi also sells brilliant earth-colored yarns made from the wool of sheep on the farm, poetically labeled “Yarns from the Hills.”

We have purchased as much cheese and bread as we can carry when cheese master Jon Wright enters the shop. He is dressed in a well-worn navy blue sweatshirt, jeans and work boots, and there are splashes of mud on his cuffs. He has rugged features, a lined face and a warm smile. I ask him how he got into cheese making.

“I tell people we started out of desperation,” he laughs. “Dairy farmers gone awry.”

While most of the money made from farms in the state of Vermont has typically come from dairy products, that percentage has been decreasing as the price of land becomes more expensive. Farmers sometimes have to take second jobs to make ends meet.

“We were looking for ways to add value to our milk,” Jon explains. They were able to expand the operation for a small capital investment. The dividends have been clear. There are magazine articles mounted on the walls, praising the quality of the cheese from Taylor Farm.

Jon Wright is one of a new generation of food artisans, and the joy he takes from his work is evident. He is physically and emotionally connected to the land, and the agricultural products he produces.

“The cows are my life,” he says. “I love them.”

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved