text and photos ©2012
Driving down nearly deserted roads during the first two weeks of October, I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘If this is the busy season, what is Vermont like in the off-season.’ This, after all, was the “high season” as tourists flock to see the changing of the leaves. We weren’t blind to the beauty of the season, but as Epicurean travelers we directed our route along a trail of food producers.
We began our journey in Burlington, at the Lake Champlain Chocolate factory. The small factory can be viewed through the glass walls in the gift shop, and on weekdays you can see the chocolate being made. A video and various wall murals explain the process from the harvesting of cacao pods to the production of cocoa butter, to the very chocolates you can taste there at the factory. Cacao trees, of course, grow in the tropics, but Lake Champlain Chocolates add a local touch by incorporating Vermont maple syrup, honey and cream.
About fifteen minutes south of the chocolate factory we turned in at Shelburne Farms. A National Historic Landmark, the 3800-acre farm was founded in 1886 by Dr. William Seward and his wife Lila Vanderbilt (big money at the end of the 19th century). Their mansion overlooking Lake Champlain is now a 24-room inn open from May through October. Built as a model agricultural estate, the farm is now a non-profit educational center where you can mingle with the chickens, milk a cow, watch cheddar cheese being made, and taste the difference that aging cheddar makes. For one raised on industrial style Kraft cheddar, Vermont’s artisanal cheese is a revelation. We arrived on a rainy morning, and after sampling the variously aged and flavored cheeses, we warmed up with bread fresh out of the ovens at the on site bakery. The farm also devotes 7 acres to vegetables, which (along with the hen house, dairy and bakery) supplies the inn’s restaurant with fresh produce.
We continued south an hour to spend a few days at Manchester, a town known for its outlet stores (most famously as the headquarters for Orvis). Our purpose here was to sample the pure luxury and gourmet breakfasts at The Inn at Ormsby Hill. The 10-room inn was originally built in 1764. In the late 19th century it was owned by Edward Isham, a law partner of Robert Todd Lincoln (President Lincoln’s son, a former Secretary of War and later the president and chairman of the Pullman Company). Lincoln often visited Isham here, as did President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft. We stayed in The Lincoln Room. It was a good deal more luxurious than in Lincoln’s day, as the room now sports two sofas and an armchair, a gas fireplace, canopied bed, two-person whirlpool tub, and a shower/steam bath with two shower heads and a built-in tile bench. We were able to look into three rooms, all immaculate and very tastefully decorated. The attention to detail at the inn was well beyond expectations. It’s not cheap, but it’s as elegant as a B&B can get.
We booked this inn partly on the reputation of the chef/innkeeper, Chris Sprague, whose breakfasts were huge feasts (I saywere, because between our visit and the writing of this article, the Spragues retired and sold the business to Diane and Yoshi Endo.) You can find Chris Sprague’s recipes on Inndulgence.com — such classics as Puff Pastry with Spinach and Feta Cheese; Filo Triangles with Sausage; Gingerbread with whipped cream; Apple Crisp with Maple Syrup; Lemon-Cranberry-Cream Scones; Apple and Pear Cobbler with a Cheddar Cheese Crust; Poached Pears; Risotto with Wild Mushrooms; amazing Orange Marmalade Baked French toast; and Baked Eggs with Spinach and Mushrooms. We can only hope that Diane and Yoshi will maintain the high level of culinary excellence we’ve come to expect from The Inn at Ormsby Hill.
While in Manchester, be sure to visit Hildene House across the road from Ormsby Hill. Built in 1905, Hildene was the Lincoln family home, and it provides a window into how the rich lived a hundred years ago. There’s a self-guided tour, and upstairs is a small museum dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, with such artifacts as his mirror and famous stovepipe hat. And be sure to ask one of the attendants to fire up the player organ that Robert Todd Lincoln bought for his wife on the occasion of their 40th anniversary in 1908.
Less than half an hour outside of Manchester, we parked under the apple trees at Weston to visit The Vermont Country Store, which you no doubt know from the numerous catalogues that find their way into your mailbox throughout the year. Just as in the catalogues, the store specializes in hard-to-find items that were once popular fifty or sixty years ago, be it clothing, toys, sundries, candy, kitchen items, nifty bath accessories, etc. As you wander down memory lane, you can sample their cookies, chocolates and wide selection of Vermont cheeses. We were particularly taken with a blue cheese sandwiched in between layers of aged cheddar. And since all that shopping and sampling builds the appetite, we had lunch at the adjoining Bryant House Restaurant, serving such comfort food as Chicken Pot Pie, and Maple Glazed Turkey Breast.
On our way north we detoured to Woodstock to visit another “model agricultural estate,” the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, dedicated to conservation and environmental awareness, as embodied by three of the farm’s previous owners — George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882 ), Frederick H. Billings (1823-1890), and Laurance Rockefeller (1910-2004). A tour of the Queen Ann style mansion is available, but the highlight for us was a visit to the Billings Farm and Museum. The museum houses a large collection of handmade agricultural implements once common in rural Vermont, with copious information about how 19th century farmers labored to make butter and cheese, tapped trees for syrup, raised sheep and cattle, milled grain, and manufactured everything from pails to casks, from butter churns to furniture. As we were there in the fall, we were also treated to a display of hundreds of different varieties of apples and pumpkins. Adjacent to the museum is a state-of-the-art 1890 farmhouse, once the center of the farm and forestry operation. The property’s commercial dairy has been in continuous operation since 1871, currently stocked with over sixty Jersey cows.
Even the freeways are deserted, and an hour and a half drive along scenic route 91, brought us to Lower Waterford, beside the Connecticut River that divides Vermont from New Hampshire. Lower Waterford is about equidistant between St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and Littleton, New Hampshire. It’s hardly big enough to qualify as a village, being just a few residences, a church and the 19-room Rabbit Hill Inn. Comprised of two buildings built in 1795 and 1825, and subsequently added onto and renovated over the decades, this inn is very special and belongs in my top ten list. We’ve stayed in two rooms at Rabbit Hill, the Hampshire and Rose rooms, and we’ve peeked into four others. Each room is immaculately kept and individually decorated with comprehensive attention to every detail, from the antiques, wallpaper and artwork, to the drapes and lamps. The “Luxury” rooms have whirlpool baths and gas fireplaces; the “Superior” rooms have gas fireplaces and tub/shower combinations; and the “Classic” rooms (a bit smaller) have tub/showers. The service is top notch (attentive, cheerful, personal).
The restaurant is outstanding, serving a gourmet, three-course, prix fixe dinner from local ingredients (such as duck, frogs legs, pork, beef, rabbit, venison and pheasant, wild mushrooms, apples etc.), and seafood from Maine.
Breakfast includes a combination of cakes, granola, yogurt and fruit, as well as interesting hot dishes. One of our breakfasts included potato chowder topped with toast and poached egg, and a quesadilla with egg and Vermont cheddar cheese.
The inn is uncommonly quiet. The common rooms are comfortable, and there are first and second story porches from which to contemplate the landscape. It’s also a perfect home base for exploring Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom.”
We took a side trip to Goodrich’s Maple Farm, owned by the same family since 1840. Though Canada far surpasses U.S. production, Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S., accounting for more than 5% of world production. Today, the 20,000-tree farm is run by Glenn and Ruth Goodrich. The day we visited, we were shown around by their daughter Jean. The little gift shop (where you can buy various grades of maple syrup, maple candies, sugar etc.) takes up one half of the sugarhouse, where the syrup is boiled. The “tour” reminded me of thewine industry about three decades ago, when it was largely a cottage industry and you could still have an intimate talk with enthusiastic owners. Jean showed us the sugarhouse and explained the process, which takes place in March and April, giving us the fascinating history of maple syrup production from prehistoric times to the present. Twenty years ago the Goodrich family still gathered the sap in buckets. Today, miles of flexible hoses run from tree taps to a storage vat, and hence to the evaporator in the sugarhouse. I’d always assumed that the different grades referred to quality, but it isn’t so. The syrups are graded by color; the earlier in the season the sap is drained, the lighter the color. Some people prefer the more delicately flavored light-colored syrups, while others prefer bolder flavored dark syrups (especially for cooking).
The world-famous Cabot Creamery is just a mile down the road. I must admit that I preferred cheddars from some of the smaller Vermont creameries, but Cabot’s cheddars are a huge step above industrial cheddars (like Kraft). They also have the advantage of being available all around the U.S. I cannot, however, recommend the tour beyond the introductory video, as there is little to see and the “guides” seemed more intent on herding the group back to the gift shop, than in answering questions.
With just the briefest introduction, we had a wonderful time in Vermont, for despite its diminutive size, there is plenty to explore. It’s not a place to rush around; it’s a place for a leisurely drive, a quiet stroll, a chair under a tree where you can read a book, or contemplate why things seem so frenetic at home.