fig. a: Mad River Valley
We saw a lot of mountains (including some that still had snow on 'em), and we drove over and around quite a few more, but we didn't get around to climbing any, because our spring getaway to Vermont took place several weeks ago, right in the thick of what they call Mud Season in the Green Mountain region. So our only hike of the trip was actually just a six-mile walk along the greenway that cuts through the Mad River Valley, and most of our discoveries were made indoors.
Cold Hollow Cider Mill
fig. b: SH CIDER HOT CIDER BAK
One could hardly call Cold Hollow Cider Mill a "discovery." A sign out in the parking lot indicated where tour buses should stop to unload their busloads of passengers. They also have a 1-800 number. But we'd never been, so it was new to us.
Cold Hollow Cider Mill is exactly that--a big, ole cider mill that allows you to waltz through the works and check out where they press their famous apple cider. They're also famous for cider-based products like their apple cider jelly. But the main reason we were there was for the doughnuts--the apple cider doughnuts Michelle and I are such big fans of, and that Cold Hollow Cider Mill is legendary for. They were good, damn good, but what really caught my eye was that beautiful Lady apple on the wall next to the coffee machine. I asked the guy behind the counter if I could take a picture of it and he just said, "Uh, yeah. Whatever." So I did.
Red Hen Baking Co. + Nutty Steph's
fig. c: CHOCOLATE BUNNIES HOT CROSS BUNS HERE
Red Hen Baking Co. sits in Middlesex, just a few miles away, and Michelle had heard that they were making some of Vermont's finest loaves of bread. We went twice. The first time was just to take a peek, check out the baking schedule, a have a nibble (a fantastic potato bread roll). The sign out front read "HOT CROSS BUNS," but it was late afternoon by that point and they were out, so we made plans to return early the next morning for pastries and a coffee.
fig. d: Chocolate giraffe
This being Vermont, Red Hen shares a space with a knitting shop and an artisanal chocolate-maker/granola-maker. We didn't get to meet her to verify, but the chocolate-maker/granola-maker goes by the name of Nutty Steph ("It doesn't get any nuttier than this!"). Frankly, we were a little scared of a concoction that consisted of a chocolate-covered banana coupled ever so suggestively with a chocolate-covered pineapple ring and that came complete with a suitably saucy name--"Tropical Intercourse," or "Jungle Love," or something--but we can vouch for Nutty Steph's exceptional chocolate bark, which kept me revved up and rarin' to go for the better part of the next 36 hours. The Nutty Steph's story started with real, honest-to-goodness, maple-sweetened Vermont-style granola, however, and granola remains the bread and butter of the operation. Like I said, this is Vermont, after all, and the fact that artisanal granola is a viable option here is one of the reasons we find ourselves so fascinated by the place.
Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co.
fig. e: COFFEE LAB
On our way out to Red Hen/Nutty Steph's we passed a mysterious place that was situated down off US Route 2, in a warehouse-like building, but that had an intriguing sign out front: Coffee Lab. I turned to Michelle and said, "I bet you there are some seriously entrenched hippies in there roasting some far-out beans." I had a good feeling about the place, so we made a pledge to take a closer look on our way back.
Thank god we did.
45 minutes later we pulled into the parking lot in front of Coffee Lab. I was good and ready for some kind of transcendental coffee experience, but as we walked up towards the door I suddenly got the strange feeling that we had misread Coffee Lab. Maybe it wasn't the hippie roasting outfit we were both hoping for. Maybe it was just some oh-so hip design firm with a suitably caffeinated name, because all we could see on the inside was an office set-up, some computers, and a small group of people standing near the door having a discussion. It was almost 5:00 pm. Was it closing time at the design firm, or something? I was just about ready to head back to the car, but Michelle, who was apparently experiencing a rare instance of chutzpah, forged right ahead, through the door, into their circle, and, mustering her best Rita Hayworth, announced, "I'm afraid I interrupted something."*
Turns out the group consisted of a handful of Aussies who'd flown halfway around the world to seek the wisdom of one Mané Alves, founder of Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co. and of the Coffee Lab that adjoins it. And why had these Aussies flown halfway around the world to seek Mr. Alves' wisdom? Well, it just so happens that Mr. Alves is a world-renowned expert on coffee, a man who not only travels the world sourcing his coffee, who not only runs a sophisticated roasting operation, but whose opinions on coffees, roasts, and blends is prized by firms large and small from around the world.
So, no, this wasn't a coffee shop, but it was a small-scale but major-league roasting operation, and Mr. Alves was a true gentleman. Though neither the Coffee Lab nor Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co. is a retail operation, their doors are open to the public and locals do swing by to pick up their top-notch coffee. We ended up having a nice, long conversation with Mr. Alves about Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co., its history, its sourcing, and its latest ventures, about Montreal (as a young man in the early 1970s, he'd been urged by relatives to relocate to Montreal and become a lawyer, where he was told the recent influx of Portuguese immigrants would mean unlimited business; he opted for Vermont instead) and its surprising lack of artisanal coffee operations (which he attributes to powerful regional coffee cartels operating just north of the border), we got a tour of the premises and got to check out their current line of beans firsthand, and, when we were done, we got Mr. Alves' advice on which of his coffees we should take home with us. After years of abiding by the corsé culte, in recent months we've becoming big fans of such medium roasts as Philz "Canopy of Heaven" and Kicking Horse's "Kootenay Crossing." Mr. Alves highly recommended his Ethiopian Yirgacheffe,
fig. f: yirgacheffe
and he was right on the money.
Hands down, our Coffee of the Year.
fig. f: tapheads
It seems hard to believe now, but the fun had just begun. Literally minutes after leaving Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co., we were sitting at The Alchemist's, big, handsome bar, quaffing some of their handcrafted extreme beers. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came. Other times you want to go where everybody knows your name, they're always glad you came, and they've got an exceptionally talented brewmaster who uses only the best imported malts and the hoppiest domestic hops and who knows his way around his seven barrels. That's when you go to a place like The Alchemist. And, let me tell you, this place is serious. Not only do you overhear guys having serious discussions about serious beers, but you also hear them having serious discussions about each other's limited-edition serious beer t-shirts. Seriously. Hell, even their Lightweight, a pilsener-style beer "made with the light beer drinker in mind" was a serious trip.
fig. g: samplers sampled
Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to try their hand-pulled, cask-conditioned ale, because they only do one batch per week, and we'd shown up on Day 7 of the ale cycle, but we loved their assortment of British-inspired, Belgian-inspired, German-inspired, Hoppy, and "American Wild" beers, and their $4 pints and $1 samplers made enjoying them awfully easy.
Good-looking food, too. We didn't partake, however, because we had a dinner date.
A Brief Stroll
We still had a little time after quaffing and before dinner, so we took a stroll around Downtown Waterbury,
fig. h: W is for...
and imagined what it would be like to live in such an enlightened place.
Hen of the Wood
fig. i: mud season @ the grist mill
It was almost dark by the time we finally made it to Hen of the Wood, but the old grist mill which houses the restaurant had a promising glow to it.
Hen of the Wood was our star attraction, the single most important reason we'd come down to Vermont in the first place.
Michelle had been talking about Hen of the Wood even before Mark "The Minimalist" Bittman began gushing about how he's "sort of in love with the joint" last year, but afterwards the phrase "Hen of the Wood" became something of a mantra for her. It sounded like a little slice of heaven: a top-notch restaurant that places a pronounced emphasis on all things local, environmentally sound, and sustainable, that features a carefully chosen All-American wine list and an equally carefully chosen All-Vermont cheese list, and that is situated in an old stone mill, next to gushing rapids, in a sleepy Northern Vermont town. And with a menu that included such highlights as
Hen of the Woods Mushrooms, Grilled Vermont Bacon, Poached Egg, & Grilled Red Hen Bread
Smoked Cavendish Quail, Mustard Spaetzle, & Braised Greens
Winding Brook Farm Pork Loin, Local Fingerlings, Turnips, Valentine Radishes & Parsnips with House-made Red Wine Mustard
plus some truly wonderful service, Hen of the Wood lived up to all expectations. Put simply, we had such a good time at Hen of the Wood that we didn't really want to leave. When we finally managed to tear ourselves away, we spent the whole drive back to our motel through that crisp, starry Vermont night trying to figure out a way we could relocate to Waterbury.
Cold Hollow Cider Mill, 3600 Waterbury-Stowe Road, Waterbury Center, VT, 1-800-3-APPLES, www.coldhollow.com
Red Hen Baking Co., 961-B US Route 2, Middlesex, VT, (802) 223-5200, www.redhenbaking.com
Nutty Steph's, 961-C US Route 2, Middlesex, VT, (802) 229-2090, www.nuttystephs.com
Vermont Artisan Coffee & Tea Co., 80 Commercial Drive, Waterbury, VT, (802) 244-8338, toll-free 1 (866) 882-7876, www.vtartisan.com
The Alchemist, 23 South Main Street, Waterbury, VT, (802) 244-4120, www.AlchemistBeer.com
Hen of the Wood, 92 Stowe Street, Waterbury, VT, (802) 244-7300, www.henofthewood.com
* The line appears in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939).