Wednesday, January 31, 2007



Without question the most satisfying dinner I’ve prepared in some time, and also one of the most basic. And most of the credit, as you’ll see, goes to Elena.

As we reported last November, we've been in the habit of making the occasional batch of homemade pasta around AEB HQ for a couple of years now, ever since Michelle managed to bring a real Italian pasta machine—an Atlas—into the family. And for the most part these pasta-making sessions have resulted in some pretty tasty meals—and sometimes some extraordinary ones—but as we indicated, we’d continued to be restless when it came to our pasta dough recipe, not entirely convinced that we’d found the recipe we were looking for, the one that would become ours. Until now, that is.

Those of you who’ve been reading “…an endless banquet” for a while are probably quite familiar with our devotion to Quincaillerie Dante, which developed from a local Little Italy hardware store into the kitchen supply store/hunting specialist institution that it is today (50 years strong!). Not only is Quincaillerie Dante of the city’s most unique stores (although, really, since Pecker Bros. shut down there hasn’t been too much competition in that department), not only is it easily one of the city’s best kitchen supply stores, but it’s the store that serves as our touchstone, our source of inspiration, every year when it comes time to make our annual batch of tomato sauce, and for that we’ll always be grateful. But something you might not know about Quincaillerie Dante is that since 1993 its owner, the irrepressible Elena Faita, has run a cooking school in an apartment next door that’s been fully rigged with a massive Viking gas range, a large kitchen island, and a long table for 20. Take your pick from options such as pâtes maison, pâtes farcies 1-2-3, sauces 1-2, pizza and focaccia, risotto, polenta, saucisses, poulet, and cailles et lapin, and you’ll get a class, a multi-course meal (an exceptional one), and wine for $50. And if Italian cuisine just ain’t your bag, Elena also features cooking courses by Martin Picard (!), of Au Pied de Cochon—such as cassoulet, chevreuil, foie gras, foie gras and wine—and Mostafa Rougaïbi, of La Colombe—such as couscous, tagine, and chocolate 1-2-3.

Italian cuisine is very much “our bag” (part of it, anyway), so we’d been meaning to take one of Elena’s classes for years now, but for some reason we’d never just gone ahead and taken the plunge. Some of the reason for this had to do with the fact that we don’t really consider ourselves cooking class types—not that we don’t see the merit, not that we think we’re above that kind of thing, it’s just that we’re not the “types” (whatever that means). But, we were both agreed that what our novice pasta-making needed was just a little bit of guidance and a greater sense of “touch,” so in this case it made perfect sense—then we started thinking about the meal that awaited us, plus all the other breathtaking meals that would come out of this experience, and it made more than perfect sense. So we took the plunge.

Our first class (because, believe me, there will be others) was pâtes maison. We were pretty sure this class would be kind of basic for us, but that’s we wanted: the basics, the foundation, the touch. And that’s what we got. We made three different types of pasta that night—pappardelle, spaghettini, and orecchiette—two with an egg and semolina-based mix, the third, the orechiette, with no eggs. Elena then showed us how to make three different sauces to accompany them—a spinach, mixed herbs, and ricotta sauce for the pappardelle, a rosé sauce for the spaghettini, and a spicy anchovy, oil-packed pepperoncini, and broccoli sauce for the orecchiette. The class lasted about three hours, maybe even more, and although mostly Elena walked us through all the procedures so that she could keep things at such a pace that we’d actually eat eventually, the making of the orechiette was very hands-on, so we could get a sense of the feel of the pasta and could learn the gesture necessary to get their unique “ear”-like shape. By the time it came to eat, we were famished, not so much because we were eating late—we tend to eat late anyway—more because watching Elena work, smelling the dishes she’d been preparing before us, and just talking about food as intensively as we’d been doing was enough to drive even St. Jerome himself wild.

Anyway, speaking of wild, we haven’t been the same since our class at Mezza-Luna. We’ve made fresh pasta twice in the ten days since our class and would have made some a third time if the folks we were intending to school ourselves hadn’t backed out. The most recent time it was my turn to go it alone. And this was the very first time I’d ever made pasta. Ever. “And?” No problem. They turned out great. There were a couple of things that I found liberating that night at Mezza-Luna with Elena, and these revelations certainly made things easier. For one thing, she emphasized that you only get the true taste of past from hand-rolled pasta, which is why the fresh pasta that people buy in stores is generally so disappointing: it’s not rolled, it’s pressed in just the same way you might have pressed Play-Doh through that Hasbro "pasta machine" back when you were a kid (hence the unfortunate textural similarities). For another, when you take into account that the cooking time for fresh pasta is extremely short (“20 seconds,” Elena kept telling us, although I think she was just trying to make the point that it’s very quick, certainly under a minute) and you combine that with the fact that the cooking time for fresh pasta is more or less identical regardless of the cut, it means that you don’t have to stress over your hand-cut pappardelle being absolutely identical, you can cut with relative abandon and still wind up with pasta that’s perfectly and uniformly al dente. That’s what I did (as you can see from the picture above), so I accompanied them with a simple red sauce (composed of a reduced version of our homemade, extra-garlicky tomato sauce that I’d added red wine to) with lots of freshly grated Parmesan. Simple, but beautiful.

You’ll notice that the recipe that follows seems rather convoluted. Isn’t that always the way things are when trying to describe something so elemental? If you’re confused, if you want to learn Elena’s sauces simultaneously, if you want to get a sense of the touch necessary, and if you can afford it, by all means, take one of Elena’s classes. Yeah, it costs a bit more than watching the Food Network, but that feel, those smells, and, most of all, those tastes come with a price.

Basic pasta recipe

3 cups semolina
4 extra-large eggs
2 tbsp olive oil + a little additional oil
4 tbsp water

Make a ring with the semolina flour on your countertop. Crack your eggs into the center of the ring. Using one hand, beat the eggs with your fingers so that they’re thoroughly mixed. Add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the water to the egg mixture. Mix well. Begin to make the dough by pulling some of the flour from the ring into the center, mixing it with the egg-oil-water mixture, using a circular mixing motion all the while. Mixing then kneading, use only the flour you need (although 3 cups of semolina flour has worked like a charm for us so far) to create a ball of dough that has sufficient elasticity and handles well, but no longer sticks to the counter surface. When the dough feels right, form it into a ball and drizzle it with a tiny bit of olive oil, just enough to coat the ball lightly. Then cover it with some plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

When the dough has rested, unwrap it and take it to the surface you intend to use to roll it out on. Pour out a bit of semolina flour in a pile on your surface. Cut your ball of dough into six roughly equivalent pieces. Take one of these pieces, sprinkle a bit of flour on it, knead it and flatten it into an oblong shape that’s about 1/4” thick, sprinkle the side that’s facing up with a bit more flour, fold it in two, and repeat this process two more times, folding the piece as needed to get it as rectangular as possible so that it’ll eventually fit through the pasta machine with ease. Now this piece is ready to roll out in a pasta machine. Set the machine to the “1” setting and roll the piece through. Sprinkle the piece that results with flour, fold in two, and repeat 2 more times. Sprinkle the piece with a bit more flour, set the machine to the “2” setting and roll the dough through, cranking the machine quickly and steadily. Sprinkle the elongated piece of dough that results with a bit more flour, se the machine to the “3” setting and roll the dough through in the same way. Repeat at least two more times, changing the setting of the pasta machine one notch as you go and finishing after you’ve passed the dough through either the “5” setting (for a slightly more rustic noodle) or the “6” setting (for a rather thinner, more refined noodle).

Take this long sheet of pasta, cut it into about 3 or 4 equal lengths and put it out on a rack or a towel to dry slightly. Meanwhile, roll out another sheet of pasta according to the steps above. When you’ve made sheet #2, go back to sheet #1 and slice it by hand into long thin pappardelle strips, about 1/4” – 1/3” in width. Repeat all these steps until the six pieces of dough you began with have been turned into a whole heap of pappardelle noodles.

This amount will feed 4 people with pasta as a main (in the North American way), or 6-8 as a first course (in the Italian way).

Variation: for a true pasta all'uovo use four egg yolks and no egg whites instead of the two eggs with egg whites.

The recipe above makes a really manageable dough, one that we’ve both found very easy to use and that’s produced fantastic results, but beginners should be prepared for these steps to take a bit of time. Not too long, though, because it’s a good recipe. With time, trust me, these steps will fly by. Elena’s been making pasta using this recipe for 45 years or so—you can imagine how effortless she makes it look. After just a couple “practice sessions” at home our confidence is to the point that we’re even thinking of starting to make fresh noodles when we make chicken soup and the like. And, who knows, maybe 45 years down the line (when we’re worthy) we’ll be teaching pâtes maison classes ourselves.

Mezza-Luna, 57 Dante, 272-5299 (Little Italy)
email: sfaita@sympatico


Sunday, January 28, 2007

And the winner is...

So, when the dust had settled and all last-minute wheeling and dealing had subsided, Menu For Hope III managed to bring in an astounding $60,925.12 (!), over $2,500 higher than what we announced as the final tally back on Christmas Day. Thank you, once again, to all of you out there who participated, congratulations to all the organizers who helped turn this year's edition into an unprecedented success, and if you made a donation to Menu For Hope III but haven't yet checked to see if you actually managed to win a prize, you might want to check here (especially if you go by the tag ambacosi). We checked to see if the results were up on January 15th, but for some reason it never occurred to us to see what had happened with the prize we'd bid on. Then, a few days later, we received an email from a friend with the subject heading "Congratulations," alerting us to give the results a closer look. Sure enough, through some strange twist of fate, we'd managed to come away with a prize. What does it all mean? Well, the next time we make our way down to New York, we've got a pizza crawl with Ed Levine and Adam Kuban of Serious Eats, Ed Levine Eats, and SliceNY a-waiting for us. Are we excited? Yes. Will you read all about it right here at " endless banquet"? Most certainly.


Friday, January 26, 2007

...Creameries and Model Farms and Co-ops and Pizzas

former Shelburne Creamery fig. a: Shelburne Creamery Building

Shelburne, VT

This was one of the first, uh, sights we came across when we entered Shelburne, VT: the former Shelburne Creamery (you could tell by the enormous letters on the side of the building that spelled "Shelburne Creamery"). We were on the lookout for Shelburne Farms because we wanted to buy some of their cheese, and although it looked a little quiet, a little lonely, a little uncanny--almost like some lost corner of Prague

prague street scene fig. b: street scene, Prague

--we actually thought this might be the very place where Shelburne Farms made their acclaimed line of cheddars. We were wrong. Yes, this odd-looking building had played home to the Shelburne Creamery, but now it was just another one of those office buildings where you often find doctors' suites. Not 200 feet further down the Route 7, however, we found a general store, one that stocked Shelburne Farms' cheese among their selection of fine Vermont cheeses. We asked a question or two, got some directions, and minutes later we were winding our way west towards Lake Champlain. About a mile along the Harbor Road we came across the Shelburne Farms store at the junction of Harbor and Bay, but this wasn't just any cheese store. Sure, they had their own cob-smoked bacon and hams, baked goods, souvenirs, even antiques,

true vermonter fig. c: True Vermonter sugaring bucket

along with a selection of their fine cheeses. More importantly, though, the store is housed inside the gatehouse of a sprawling estate, a 1,400-acre parcel of land that was designed, landscaped, and built according to the vision of architect Robert H. Robertson and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted for Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb back in the late 19th century, and that once encompassed 3,800 acres. The idea was to create a model agricultural estate, one that raised dairy cows, sheeps, and Hackney horses, as well as pigs, poultry, and gaming pheasants, one that was clearly meant to simulate an English country estate. The estate has been run as a non-profit organization since 1972, and in addition to its creamery, Shelburne Farms includes an inn (in the former Seward/Webb mansion),

The Inn at Shelburne Farms fig. d: The Inn at Shelburne Farms, off-season

a working farm (which called to mind one of the farms featured in Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale),

Shelburne Farms model farm fig. e: the Farm Barn, Shelburne Farms

and lush grounds and stunning views (both formal and not)

Lake Champlain from the Inn at Shelburne Farms fig. f: the view from the inn, off-season

that are very much open to the public.

It didn't take much convincing to go for a walk, especially given Shelburne Farms almost English sense of picturesque, with tree-lined lanes, broad meadows, and rolling, densely forested hills. Plus, it was at least 60º F that day. We'd come prepared for some wintertime tramping, but the only snow we saw the whole weekend was of the artificially created kind, on some abandoned ski slopes up above Middlebury. In fact, about 25 feet after Michelle deciphered these signs

Pyongyang 9412 mi. fig. g: Pyongyang 9412 mi.

and we got our first glimpse of the inn off in the distance, we came across a caterpillar. A live one. In Vermont. In January.

The next day we came back to Shelburne Farms. We'd decided to put off our cheese shopping there until it was just about time to head north of the border again, but mostly we just wanted to go back and have another walk. Especially given the balmy weather. This time around we stayed out of the hills and headed for Lake Champlain and the inn instead, hoping to come across Shelburne Farms' dairy farm. Sure enough, about 1/4 mile from the inn we found their herd of Swiss Browns lunching.

swiss miss fig. h: Swiss Miss

About an hour later, after we'd toured the inn, taken in the lake, and gingerly sidestepped a skunk, we went back to the Shelburne Farms store, picked up a couple of blocks of cheddar, some bacon, and our sugaring bucket and hit the road.

Shelburne Farms, 1611 Harbor Rd. Shelburne, VT, (802) 985-8686

Ferrisburgh, VT

In all honesty, we really can't tell you much about Ferrisburgh except that it's no more than 30 minutes south of Shelburne, and if you drive down that way along the 7 you absolutely, positively will not be able to miss Dakin Farm unless you've got the mother of all head colds or something. The smell of all that cob-smoked goodness--hams, bacon, and the like--is almost enough to make you veer off the road. If you do find yourself overpowered, as we did, try to manage a controlled veer into the Dakin Farm parking lot. Yeah, it's a bit kitsch--not quite Cracker Barrel Old Country Store-style, but heading in that direction--but, as mentioned earlier, it's worth it for their honest-to-goodness cob-smoked bacon and odds-and-ends alone.

Dakin Farm, 5797 Route 7, Ferrisburgh, VT, 1-800-993-2546

Vergennes, VT

Saturday, no more than a half an hour south of Shelburne, we came across signs for Vergennes. Michelle had decided we had to check it out even before we caught a glimpse of it because she liked the sound of the name or something, but then we spied the town center off in the distance,

Vergennes, VT fig. i: Vergennes, VT, as seen from Route 7 (more or less)

remarked upon how much it reminded us of the way Canterbury had appeared from the Pilgrim's Way in A Canterbury Tale, and knew then and there that we had to take a closer look. Up close, it didn't look as much like 1940s Canterbury as we might have liked, but it was still pretty charming. We came across the town library/museum and we were in the process of admiring it from the outside when we noticed they were having a book sale and used that as an excuse to take a closer look.

Thayer & Bigelow, Vergennes, VT fig. j: artifact, Vergennes Museum

And right next to where we'd parked our car, we discovered a fine little chocolate shop, Daily Chocolate. Started up by a couple of chocolatiers from New Mexico a few years ago, Daily Chocolate serves up really rather adventurous (and rather delicious) chocolates, like pistachio-green chile bark (sounds crazy, I know, but it works), featuring their own complex blends of some of the finest American and European chocolates (like Scharffen Berger).

Daily Chocolate, 7 Green St., Vergennes, VT, (802) 877-0087.

Middlebury, VT

We'd heard all kinds of promising things about Middlebury, but, truth be told, we went there primarily to see if we couldn't score some Animal Farm butter (the pride and joy of Orwell, VT) at the Middlebury Co-op because Michelle had heard that they received some deliveries of this highly prized handmade butter (the only handmade butter in Vermont and Thomas Keller's preferred brand) from time to time. We struck out on Animal Farm butter, but we found some other nice things at the co-op, like some Macoun apples and some organic beers, and we fared pretty well at a used book and record store in the Frog Hollow area of Middlebury next to Otter Creek Falls. We had a feeling Middlebury would be a great town for used books and we were dead right. That was where Michelle picked up Noel Perrin's First Person Rural and Second Person Rural, along with 5 or 6 other naturalist classics--the kinds of things she covets. It was late afternoon by the time we finished tooling around Middlebury and we could have just made our way to American Flatbread's Marble Works branch, but we had our hearts set on going to the Waitsfield original, so we got back in the car and began our ascent of the Green Mountains.

Middlebury Co-op, 1 Washington St., Middlebury, VT, (802) 388-7276

Waitsfield, VT

When we got to Lareau Farm maybe an hour and a half later we were glad we'd made the trek. American Flatbread in Middlebury would have been nice, I'm sure, but there's something about that location in the Mad River Valley that we've found particularly relaxing every time we've been to the Waitsfield restaurant over the last few years. We got a great table just off to the side of the pizza-making station, which probably isn't the #1 table in the house, but was a seating we really enjoyed because we got a behind-the-scenes peek into the workings of American Flatbread--the lively banter, the ease with which they handle rushes, the way they try out a prospective pizza-baker. And even though our pizza got demystified somewhat because we saw it (and many others like it) get assembled before our eyes, that half-and-half New Vermont Sausage & Misty Knoll chicken/chipotle-maple BBQ sauce/collard greens/red onions/sweet corn/Grafton Village smoked cheddar deluxe edition tasted just as great as ever.

Those of you out there who still aren't all that familiar with American Flatbread might not be aware of this, but their restaurant is generally only open two days per week. The reason being, they spend the greater part of the rest of the week making parcooked pizzas so that they can freeze them and sell them in health food stores and other grocery stores across a wide swath of the Eastern United States. This time around in Vermont we finally wised up and picked up a couple of American Flatbread's frozen pies at the Onion River Co-op in Burlington to bring back to Montreal with us. We figured, "Why not bring those tastes back home with us?" Sure enough, the experience wasn't nearly as magical as it is when you get a pizza fresh out of that gorgeous earthen oven in Waitsfield (few things are), but you sure couldn't tell it was a frozen pizza either, and it was damn good.

American Flatbread, 46 Lareau Rd., Waitsfield, VT, (802) 496-8856

Onion River Co-op/City Market, 82 South Winooski Ave., Burlington, VT, (802) 863-3659

That's kind of the way we feel about Vermont. We love to spend time there ("Love it!," as Michelle has been known to blurt out), but we're pretty fond of bringing back souvenirs, too.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Zuni Nation

zuni chicken!

During our trip to San Francisco two years ago, we ate a number of memorable meals, as you might have been able to tell from our 10-part "Revelations" series. Among those that continue to stand out after all this time, however, is our Zuni Cafe meal, the very last meal of our trip. Was it the space's triangular shape? Its wood-fired oven? Sitting upstairs in a cozy booth? Their sinfully good roasted chicken with bread salad? Or was it the fact that the Zuni Cafe got the honor (unbeknownst to them) of putting the finishing touches on our California holiday? [Answer: all of the above.] Since finally getting Judy Rodgers' inspirational The Zuni Cafe Cookbook a few months ago, the recipe for roasted chicken just kept beckoning to us until we could bear it no longer. We finally gave in and decided, "That's that," we had to try to recreate some of the magic of that fateful night.

In her preamble to the recipe, Rodgers attributes their roast chicken's renown to a combination of elements which includes the cafe's wood-fired oven, the high quality of their birds, and the practice that one gets when roasting hundreds of chickens a week. But, that said, the basic key to their success lies in three things, three things over which all of us have a fair bit more control: a small-sized chicken, high heat, and salting the chicken 24 hours in advance. You may not be able to duplicate the lovely smoky flavor that the Zuni Cafe's oven imparts, but otherwise there's no reason to despair, and Rodgers insists that The Zuni Cafe Cookbook's recipe has been thoroughly tested and fine-tuned for the home environment. That was enough for us. We took her word for it and plunged right in the other night.

And the bottom line is this: stop whatever you are doing, print out the recipe below, run to your local butcher, and pick up the nicest small-sized chicken you can find. That's how essential this recipe is. Aside from picking out a 2 3/4 - 3 1/2 pound chicken and taking the time to salt it properly, the trick (again) is to roast the bird at a very high temperature, 450°F, and it was that detail that really piqued our interest. We couldn't believe that such an indelicate method would get the results we (and the Zuni Cafe) were looking for. There's no question about it, this high-heat method really is very dramatic. The fat sputters a fair bit when the bird hits the sizzling cast-iron pan,

roasting that zuni chicken

and the kitchen definitely gets a little smoky, but it's very worth it.

The Zuni Cafe chicken is one of the best homemade roast chickens we've ever had, and, as leaders of the Mile End chapter of the SCC, we've had our fair share. Don't go thinking you can skip the bread salad, either. That would be a terrible mistake. That bread salad is truly extraordinary; quite simply one of the best salads (of any kind) either of us has had the pleasure of encountering. The whole ensemble is perfect on a misty San Francisco night, as we found out in 2005. It's pretty awesome on a chilly Montreal winter night, too. Now, if only we had a fireplace, or one of those old-time Québécois bread-baking ovens that we've been reading about recently...

Anyway, if you're not already a proud owner of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, and there are plenty of other good reasons to pick up a copy, here goes:

Zuni Roast Chicken (serves 2-4)

one small chicken, about 3 lbs.
4 sprigs rosemary, thyme or sage
2 1/4 tsp. coarse salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1-3 days before serving, rinse the chicken and dry completely. Tuck the herbs under the skin on the breast and thighs. Sprinkle inside and out with salt and pepper, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one day, but up to three.

for the bread salad:

a day-old medium loaf of peasant-style bread, not sourdough
6 tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp. champagne vinegar
salt and pepper
1 tbsp. currants
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. warm water
2 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted slightly
2-3 garlic cloves
1/4 cup slivered scallions
2 Tbsp. lightly salted water
1 bunch arugula, watercress or any other bitter green

Remove most of the crust from the loaf of bread and slice into thick chunks. Brush with olive oil and broil until golden on both sides. Let cool. Rip the chunks into rough pieces of varying sizes and place in a bowl. Mix 1/4 cup olive oil with the Champagne vinegar and salt and pepper. Add about 1/4 cup of it to the bread. Toss. Mix the currants with the red wine vinegar and warm water. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 475°F. Heat a cast-iron pan over medium heat. Remove chicken from the fridge and shake off some of the salt, though you don't need to remove it all. Do not rinse the chicken. Pat dry with a paper towel if condensation has formed. Place chicken in the pan, breast-side up, and place in the oven. Roast for 30 min. If the skin is browning too quickly, reduce the oven temperature a bit. Carefully turn the bird over and roast for another 10-20 min. Finish breast-side up for 5 minutes to crisp up the skin. It should take about 45 min. to roast.

Meanwhile, sauté the garlic and scallions with a bit of olive oil until soft, but not browned. Add to the bread along with the pine nuts and drained currants. Add a bit of salted water, salt and pepper to taste and toss. Place in a baking dish and cover with foil. Place the salad in the oven after the final flip of the chicken.

Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat, leaving the bread salad in there to warm up. Let the chicken rest on a serving platter while you skim off the fat from the roasting pan. Deglaze the pan with a bit of water and any drippings that the cooling chicken has given off.

Place the bread salad back in its bowl, drizzle with a spoonful (or two) of the pan juices, add the greens, a bit of vinaigrette and toss. Season to taste. Place a generous heap of salad on each plate. Carve up the chicken and serve on top of the bread salad. Enter heaven.

Worked like a charm.

[Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook: A Compendium of Recipes and Cooking Lessons From San Francisco's Beloved Restaurant was published in 2002.]


Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Land of Milk and Honey and Bacon and Cheese and...

The Goods

vt goods map

1. Shelburne Farms maple-cured, cob-smoked bacon
2. Dakin Farm maple-cured, cob-smoked bacon
3. Shelburne Farms honey
4. Flag Hill Farm Cyder
5. Amish butter
6. Ayinger Ur-Weisse Dünkel Weizen
7. Stratford Organic Creamery whole milk
8. Celebrator Doppelbock
9. Dakin Farm cob-smoked bacon odds and ends
10. Dakin Farm Maine blueberries, packed in water
11. Shelburne Farms smoked cheddar
12. Dakin Farm yellow-eye beans
13. Lazy Lady Farm "O My Heart"
14. Orb Weaver cave-aged farmhouse cheese
15. Orb Weaver Vermont farmhouse cheese
16. Bee Haven Honey Farm pure Vermont honey
17. Dakin Farm buckwheat pancake mix
18. Vermont Common Cheddar Crackers
19. King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour
20. Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen blue cheese
21. Gore Dawn Zola blue cheese
22. Jasper Hill Constant Bliss cheese
23. Black Gilliflower apples, a.k.a. Sheep's Nose apples
24. Stevens Lady apples
25. Cabot Creamery salted butter

Yep, you guessed it. We just made another one of our famous cross-border shopping expeditions to Vermont. Actually, we went down on a weekend getaway, to get out of the city, go for walks, and have another nice meal at American Flatbread, but one thing led to another. "...An endless banquet" is digital proof that we've found Montreal to be nothing if not rich (in at least two senses of the word) when it comes to its food culture, but there's something about our friends to the south and the landscape they call home that never fails to impress us. And somehow this admiration of ours has a way of turning into a lot of little food expenditures. The reason for this has something to do with our weakness for dairy. Good dairy, that is. And what, exactly, is so special about Vermont's dairy? Well, that has something to do with the kind of pasture land you find in Vermont, with the fact that Vermonters, to a degree that's almost unheard of these days, continue to hold on to their farms, and with the fact that the number of people who keep cows in Vermont (even just one) is so much higher than the average. Noel Perrin said so much back in 1978 in First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer, his account of small-time farming, and life among small-time farmers, in Vermont, and this situation has continued to hold until now. In fact, in Perrin's mind these factors helped explain why Vermont was better looking than its neighbor to the east, New Hampshire.

QUESTION: Why is Vermont more beautiful than New Hampshire? ANSWER: Because of Vermont farmers. Remove the farmers, and within ten years New Hampshire would surge ahead.

This is a serious argument. If you just consider natural endowment, the two states are both fortunate, but New Hampshire is more fortunate. It has taller mountains, it has a seacoast, it even owns the whole northern reach of the Connecticut River, except a little strip of mud on the Vermont side.

But New Hampshire's farmers mostly quit one to two generations ago and started running motels or selling real estate. The result is that most of New Hampshire is now scrub woods without views. Dotted, of course, with motels and real estate offices.

A lot of Vermont farmers, however, are holding on. Almost every farmer has cows, and almost every cow works night and day keeping the state beautiful. Valleys stay open and green, to contrast with the wooded hills behind them. Stone walls stay visible, because the cows eat right up to them. Hill pastures still have views, because the cows are up there meditatively chewing the brush, where no man with a tractor would dare to mow. (That's the other argument for butter besides its taste. I once figured that every pound of butter or gallon of milk someone buys means that another ten square yards of pasture is safe for another year.)

Sure, Vermont is suffering from sprawl and free-market economics these days in a way that it wasn't 30 years ago, but not nearly to the extent that most every other corner of North America is. And some things may have even improved over the last three decades, like the farmstead cheese scene. And the strength of the farmstead cheese scene has everything to do with the fact that Vermont has so many cows, and especially so many cows raised on small farms. And there is something to be said about Perrin's argument. I mean, as much as we love mountains and forest and that kind of thing, there's something to be said for pasture land and the views it affords. So maybe it all does boil down to this: four legs good.

You'll notice that we brought back a lot of Vermont dairy: organic milk, artisanal butter, and lots of farmstead cheese. We've hardly worked our way through our treasure trove of cheeses yet, but so far standouts include Lazy Lady's O My Heart, which is as creamy and as delicate as they get, and Orb Weaver Farm's cave-aged cheese, which has a wonderful caramel side to it. And let's not forget those Vermont Common Cheddar Crackers, made with real Grafton Village cheddar. Who needs Smartfood when you've got something as classic and as versatile as your Vermont Common Cheddar Cracker. Plus, who can argue with 175 years of experience? So cheese and cheese-based products were a hit.

But the other major discovery was Vermont bacon. Now, as much as I like bacon, I'm certainly not an all-out bacon fetishist, not the kind of person who left vegetarianism behind for bacon, not someone who'll take bacon any way they can get it. I've got some standards. Luckily, it's easy to get very good, high-quality bacon around these parts. Even our two local grocery stores--Sa & Fils and P.A.--have truly excellent bacon available behind their counters--throw in some of the city's premium boucheries/charcuteries, like La Maison du Roti or La Boucherie du Marché, or the city's amazing Eastern European charcuteries, like Charcuterie Hongroise or Slovenia, and you're laughing. But, believe me, you've never had anything like the bacon we found down in Vermont. Cob-smoked (as in corn cob-smoked), maple-cured bacon. Thick-cut, succulent, smoked and cured beyond perfection. I still can't get over it. We bought a couple of packs for our own personal, breakfast-time consumption--one pack of Shelburne Farms, one pack of Dakin Farm--and then we bought a couple of 1-lb. packages of Dakin Farm cob-smoked "odds and ends" just to cook with. We're talkin' heaven.

The next best discovery was beans, real New England baking beans, yellow-eyes and soldier beans. 2006 harvest. I know. You're thinking to yourself, "Beans?" You wouldn't believe what a difference it makes. They cooked to perfection in a fraction of the time the last batch I made did, and instead of being a characterless vehicle for the baked beans' other ingredients, they had a real flavor of their own, and cooking them created a rich pot liquor, just like it's supposed to. I can tell you one thing: I'll never use supermarket-bought navy beans ever again. That's it. It's over. Why would I ever go back? Together with a 1/4-pound of those Dakin Farm "odds and ends," I made the best damn batch of beans I've ever made. Seriously. Forget about "world-class." These were otherworldly.

Then there's the honey. Fantastic stuff, and at a fraction of what honey costs here in Quebec. I've still never quite understood the Great Price Hike of 2002 (or was it 2003?), the one that jacked up the price of honey by at least 60-80%. Whatever the cause, it doesn't seem to have affected Vermont's beekeepers.

And if that wasn't enough, we found apples, too. Somewhat rare stuff. Stevens Lady Apples, a tiny, perfectly colored, perfectly formed, slightly flattish variety, that, it's said, was kept tucked away in ladies' bosoms for safe-keeping until needed as a breath freshener. And Black Gilliflowers, a.k.a. Sheep's Nose apples, a cooking variety prized for its slightly spicy flavor.

Some people go on a trip and buy t-shirts and snoglobes and keychains, and that's cool. Other people go on a trip and buy milk and honey and bacon and cheese and beans and apples, and that's cool too. Trust me.


[You can find out all about Shelburne Farms and Dakin Farm, etc. via the miracle of the Internet, and you can even order some of this stuff online, but wouldn't you rather go for a nice drive?]

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Homage to Bens

As many have noted over the last few weeks since it was announced that this downtown Montreal institution was closing its doors forever, Bens had seen better days. We here at " endless banquet" reported as much way back in November 2004, in AEB's infancy, in a two-part post that you can find here and here, respectively, and already if Bens hadn't been the ideal location for our unlikely tête-à-tête with David Thomson, it would have gone without saying. Heck, that Bens was in a bit of a tailspin was evident even back in the late '80s when I first started frequenting the place. By that time, Bens' bread-and-butter, its famous smoked meat sandwich, had been left in the dust by its competitors and the only thing left was its structural elements--its great late-Deco exterior and that amazing interior with that notorious Wall of Fame (more "where are they now?" than "Who's Who")--and the faded glory of its atmosphere, especially after hours. Back then there was still a sense of bustle at Bens, and if memory serves the place was still running 24 hours a day, as unlikely as that now seems. Anyway, here Bens was on the verge of its 100th anniversary and I just kept hoping against hope that someone with a little vision might take the place over and breathe a little life into it. I didn't even care if it went touristy in the way that the Carnegie Deli went touristy in the years that followed Broadway Danny Rose, with grossly overpriced sandwiches and the like, as long as they found some way to keep what was left of the magic going. As with everything else around here, the fear of losing an old friend wouldn't be nearly so bad if we didn't have to worry so much about who the new neighbor was going to be. And with downtown being the way it is--a veritable vacuum when it comes to anything resembling a true metropolitan culture--god knows we need all the help we can get. When I first heard about the strike, I had a feeling it was the end. I sympathized with the workers as they formed their picket line, but the way things had been going with Bens I felt certain that this would be the excuse management would use to finally call it quits. Before long it was clear that that was exactly the way things were playing out. Then, late last year, the announcement came. Will someone step in and find a way to resurrect the space, save this little corner of downtown from becoming yet another highrise, yet another parking lot? I'd love to think so, but it's not clear to me that there's anyone with the resources and taste in this town to pull off such a feat of derring-do.

Anyway, there was a time when Bens occupied a certain space in the center of Montreal, culturally as well as geographically. There was a time when Bens made the most wonderful and logical setting for shots such as this one, from Michel Brault's Entre la mer et l'eau douce (1965):

Genevieve at Bens

Those were the days.


Monday, January 01, 2007