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?]


Anonymous said...

Have you tried North Country Fruitwood Smoked Uncured Bacon? I got it in Vermont last week, and I am purely blissful. My house smells like that and nothing but. Only three slices left... I'm on rations.

Michel said...

You were able to come back across the border with all these cheeses? That's amazing.
I had a friend who made a point of buying Vermont Cheddar whenever he went skiing down there. His folks were from Cheddar, England, and apparently VT cheddar is close to the real thing.
There are some restos down there who really try to highlight their homegrown products. They're fun to discover.

Anonymous said...

That is a really nice post. Nice of you to ID all those items for us! Today we had bagelettes with smoked bacon from Jean-Talon Market's Porcmeilleur - definitely better bacon than you'd get in the regular grocery.
Whenever I drive towards New York I stop at Oscar's Smokehouse in Warrensburg, where they've been smoking pig for at least 3 generations...

Take it easy, and maybe we'll eat together sometime,

Peter Horowitz

Anonymous said...

Crossing the border with all those cheeses? Wow! Besides spending the weekend what else did you have to do? Pay the duty or something?

aj kinik said...

hi CWI,
haven't tried the North Country fruitwood-smoked uncured bacon, but i was checking out their catalogue the other day and licking my chops and it sure sounds good. I think it's just about time for a bacon tasting.

hi Michel & Kirin,
coming back with cheese is no problem. We just bring a cooler along with us when we go down. We declare them as 'groceries' and as long as we've been out of the country long enough (24 hours) our expenditures are always below what you're allowed. We've never had to pay duty ever. You should know that Canada Customs seems to have changed their regulations with regards to alcohol, though. You used to be able bring back alcohol after 24 hours. Now the minimum is 48 hours. We happened to run into a nice customs official (who knew?) who let us bring our 2 bottles of beer and 1 bottle of cider because it was such a paltry quantity and we had bought booze according to the old rules.

Hi Peter,
Oscar's in Warrensburg, huh? Sounds amazing. We should definitely get together and swap smokehouse notes.

Wayne Turiansky said...

I must confess that I've never tried Dakin Farms' bacon, but I can attest that Harrington's ends and pieces at $5.00 per pound online (don't know the prices in their retail stores offhand) is one of Vermont's great deals. They've stores in Richmond and Shelburne.

You'll also find a good variety of locally produced meats (and a whole lot more, including the best tamales this side of the Pecos) at the Burlington Farmer's Market whch runs on Saturdays until 2 PM from May through October in City Hall Park. Not Jean Talon by any stretch of the imagination, but entirely locally produced and a whole lot more neighborly.

rcianci said...

Nice to hear you think so highly of our Vermont products. I share your enthusiasm for Lazy Lady Farm cheeses. Next time you're down here, try the Trillium (layers of cow and goat cheese separated by edible ash) or the Raptured (cow's milk cheese wrapped in brandied vine leaves.) I also recommend Vermont Butter and Cheese Company's European Style Cultured Butter which regularly win awards as the best butter in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Went to VT for the quarterly looting of Williams-Sonoma and I am glad I read your archives before. The Orb Weaver Cave aged is very fine. Got a few butters as well but everything seems to be made with pasterized milk.

What puzzles me is not the cheese, it's the bacon and meat products you brought back. I was told again at customs this is verboten verboten verbote. Believe me I would bring back whole Serano hams from Spain if I could. Did you declare specifics of just 'groceries'?

aj kinik said...

hi Eric,
We've never been asked to itemize our food purchases--we just say that we bought some groceries and tell them how much we spent (and our purchases are always under the limit, food being relatively cheap compared to, say, clothes). Our experience is that what they're most concerned about is whether you've been outside of canada long enough, and that you're not bringing back mass quantities of alcohol and tobacco (and probably firearms).