Saturday, November 14, 2009

'I Am Not A Glutton, I Am An Explorer Of Food'

I found myself suffering title-ist block as I sat down to write this blog entry. Clearly this is because my last attempt at post titling ended in me alliterating my way out of thinking up an even mildly witty title. So this time I cheated. I typed 'quotes about food' into Google's search engine and voila, found the perfect quote for this particular post (what is wrong with me? I have an addiction to alliteration!).

So a thank you to the late Erma Bombeck for offering me an escape from 1 of the 7 deadly sins through the use of creative redirection: 'I am not a glutton, I am an explorer of food.'

Indeed, I daresay if there were a Food Explorer's Club, I'd be vying for top honours in 'Greatest Number of Enviable Eating Explorations'. All I can say is that I'm holding up my end of the bargain, and thusfar Vermont has been holding up its end by offering endless opportunities to be a mean a gastronomic explorer.

Here then, are accounts of my most recent food explorations, sub-titled by individual conquest.

Burlington Bluebird

Burlington is to Vermont what Charlottetown is to Prince Edward Island. Which is to say, it's the only 'city' in the state. And I use the term city very loosely. I believe the population is approximately 35,000 in the City proper, although I've been told (with great emphasis) that IF you add in the surrounding towns AND the student population of UVM it's more like 70,000. Charlottetown also has a population of approximately 35,000. Notably, Vermont has a total population of 600,000, while PEI's is only 140,000, which seems to suggest that PEI is MORE urban than Vermont. This strikes me as absurdly funny, but I suspect that might be because I am writing this under the influence of many glasses of apple cider.

Right, so my point is that both Charlottetown and Burlington residents enjoy a disproportionate number of great dining choices given their size. Off the top of my head, I would recommend the following restaurants in Charlottetown and area(depending on what one is looking for in terms of food, price, etc.): The Dunes, The Merchantman, The Pilot House, Leo's Thai Kitchen, Cedar's Eatery, Off Broadway, Churchill Arms (for cheap English curry!), and Mavor's . In Burlington, I've enjoyed meals at Penny Cluse, American Flatbread and, most recently, at a place whose name I've yet to learn the origin of (but should).

So last Saturday, after an afternoon of wine sampling at Shelburne Vineyard and an intermission to enjoy some live music at a funky bar called Radio Bean, my friend (we'll call him Phil-up-on-Food or PF for short) suggested we have dinner at Bluebird Tavern. Joe (see Shannon Had a Lot of Lamb blog post) had already recommended the restaurant and I'd been following their menu tweets on Twitter, so enthusiastically agreed. A self-described gastro-pub (basically I think that means they aim to do beer AND food equally well) located on Riverside Avenue, the tavern benefits from its proximity to the Intervale, which is home to several small-scale and incubator farms that serve the local market. The tavern's interior offered a cozy winter cabin feel, which is interesting given that the place used to house a Mexican restaurant. I felt like I should be wearing a parka and long underwear, or at least a wool sweater. Oh well. I ordered a pint of Switchback (thankfully, there are many microbreweries in VT). The menu was full of enticing options, but it quickly became evident that we should enjoy a share dinner. In breaking with tradition, I (kind of) insisted on having the chicken option purely based on the accompaniment, which was foraged wild mushrooms. We had two appetizers to start: kale sauteed in something (memory is failing me) and lamb sausage. What can I say, except that the entire meal was divine. I believe my favorite tastes were those of the foraged mushrooms, which were accented by other tasty morsels (not morels!).

Wednesday, I made a second visit to the Bluebird Tavern with Joe and his wife, Maura. We drank at the bar and sampled off the tavern menu: poutine (Quebec border is about 45 mins north!), butcher's board (meat pates and mustards), and squid (from Rhode Island - not really local, but as local as one could get with seafood in VT). The fare was tasty and the company much enjoyed. While we bevvied a number of people stopped by to say hello to Joe and Maura, which made me think of Ireland and Scotland, where the pub was always 'a third place'...a place for people to come together, say hello, catch up with old friends and, more often than not, make new friends. Maybe, given its unique location in a town and state where 'community' still seems to hold meaning and value, the Bluebird had been able to transplant the tradition of the public house to America. Did I mention I love Vermont?

Jerusalem Art-I-Choke on Soup

On Sunday afternoon I drove to the outskirts of Montpelier to meet up with another new found friend who was testing the soil in the yard of his rental accommodation, which is an impressive schoolhouse-turned-open-concept-house, to see if it was acidic/neutral/alkaline when I arrived. Neutral....just like Switzerland, as Jen Mac would say. He pointed to what looked like some tall weeds in an overgrown area that 'may' have been a garden at one point and said the landlord had told him that those plants were Jerusalem artichokes. He drove a shovel into the soil and moved some of the sod away to find the artichoke. At first neither of us could find the tuber, but eventually landed upon what looked, to me, like a radish. Neither of us was completely sure this was the artichoke in question, but we forged ahead with the artichoke harvest and ended up with about 8 tubers, some larger than others. After a hike that was thwarted by the sound of hunter's shotguns, we decided to make dinner from our foraged food. I checked google images to confirm whether our treasures were, in fact, edible. Well, to be honest, the images didn't exactly match what we'd unearthed, but that didn't stop us from making a Jerusalem Artichoke Soup, which, if I do say so myself, was quite delicious, albeit rather ugly. Best of all, it turns out we didn't mistakenly eat something poisonous. Always a bonus.

No-Economists-Land (aka - A Free Lunch)

In my first year of university, I recall my Microeconomics professor vehemently proclaiming that there is no such thing as a free lunch. He explained that there is always a cost a 'free lunch' because the time taken to eat that free lunch is considered a 'cost'. Well, I've always disagreed with this argument b/c regardless of whether someone else is treating or you are going out on your own nickel, you're still going to be taking time to eat the food, so doesn't that make the issue of 'time' a moot point? Personally, I'm not a fan of classic economic thought, it's rather reductionist and it takes the fun out of things. Except the dude who wrote Freakonomics is still in my good books - he makes economics fun!

In any case, every Thursday there is a community lunch in Hardwick., VT. It's held at one of the churches on Main St., but is not hosted by the church. I believe it was started a couple of years ago by Robin, one of the collective members at Buffalo Mountain Co-op. So I dropped in and found myself at the end of a line of about 20 or 30 people, and there were probably about 50 people already digging into what looked like a hearty, colourful lunch. There was a donation box sitting at one of the tables in a rather understated way. Once I came to the table of food I took a glass plate (yay to no paper plates) and piled some roasted veggies and couscous, then ladled some hearty beef soup into a soup bowl. Apple cake was also on offer, along with apple juice and homemade coleslaw. I sat down with Kate and her two adorable granddaughters, and was introduced to a couple of local folk, including a long-time farmer who raved about how well Quebec treats its farmers and told me neither of his children was interested in taking over the farm (the work's too hard) and another older man who is a blacksmith. And it occurred to me that we are on the brink of losing a generation of very knowledgeable people whose skills we will dearly need as the centralized, oil-dependent systems we depend on become even less stable than they currently are. The era of valuing a certain kind of left-brain thinking over all other kinds of thought and labour is, in my opinion, nearing an end. And when it does, we may or may not be in the position of having a huge gap in essential knowledge around things like how to grow food, how to build homes, how to take care of our health, etc. It would behoove us to be proactive on this front, however, I'm not entirely optimistic that the left-brain thinkers that dominate today are going to have the foresight to avert the loss of traditional knowledge bases.

In any case, I quite enjoyed my community lunch, and didn't meet any economists. I doubt there are any living in Hardwick. And that's probably a good thing. About 120 to 150 people show up for lunch each week and somehow they manage to keep this going, despite the fact that it's free.

Ice Cream from the Dairy-Air of Vermont

OK, so I've been holding out on taking a field trip to Waterbury, VT in hopes that some friend from The Great White North might come to visit me while I'm living here and then we could check out Waterbury together. More specifically, we could check out Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory, which is located in Waterbury!!!! Yes, yes, that's right folks, some of the world's best ice cream is made just half an hour from where I am currently residing, making it very local and therefore within the scope of my locav-or-ganic challenge. Oh what a burden this challenge is. Do you know how hard it is to choose between 30 different flavours of wonderfulness? It's nearly impossible.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, it should be noted that I could not hold out any longer and saw now sign of any friends from Canadia dropping in on me. So, I decided I'd go it alone, and set out on Friday afternoon - the sun was shining and my legs were sore for no particular reason. Originally my plan had been to hit up two chocolate shops, an organic bakery AND the ice cream factory in one go. At some point during the first fifteen minutes of my drive, I came to the logical conclusion that this was far too ambitious given my time frame (not to mention, far too indulgent).

Yes, it was indeed a day of strange occurrences - my legs were sore and I'd employed logic to make a decision. That's when I was Friday, the 13th. Strange things were bound to happen. Maybe, I hypothesized, Ben & Jerry's will turn into some sort of Willy Wonka-like movie, where we get to slide down mountains of ice cream, and swim in lakes of hot chocolate sundae sauce. Ooooh, and maybe Ben & Jerry didn't REALLY sell out to Unilever, but are waiting for just the right person to happen upon their factory doors and that person will inherit the dairy-dom. And clearly, that person will be me!!

But I digress.... sometimes I get a little carried away with my food fantasies. Please forgive me.

Before I reached B & J's place, I stopped in at Cold Hollow Cider Mill, which offers visitors the opportunity to see a commercial cider mill in action and, of course, plenty of apple-inspired foods to purchase and enjoy. I bought a half gallon of apple cider. That is what I am polishing off right now. It's delicious.

Ben & Jerry's
ice cream factory is fun! That's really the best adjective I can think of to describe my experience there. They've done a great job of creating a comfortable, colourful and funny (in a v. corny way...or should I say 'milky way'?) experience. The factory tour was $3, and took about half an hour - the first 7 minutes of which were a video about the history of the company (they got started after taking a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making through Penn State!). Then we were taken to a viewing deck above the production floor and the guide went through the ice cream making process with us. Unfortunately, there was no ice cream production going on while I was there. Finally we were led to the tasting room, where we were given generous samples of the taste of the day - a Mint Chocolate ice cream (can't recall the exact title). It was delicious. After that, I checked out the retail store, picked up a pint of Frozen Yogurt (Half Baked) for $4.75 and then proceeded to the scoop shop for a cone of some delicious flavor. Normally, I'd go for something with PB in it, but on this day I decided to try a flavour that I'd never had before: Chocolate Chip Cookie dough. It was delicious. Unfortunately, I had been feeling progressively worse throughout the day and didn't have an appetite, so some of my B&J cone ended up on the I-89. Oh dear. Clearly I will need to pay another visit when I am feeling better, if only to stock up on more pints of ice cream to share with friends back in Kingston!

And that, I believe, is an 'almost' complete recount of my food experiences thus far. I'm still holding out on writing about the various food enterprises in Hardwick, but they will come soon, I promise!


fromaway said...

Wow...quite a story!


Anonymous said...

You are certainly not a glutton! Isn't it amazing how some small towns can have some really amazing food!

Just curious... you said your ice cream ended up on the I-89. Does that mean you threw out Ben & Jerry's??

Rob said...

Holy Shit Shannon this is a lot of food and drink.

When Robin returned from a summer in Europe - mainly trying to taste every chocolate there her Dad commented as he met her at the Airport "My we ate well"

Will we all be able to say the same to you?

fromaway said...

Wow, sounds like you are a very determined researcher! Hope the legs feeling better?


Shannon Courtney said...

I am eating well, it's true! But I'm not sure how evident that will be or is (I've not outgrown any clothes yet, but clothes also tend to have stretch) and I'd prefer if people chose not to tell me in the spirit of Christmas kindness. The new year shall bring much by way of moderation, as my budget and access to indulgences in food plunge whilst I live alone in the countryside on the outskirts of Kingston.

The legs are feeling 100% better.

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