Vermonters know these bleak November and early December weeks as stick season. The endlessly rolling hills are no longer green and fluffy as they were in the spring and summer, they are not gilded and painted as they were at the peak of fall color, nor are they soft and white and soul-cleansingly stark as they will be in a few weeks. For now, Vermont is quiet.
So it was at this uncrowded and unremarkable time of year that we - man, woman, and dog - left Maine to live free or die across New Hampshire and speed into Vermont for a spontaneous, 24-hour, country-cooking foodie road trip.
We broke into the gray mountains of the Green Mountain State on Route 9 just east of Brattleboro, and skipped over the hippie city in pursuit of real rural food.
Our first stop was the Paradise Farm Sugarhouse along the Molly Stark Trail (Route 9), where, in a shop made from timbers cut from the farm and then hand hewn and drilled, a snack of fresh homemade cider doughnuts was our first bite of Vermont cooking. So far so good.
Windows down and heat blasting, we drove Route 9 into Wilmington for lunch at Dot's Restaurant. Wilmington, the gateway to Mount Snow, is the sort of town that attracts tour buses and hand-holding, slow-motion strollers. Gas stations are busy with out-of-towners in turtlenecks and fleece vests, filling up their ski-racked Suburbans for long rides home.
In the center of town, perched almost precariously over the Deerfield River, is Dot's - a true small-town restaurant. Everything on the menu is hearty and homemade, from the spicy jailhouse chili to the blueberry-stuffed pancakes served with a generous cup of maple syrup. A stone fireplace is lighted on the back wall and vinyl-seated stools swivel at the Formica counter. We ate juicy local venison burgers crowned with sharp Vermont cheddar and a bowl of hand-cut french fries. The waitress called us "hon" and "dear."
We left Wilmington, and drove and drove, heading north and west, pointing at the grazing dairy cows with their shaggy winter coats and the plumb porches piled high with straight stacks of perfectly seasoned and neatly split firewood. We pulled into Weston just as the sun was setting to take a whirl through The Vermont Country Store, a sort of scaled-down, nostalgic, inside-cat-sedentary Vermont version of L.L. Bean.
The store is big, but the parking lot is huge, and I imagine during ski or leaf season unbearably crowded, but on this quiet Friday evening the knit-sweatered ladies were getting ready to shut down the registers, and we had the place to ourselves.
It was worth the stop. We found classic Vermont Common Crackers and the kind of small flat, wooden, paddle-style cutting boards that you usually need to buy knife-worn and garlic-scented from the antiques store.
From Weston, we drove through the dark and into tony Manchester to see about dinner and a place to stay. On a tip, we kept going to nearby Dorset for dinner at the Inn at West View Farm. Chef Raymond Chen, a former cook at Mercer Kitchen, the Soho outpost of celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant empire, runs the show with his wife, Christal Siewertsen, a former financial analyst.
The bar dining area was kind of old Yankee, and the fireplace just a smoky smolder, but the food was totally delicious, and the hospitality somehow five star, conscientiously invisible and family-restaurant-friendly at the same time. The Asian-style bar snacks - steamed dumplings, scallion pancakes - were as authentic as you could hope to find in this part of New England, and our entree - beef short ribs coated in aromatic spices and slow cooked until meltingly tender - was perfect.
With bellies full, we went looking for a place to stay. Accommodations willing to take us, and our dog, were in short supply so we winged it at Johnny Seesaw's, a comfortably rustic mountain lodge in Peru, just a few steep miles east of Manchester. At that late hour, all they had for us was a two-bedroom, tennis-themed cottage called Court, with scratchy carpet, soft mattresses, and a rickety 1970s-style woodstove-fireplace. It was perfect. We drank whiskey nightcaps at the bar, appreciating the giant, circular fireplace, and then stumbled back to Court, warm and tired, to fall asleep in front of a fire of our own.
In the morning we were up early, and once again drove and drove until we reached the Stepford-perfect village of Woodstock.
We sat down for grilled toast, sweet butter, the most delicious apricot jam, and double lattes at Allechante, a pert little bakery and cafe. With ballast and a caffeine buzz we cruised along the empty country roads into South Woodstock to admire the water buffalo at the Woodstock Water Buffalo Co. and to grab a sample of their milky curds at the South Woodstock Country Store.
The buffalo were black and shiny, grazing and enjoying their view of the mountains. The general store was the best of the trip, peddling plenty of local cheeses and hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies in addition to the usual provisions.
For the rest of the day we motored through the harsh sunshine, up and over the windy ridges, stopping at every general store, or at least 10 of them, each with the same depressing mix of SpaghettiOs for local homebodies and expensive hand-knit socks and sweaters for well-heeled visitors. Local food treasures were harder to find, but we did discover a few varieties of top-notch maple syrup kettle corn, more doughnuts, all kinds of local cheeses, and pepperoni and sausages from Vermont Smoke & Cure in South Barre.
So, our day of sampling country cooking morphed into a day of picnics with cheeses and sausages. She sliced and I drove, making salty sandwich after salty, spicy sandwich with our Common Crackers and glove-box snacks. We pulled over often to stare at waterfalls, Belted Galloway cattle, and handsome farmhouses of every shape and size.
Finally we stopped on a whim for a late lunch at the Spotted Cow in Waitsfield for an authentic and memorably delicious poutine, the great Quebecois combination of hand-cut fries, rubbery cheese curds, and oodles of rich gravy. Chef-owner Greg Matczak learned to love and cook the dish at the out-of-the-way restaurants he frequents when snowmobiling over the border.
From the Spotted Cow we drove over one of Waitsfield's covered wooden bridges, and then back and forth on the scenic East Warren Road. We stopped to eat more cheese and sausage and stare at more cows, and then headed north for a long car-sick ramble past the Ben and Jerry's factory and out to the Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center, our last stop of the day. The perfect cider doughnuts came right out of the hot fat, onto paper towels to drain, then straight into our hungry mouths.
On the way home we stopped in Hanover, N.H., just over the Vermont border, for Aloo Gobi and chai tea at the India Queen restaurant. The food was OK, cheap and spicy and a little bit exotic - a nice antidote to the tidy flavors and frumpy country charm of our weekend ramble.
Jonathan Levitt, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at Jon.firstname.lastname@example.org.