THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Farm shops and markets take a fresh approach; give the maple peppers a try

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane Foulds
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2007

Eat Your Way Through Vermont is the state's newest expedition for the unabashed food aficionado. Offered in spring, summer, and fall, the three-night tour buses you to farms, markets, and food producers to sniff and graze, with a special stop in Barre for the taping of an interactive talk show and cooking demo with Tony Campos of "New England Cooks."

"At every stop, you're usually tasting something," says Tricia Jarecki, who helps promote the jaunt through Finer Vermont Tours, a Killington travel agency.

Foodie travel is big these days. And Vermont's attraction map has gone culinary in a big way. Among the top stops are the Ben & Jerry's factory tour in Waterbury and the Cabot Creamery visitors center in the village of Cabot. And who's never been lured to Waterbury's Green Mountain Coffee by the aroma of roasting beans?

For every delicacy, there's an itinerary. You can travel the cheese route, the winery route, the chocolate route, the orchard route at apple time, and the maple route in March, when the sap starts to run.

Or you can hit the farm shops.

These welcoming stores, plentifully stocked with seasonal specialties, represent the next evolutionary step from the dwindling family farm. Numbering about a dozen, most are staffed by family members, and in most cases not at all remorseful that they've swapped barn-mucking for bus-greeting. Several shops provide amusements for the nonshoppers who turn up inevitably in every crowd, and all make for interesting browsing, if only to wince at the moose shirts and chocolate "cow patties."

In the mood for soft serve? Don't ask for vanilla; maple's the only flavor. As you lick the creamy softness, look around at how many concoctions a Vermont farm with time on its hands can dream up, and the answer is: plenty. Maple in every form conceivable: fudge, candy, sauce, cream, sugar, mustard, salad dressing, and more. For the more adventuresome, maple-infused beef jerky, peanut brittle, and popcorn.

At Butternut Mountain Farm's shop in downtown Johnson, you can sample infused maple syrups spiced with unexpected accents, a gourmet twist on the usual pancake topper. Besides the gingered maple, there's Sweet Autumn tinged with a vanilla-apple blend, Sweet Chai with cardamom and ginger, and Sweet Heat nuanced with habanero peppers. Owner Dave Marvin is the second of a three-generation sugaring family that wholesales syrup to other producers. He opened the shop a few years ago as "an adjunct to the farm" and to test new items on the market. Maple isn't all he sells; you'll also find honeys, homemade jams, chocolates, pewter, and locally-crafted gifts.

Doug Bragg stocks maple peppers. Intended as a seasoning for meats and salads, they seem more novelty than serious condiment. His Bragg Farm Sugarhouse in East Montpelier goes back seven generations. It had "very humble beginnings," he says, starting years ago on the porch of the farmstead next door. Back then, he says, "you'd take the vegetables you wanted and leave the money in a box." The Braggs dairied like everyone else, sugaring in the spring as a sideline. But when milk prices fell, maple kept them going, and things developed from there.

"Dairy farming's a tough way to make a living," he says. "Now the cows are gone, but the store's still here."

On a fall afternoon, the shop's pumpkin-laden surroundings are a sea of orange. Inside, Vermont-themed sweatshirts dangle overhead; knickknacks swell the hallways, making it difficult to squeeze by other shoppers. It's an odd moment when the place isn't packed. Cheeses, maple products, and candies are available in abundance, and the last bag of fresh-baked almond rolls disappears off the counter. In winter, their busiest time of year, wreaths, Christmas trees, and gift baskets take over. Visitors can walk trails in the woods and in the spring watch the sap being collected the old-fashioned way, in buckets.

"That's one thing people like about our place," Bragg says. His farm is one of the last that hasn't succumbed to the unsightly convenience of plastic tubing. Where they do follow the throng is in online sales: The Braggs are expanding their website catalog, and business is good.

Vermont has an abundance of mail-order companies, says Betsy Luce. Her own is a prime example. Her mother started mailing out goods half a century ago, sending packages to everyone on her Christmas card list. Since then, the Sugarbush Farm has become a popular outing destination for visitors to nearby Woodstock.

"So many people have gone into running a store or agritourism or bed-and-breakfast," she says, "because otherwise, they're going to lose the farm."

With her husband, Larry, and their two sons, the Luces raise cattle, tap 6,000 maples spread over 550 acres, and sell logs, hay, and firewood. They also open their home to the hordes who navigate miles of unpaved roads to reach the panoramic views from her hilltop farm, hoping for a glimpse of a rapidly vanishing way of life. They wander past the minuscule white chapel the family erected in the trees, gaze at the livestock, then roam the house for a self-guided tour of the cheese-making process. In rooms the family once lived and dined in, display shelves have supplanted the furniture. Browsers pass tables and coolers laden with cheeses, cookbooks, handicrafts, and specialty foods, like maple soda, maple seltzer, and venison summer sausage.

For 29 years, the Luces have been sending their milk to the dairy co-ops, getting it back transformed into cheese wheels, mostly cheddar. They age it, smoke it, and sell it, to the 40,000 visitors who stop by in an average year. Unlike the big companies, who marinate their cheeses in smoke-flavored sauce, she says, theirs is the real thing. They smoke it the natural way, over hickory and maple fires, with all the associated risks. On two occasions their smokehouse burned down.

But you can't beat the taste. It keeps people coming back, Luce says, and "that's really what's keeping the farm in the family."

Diane Foulds, a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt., can be reached at dianefoulds@burlingtontelecom.net.

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