Subzero Vermont: put down your skis and taste this

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Greenberg
Globe Correspondent / January 25, 2004

WARREN, Vt. -- On the drive up, we made a bet. The car's outside temperature gauge ticked lower and lower, and once it hit 6 below zero, my buddy Phil and I bet on how cold it would get by the time we arrived at the Pitcher Inn.

I said minus 9. Phil said minus 11. Down the road apiece it hovered for a while at 10 below, so we figured it would be a draw. Ultimately, I lost. When we arrived at the columned entrance to our inn, in a quintessential Vermont village a-twinkle with colored lights, it was minus 12. In the wee hours of the night, we were later told, it dropped to 25 below, and one of the inn's boilers gave out.

So what do you do if you set off for a ski weekend with friends -- Subaru packed, expectations high, reservations not cancelable -- but the temperature drops so low that some of the lifts are closed, and even if they weren't, you have absolutely no desire to sit huddled and shivering for a ride to the summit that takes eight bone-chilling minutes, with little reward but to race down through the wind and rush into the lodge?

You modify the plan, that's what.

Fortunately, we didn't need to modify our accommodations. If you're going to spend more time inside than anticipated, it may as well be at a ''destination bed-and-breakfast" such as the Pitcher Inn, an elegant, sophisticated, traditional inn downstairs with mostly eccentric, even whimsical guestrooms upstairs.

We were in the Mountain Room, which in part is designed to replicate an old fire tower. The king bed (with fabulously fluffy pillows and comforter) is inside a faux fire tower within a larger suite. A mural of the Green Mountains covers two walls, windows overlook the back of the inn and Freeman's Brook below, and above the leather armchairs in the sitting area, snowshoes of various vintages and shapes are attached to the ceiling. Old crampons, ice axes, and pitons hang from the walls. The floorboards are salvaged, with planks up to 20 inches across, and the wide fireplace's mantle is a huge stone that was found on-site. There are books, photos, and memorabilia to commemorate the Army's 10th Mountain Division, a force of fighting skiers and mountaineers.

Our friends Marie and John were staying in the more traditional Calvin Coolidge Room, with a portrait of the 30th president, a village-gathering mural covering an entire wall, and a spacious porch overlooking ''downtown."

Most of the bathrooms have steam room/showers with rain showerheads. Several, including ours, are large enough for two people to camp out in for long, luxurious steams.

Other rooms include the Ski Room, which looks like an old ski lodge; the Trout Room, with a fly-tying table, four large, carved brook trout hanging from the ceiling, and beams held up by tree trunks; and the Lodge Room, with a striking Masonic theme.

The Pitcher Inn houses a renowned restaurant, where on Friday night we pondered our options for the frigid days ahead. Over plates of watercress and frisee salad with French feta, pumpkin seeds, and pomegranates; sauted monkfish piccata; grilled black bass with potato celeriac cake, baby beets and a ginger orange butter sauce; and other delectables, three of us bowed out of downhill skiing on Saturday. By the time we had finished our wine -- one of several thousand bottles in a collection valued by sommelier Ari Sadri at over $500,000 wholesale -- we had a new plan. We would eliminate some outdoor activities, attempt others, and supplement them indoors. The primary replacement: eating.

Saturday dawned clear, windless, and minus 17 degrees. Phil, the lone dissenter in our commitment to stay off the slopes, went off to Sugarbush to reactivate some old frostbite. The remaining three of us mulled our day over frittatas and warm currant scones.

By 10:30 the temperature was 12 below. Almost tropical. We figured we would try cross-country skiing, which unlike the Alpine version allows the opportunity for constant movement, so we headed to Blueberry Lake Cross Country Center, a 32-kilometer trail system in East Warren owned and operated by Leonard Robinson, an area resident for all of his 75 years. A former excavator and ski racer, Robinson built and maintains the trails. They are beautiful, with long vistas up to Sugarbush, and across the hills. From beginner to advanced, they meander through meadows, across streams, up and down hills, through woods and over frozen bogs. It was incredibly cold, so we stopped rarely. The snow made a loud squeaking that sounded oddly extraterrestrial.

After about 10 scenic and frosty kilometers, we had had enough, and went back to eating.

At the Warren Store, which is all about down-home but upscale country-ness, local products are front and center, including syrup, mustards, and wines. Upstairs is a snazzy gift shop, and the deli counter is extensive. Sandwiches are fresh and heartily stuffed. The soups -- chicken and roasted root vegetables, lentil with coconut milk -- were warming and rich. We lolled in front of the woodstove until it was time for each of us in turn to participate in other nonskiing activities: napping and receiving massages.

Alta Day Spa offers body wraps, scrubs, facials, and massages. There's also a boutique where stylish women's clothing, powders and potions, and skimpy lingerie are sold. Each of us made our way the few yards across the street from the Pitcher, received pampering, and returned, barely conscious, to our rooms.

On Saturday night we played darts, pool, and shuffleboard at Tracks, the inn's attractive bar, before heading out for dinner at The Common Man. In a restored barn, the casual restaurant serves rich comfort food, including pasta and shrimp, duck breast, and steaks. A fire burned in the tall hearth, and outside it was 10 below.

Sunday we waffled over baked eggs and maple scones at the inn and felt momentarily guilty over not skiing. Then, another scone, another decision. We decided to stick to Plan B and continue eating. Even Phil agreed. It was minus 7 degrees at the base of Sugarbush with flurries and 20-mile-per-hour winds. We took one more steam and headed for the Farmer's Diner in Barre.

The diner, recently featured in The New York Times, has a motto of ''food from here." Most of the diner's ingredients are local and organic, aside from the Kraft jellies and condiments, and they're trying to replace those. Eggs are from Stowe, steaks from Starksboro, bacon from Barre.

On Sundays the diner serves breakfast all day. It was afternoon, so we called our meal brunch (so as not to confuse it with the meal we had just completed). The corned beef hash was stellar. Omelets were fresh and the bacon was smoky and clearly not filled with nitrates. The patrons were a mix of groovy students and locals, and the place is very low-key. It's really a diner, albeit with burgers made from cows that lived down the lane, and if you didn't stop to read the Times article, it would be hard to know that the place is considered a revolutionary new model for thinking, acting, and eating locally.

With the last bite of organic butter on fresh whole grain bread consumed, we rolled out the door and into our cars, shoved aside the skis, and rolled home.

Beth Greenberg is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.

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