I need to preface this next post by saying that I do in fact live in New Haven, CT and I do not travel EVERY weekend (although I wish I could). I just got back from a truly wonderful weekend in Vermont where I ate and drank some of the best stuff you can get. The beauty of it all was it was uber-fresh and most importantly, LOCAL. I love going to the Farmer’s Market and buying products grown, picked or crafted in my own community or one nearby. There is just something gratifying and special about it, like you are eating like kings and queens and not paying out the wazoo for it. I’m getting ahead of myself- I’ll rewind.
On Friday I made a last-minute trip up to Montpelier, Vermont to check out New England Culinary Institute, or as it’s most commonly referred to, NECI (pronounced neck-y). I’d had just about enough with CIA and trying to coordinate visits, find the right programs, basically get them to help me as a perspective student (#%$!@$#!!!) so after I discovered they pulled the degree I was interested in without letting me know for the second time, I said to myself, “SCA-REW YOU, CIA” and looked for a new option. I called my wonderful, problem-solving Mom looking for some tips. “What about the New England Culinary Institute?” she said. Far off bells started ringing in my head as I remembered speaking with the chef at Union League Café in New Haven, a highly regarded French restaurant. When speaking about my plans for culinary school he told me, “If you are serious about food, there is only one place, New England Culinary School.” While that may not be totally true, I’ve heard many things from many sources indicating that NECI is one of the finest schools in the country. So, I looked them up, they had a similar program to the one I’ve been eyeing, and called them to arrange a tour. Not only were they very helpful in setting up my visit, but also they were SO NICE. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have people want to help you and be happy while they are doing it! If ever you’ve been to the Northeast, you may have experienced the slightly abrupt nature of folks. It can get old. The staff at NECI was lovely and it was a great first impression.
My travel partner and I made the trip up to Vermont on Friday evening and started out our weekend by visiting Three Penny Taproom in Downtown Montpelier. They are known for their fine selection of local and just plain delicious beers. My boyfriend is quite the beer enthusiast/connoisseur so we planted ourselves on some barstools and tried a couple different brews. Monopolizing their menu were beers from Hill Farmstead Brewery, based out of Greensboro, VT. We tried Edward, their American Pale Ale (pretty delicious for a lighter beer), Arthur, a delicious Saison, and Phenomenology of Spirit, a dark Saison “fermented in french oak wine casks along with multiple strains of brettanomyces and…resident microflora” (http://hillfarmstead.com/wpblog/). They were all really great- shame they don’t distribute to Connecticut! I also began a love affair with my new favorite beer EVER, Houblon Chouffe! It’s a Belgian triple brewed in the style of an IPA. The fact that it has a gnome on the label makes it even better.
The next morning we rose early and hit the Montpelier farmers market where we sampled an array of cheeses, pickled goods and some great sausage that our budget (after I went wild on cheese and ramps) did not allow us to bring home. However, we did manage to bring home two local cheeses, one a fresh, spreadable cheese from a creamery I can’t remember (but I want never to be without this cheese again) and an alpine style cheese from Mt Mansfield Creamery called Halfpipe. All the cheeses from this creamery are raw cow’s milk cheeses with edible rinds. Halfpipe is a beautiful cheese with a taste that made me think, “If brie had the consistency of gruyere, that is what this would look and taste like”. I mentioned making a small grilled cheese with some of it and my boyfriend immediately shot it down, noting that this was a cheese to savor. It’s true. We also picked up some local ramps, a vegetable new to this Southerner. With their leafy green tops and red stalks, this mild garlicky-onion has eluded me till now and it will be dinner with spaghetti tonight! I’ll let you know how it turns out. Last but not least we picked up a loaf of bread from Red Hen Baking Co., an artisan Bread Company out of Middlesex, VT. The bread we decided on was “Cyrus Pringle” their “first loaf made entirely with Vermont-grown wheat,” which we thought was cool. A note on the bread bag let us know more about the name, “Baked in honor of Charlotte-born wheat breeder and botanist Cyrus Pringle (1838-1911).” You learn something new at every Farmer’s Market!
After we gathered our goodies, we met up with Scott at Admissions and embarked on our tour. We saw La Brioche, the student-staffed bakery and pastry shop, toured NECI on main, a farm-to-table restaurant with a tapas bar downstairs, also student-staffed, and talked with every person we came in contact with. Students approached us and asked about my interests, I asked them questions about their experiences and got to know a lot more about how the school is run. Everything is super hands-on with students thrown into the kitchen right off the bat, learning techniques and producing food for their classmates and local restaurant goers within their first week of class. I am super-drawn to the environment they have created at NECI and hopefully will be spending a lot more time in Vermont J
The rest of the day we spent exploring Burlington, and visiting the famous Alchemist brew pub, home of Heady Topper, the world’s greatest beer (so say beer nerds close to me). Although Heady Topper was not available when we were there we tried a couple of other beers that did not disappoint. The food was surprisingly great, too. I don’t mean to hate on brewpubs, but most of the time the food is just a greasy accompaniment to soak up the alcohol consumed. Sometimes it’s good greasy, but most of the time it’s very mediocre. The Alchemist exceeded expectations. While the food we had was traditional bar food, it was really well done bar food. We had the best beer cheese I’ve ever had- in fact, I didn’t like beer cheese till we had it there. We also tried their version of poutine; a traditional French-Canadian dish of French fries drizzled with gravy, topped with cheese curds and melted in the oven. The Alchemist nixed the gravy and threw some sliced jalapenos on instead. I can’t complain, it was a great mate for my beer filled-afternoon.
After all the excitement we had to crash early, but not before I got one last Houblon Chouffe at Three Penny Taproom. On our way home the next morning we stopped by the Co-Op and loaded up on all the beer and wine we can’t find and Connecticut, looking like total sots on a Sunday morning. If it means good living, then frankly, I don’t give a damn what it looks like (I watched Gone with the Wind Sunday night).