A SIGNATURE BLEND OF OLD AND NEW
Explore the incredible local food being produced in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom
By Jodi Lew-Smith
A visit to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom can feel like a trip to the past. A time when people drove slowly because the roads were made of dirt. When every little village had a general store that sold work boots, jars of dilly beans, even children’s train sets. When summers were for tending the garden and making hay, autumn was for canning food and cutting firewood, winters were for planning for the upcoming seasons and spring was for maple sugaring.
Much of the Northeast Kingdom still lives like this. Most every house has a garden and a wood pile. Chicken coops are common in the backyards. Sugar woods expand every year, although steel sap buckets have given way to plastic sap lines.
And, yet, the local craft food movement connects the Kingdom to the modern world, too. Local food production has always been part of the Kingdom’s culture, but now its popularity brings in new visitors. Visitors from all over the world come here to find culinary inspiration, and those of us who live here are grateful to blend our old ways with the new. We’ve preserved our agricultural traditions while also finding the means to earn a living in our remote and beautiful corner.
If you’re coming for a visit, here are a few places not to miss.
1. Hill Farmstead Brewery
If you’re a beer lover, the Northeast Kingdom is where you want to be. There are several excellent craft breweries within the Kingdom, and high-quality craft beer comes on tap in nearly every restaurant. But for many, the pinnacle of beer is made by the brewers at Hill Farmstead Brewery, rated the number one beer in the world by the premier arbiter RateBeer for three of the past four years. Topping a list of more than 22,500 brewers, and one of only three in the state of Vermont rated among the top 100 in the world. So, yeah, hard to beat.
And how does a beer get to be this good? Shaun Hill, operating the brewery on the dairy farm he and his brother inherited from their grandfather in North Greensboro, practiced his craft for 20 years and now brews all beers himself in small batches. And he intends to keep it that way. His vision is closely tied to the land the Hill family has farmed for 220 years, which he signifies by naming his porters, ales and stouts after his ancestors—such as Edward, Arthur, Abner.
And if you want to taste this beer, come to northern Vermont. He ships almost none of it out of state, in part because he believes his beer is perishable “just like lettuce or broccoli,” and should be consumed as fresh as possible. He sells it only at the farmstead, and in limited quantities at roughly 20 Vermont bars. It’s popular enough that thousands of people have made the pilgrimage to his remote farm to stand in line for a growler or a bottle. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a truly remarkable beer.
2. Agape Hill Farm
Beyond food and drink, there’s a whole other facet to our agricultural revolution that’s typified by a farm like Agape Hill. The Kish family doesn’t sell anything to eat. Instead they sell an experience. Or rather, an adventure. On a gorgeous hilltop farm that once grazed dairy cows, the Kishes breed, shear, and train a herd of llamas who are highly intelligent and personable.
With a twinkle and a laugh, Nancy Kish has become adept at matching the personalities of humans and llamas. A rambunctious young man is likely to be paired with rambunctious young llama. A shy and reserved young lady will find herself in the company of a similarly gentle-tempered llama. A visitor prone to good-natured pranks? Nancy has a llama for that, too.
You can visit for a day or just an hour. You can take a one-day or multi-week class in fiber arts or llama care, or even develop a personalized interactive program. The basic visit is usually a chance to walk with a llama through an obstacle course, or around the acres of trails that run through the farm’s woods and fields. Walking together is a chance to interact and get to know one another—and a llama is like no one else you know! You can also learn the art of felting in the fiber shop, explore the farm with a photo scavenger hunt, or enjoy a picnic amidst an array of antique tractors that kids are welcome to climb.
3. Eden Ice Cider
As Eleanor Leger tells the story, “Eden Orchards and Eden Ice Cider began on a trip to Montreal in 2006, when we first tasted ice cider and wondered why nobody was making it on our side of the border. That night we looked at each other and knew ice cider was the answer to our dream.” The couple bought an abandoned dairy farm in West Charleston, Vermont—Eleanor’s family home—and got to work. They’ve since planted more than 1,000 apple trees, created five vintages of ice ciders, two aperitif ciders, and now a hard cider.
Ice cider is more a sweet liqueur than a dry sparkling wine. The process of using the winter cold to freeze and thaw the pressed cider serves to extract the richness of the juice, concentrating it into an amber ambrosia with a pantheon of flavor. Some describe it as much like a Riesling. Others class it with the most elite dessert wines— vintage port, Sauternes and sherries. But a lot of people who don't love sweet dessert wines have found they like ice cider. Apples are naturally more tart than grapes, so they have a crisper taste.
Albert Leger’s training as a chemist proved immensely valuable in developing the unique vintages of their orchard. And they were soon the first American orchard to have a federally approved label for ice cider. Ten years later, they have won numerous accolades and awards, and their cider is available in at least 20 states, appearing on the menu of restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Del Posto.
To try it here, visit the Cidery at the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center for single-varietal vintages, such as Honeycrisp and Northern Spy, or go for the multi-varietal vintages, such as Heirloom Blend and Windfall Orchard.
4. Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center
There are those who can’t tantalize their taste buds enough—food is an adventure and they want to savor as many flavors as possible. It’s for these folks that a group of food artisans have come together to open the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, where you can taste food and drink from 20 producers in the Northeast Kingdom and 16 from other Vermont counties. Under a single roof, sample dozens of delectable treats at the Tasting Bar, sit for a coffee and pastry at Jocelyn & Cinta's Bake Shop, savor a sticky maple dessert at the Maple Shop, or have a full meal at the Newport Ciderhouse Bar & Grill. Or do them all! It’s a unique chance to introduce yourself to more fruits of the land than you could in a whole day—or even a whole week—of driving from one farm to the next.
You don’t want to miss the unique Seasonal Tasting Plate. Using the harvest of the season as a guide, four local farmers or producers in the Tasting Center contribute a “bite,” and four local cider/wine producers pair each bite with a sip. And it’s no middling sip. The Tasting Center was conceived by Eleanor and Albert Leger, who own and operate award-winning Eden Ice Ciders, now offered in a number of marquee restaurants in Boston and New York City. Ice Ciders, often featured with the tasting plate, combine fabulously with foods that pair well with apples. In other cases, a pairing could include a sip of wine from Shelburne Vineyard or Lincoln Peak Vineyard. Or perhaps a sip of spirit from Caledonia Spirits, Vermont Spirits or Dunc’s Mill. Each of these sips could also be paired with cheese, for which the Tasting Bar includes offerings from the world-class cheesemakers of the Kingdom, such as Bayley Hazen Blue from neighboring Jasper Hill Farm, or Cabot’s Clothbound Cheddar. So have a taste. Take a sip. Stay a while.
5. April's Maple
Maple syrup is as much a part of the Kingdom as dairy cows and granite. It’s a way of life here, and it continues to be the source of sugar locals prefer over all others.
Nestled in one of the most remote corners of the Kingdom, April’s Maple is a perfect example of the way the agricultural tradition has evolved. April Lemay and her family make maple syrup and sugar on 800 beautiful acres that have been in her family for generations. Just as their ancestors did, April and her family put in long hours turning thousands of gallons of sap into syrup. The way of life hasn’t changed, but today April’s remarkable products reach people who would never have had a chance to taste them.
To truly savor this unique elixir, you must savor where it came from. It’s a fact (or so we like to claim in the Kingdom) that syrup always tastes best straight from the boiling pan in the sugar house. Warm, in tiny cups or drizzled onto snow. Something about the sugar house, nestled in maple trees, with the smell of woodsmoke heavy in the air, accentuates both the sweet and complex flavors of the syrup.
See it for yourself—April warmly invites visitors to visit the farm. In her own words it’s a “place where you can relax, enjoy Vermont around you and meet my family—hardworking Vermonters who love their job of helping you to make the best of today.” Try freshly made maple sugar, maple cream, candies, crunch, maple cotton candy and maple sugared donuts. To work all that off, take a hike or bike on the trails of the 800 acres. And when you get back, have a scoop of Gifford’s ice cream. Which pretty much makes for a perfect day in Vermont.
6. Berry Creek Farm
Amidst the changing face of agriculture in northern Vermont, Rosemary and Gerard Croizet of Berry Creek Farm in tiny Westfield were early trailblazers. When they first bought their farm from Rosemary’s mother in 1993, people kept coming to the farmstand and asking, “Where are the cows?” There had never been a farm in the area that sold only fruits and vegetables. In fact they were the first certified organic strawberry and vegetable farm in all of Orleans County, largely because raising their food organically was a core part of their whole outlook. So Rosemary and Gerard became teachers on top of being farmers. “Organic food builds health,” says Rosemary, “If you’re raising your children in a healthy way, you’re creating a healthy individual and your decisions impact the health of your community and the land you live on.”
They’ve lived by these tenets, bringing their two sons into the work of the farm. In addition to their signature strawberries—a challenging delicacy in our far northern climate—Berry Creek now offers a wide array of other products, including meats, eggs, jams, honey, beeswax candles, bedding plants, dried flowers and a number of vegetables. At their farmstand, you can also find cheese, yogurt, sourdough bread, seeds, compost and many other local products. And guess what? In the end they did get some cows, as in, the beef cows that provide manure fertilizer and eventually get sold as burger and steaks.
Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is bursting with opportunities for visitors to explore what makes this place so special. Full of local farms producing world-class food and beverages, its deep dedication to tradition and long-time roots in the community are unique to the area. Visitors are eagerly welcomed to taste and explore, soaking up the rich cultural heritage with every bite.
Explore more of the Northeast Kingdom and plan a getaway.