Words & Photos Simone Spilka

To Vermont: Will Travel For Flavor

Apr 06, 2016

It was late Friday night as we began the drive out of New York City. Alex, an urban farmer; Darcy, a lactose-intolerant who recklessly dabbles with cheese; and myself, a gluten-free pescatarian, packed into Alex’s cherry red Toyota Camry with a bag full of fresh watercress as our roadtrip snacks. The plan was this: we would take an indulgent culinary tour. We would go in search of farms and farm-to-tables, log cabins and hot toddies, cheese tastings and diner coffee. We would eat when we were hungry, or also when we were not. We collectively decided that to simply surrender to the flow of things was as good a culinary strategy as any, which is exactly how we ended up eating our way, hour-by-hour, through Vermont. ­

I had suggested a trip away over the New York border on the long President’s Day weekend knowing only very little about the state of Vermont itself. My adventures North typically ended at Dia: Beacon or in an apple orchard outside of the uber-hip town of Hudson. Vermont, rather, felt like a half-way mark to a European lodge and Apres-ski. As I painted it, Vermont was a weekend away to live in a vintage wool sweater and eat chevre by a fireplace. The NYTimes confirmed my intuition: “meander through the picturesque Battenkill Valley,” “get acquainted with Vermont’s unspoiled Green Mountains,” “explore Manchester’s bounty of local arts-and-crafts shops and artisanal restaurants.”

As I painted it, Vermont was a weekend away to live in a vintage wool sweater and eat chevre by a fireplace.

Three and a half hours and two gas station stops later, we arrived to our first destination in Salem, New York, to 100 acres of farmland blanketed in an all-white cover. It was precisely the calming landscape—still and silent—that makes city-dwellers immediately question their metropolitan lifestyle. The porchlight illuminated a fire-truck red door, where our host, Kitty, stood waiting in her night robe: Welcome, welcome! Come in, how lovely to finally meet you! She said, outstretching her arms and draping country living around us with a friendly hug.

Kitty had anticipated our hunger. She’d stocked the house for allergens and cheese lovers alike, and for a week of visitors rather than a half-day. Breakfast was steel cut oats, ripe banana, 2% whole milk, almond butter, unrefined brown sugar and black coffee. Lunch was a DIY spread of split pea soup, cheese, smoked salmon, watercress, dried figs and sesame crackers. Everything worked well individually, but it worked particularly well together. She had dressed the table in a considered combination of textures and colors, an unassuming homage to her past life in the epicenter of the 1960’s NYC art scene. In between breakfast and lunch, roughly one hour, we took a short walk from the red door to the barn house. We fed Kitty’s 11 pet sheep, one pony, two dogs, and one cat. Inside the house, we watched the birds feeding.

It turned out we all liked to talk. And talk. And stretch, and read art books, and eat. Eating was the default answer to ‘ what next?’ It was low-stimuli activity—relaxing and never once boring. We moved at a languid pace—something of an art these days—one that begged you to meditate on every bite spaced between drawn-out conversations.

We stayed and lingered longer than our departure time, loading the car with cheese before continuing Northeast. We stopped at Carol’s Hungry Mind Cafe in Middlebury, a quaint and classic New England town, for Maple lattes (coffee, a shot of Maple syrup, almond milk) to stay. We drank down the sweet taste of autumn next to tables packed with students huddled over their textbooks and laptops, hibernating from the frigid temperatures outside, and vowed to carry on the rest of the way without stopping and without eating. Ten miles further, we cheated our rules and followed the “Tasting Room This Way” sign straight into the nearest winery.

Five pours later, we were on our way to our Airbnb, an inviting ski cabin perched high over the homely Inns and 1,658 residents of Moretown, VT. Although small and less of a tourist destination than its popular neighbor, Montpelier, Moretown has all of the appeal and charm one could hope to find in the country, with easy accessibility to ski resorts and craft breweries in just under a half hour’s drive. And while Northern Vermont might lack some of the savoir faire of a French Valley, it makes up for it in almost every other way, particularly so on Valentine’s Day when we were looking to indulge in something tasty, relaxing and not too fancy.

We were seated at the only available booking at Peasant, a humble, European dining room for lovers (and for a ravenous trio of travelers). The menu was small, and the service homey. We ate the simple salad to start; we devoured maple-glazed salmon over a bed of sautéed spinach; we savored the spaetzle, sausage, squash, kale and chevre entrees; we gaped over peasant poached prunes served over mascarpone for good measure. Even without wine, we closed the restaurant down. The Peasant chef, Chris, a retired banker and native New Yorker, greeted us at our table twice: First in an apron to inquire about our meal, and then again in a plaid-button down and trousers to invite us to the local saloon, and recommend—what else—where to visit for our next meal.

With Chris’ recommendation, we lucked into the greatest of breakfast-turned-lunch joints in the most unassuming of places: A hip attachment to the town’s movie theater. A new-age diner with old-time digs, Big Picture Theatre and Café attracted all of Moretown at the exact same time. It was the most ‘local’ of venues, which only further enticed us to pass the hour-long wait with heavy-loaded brunch cocktails and multiple rounds of scrabble. We perched up on the bar stools, observing the Sunday morning chaos in between sips of free-refill diner coffee and old-fashioned homemade Italian sodas. Blue Bottle it was not, but the black drip from the machine poured into thick-rimmed white mugs carried the nostalgia of a classic cross-country American roadtrip.

Travel reminds us that an extraordinary meal need not come from a prestigious restaurant, but a chef who considers ingredients, enjoys tradition, and seeks deep pleasure in the simplicity of sharing their craft.

Approaching the final hours of our Vermont tour, we intended to spend our time forging down the mountaintop on skis and in the lodge, respectively. But when the only objective plan for physical exercise was upended due to weather, we headed South (full of eggs) looking for hard cider and local brewed beers at Waterbury’s famous Prohibition Pig Brewery. We drank down the last part of the weekend and chased it with guacamole.

Unlike the 25 or so meals we consume each week for nourishment and energy, moving in search of foreign flavors and sensations begs us to remember the details. Weeks later, as I write this, I can still visualize Kitty’s precise step-by-step instruction manual on how to to arrange the optimal breakfast bowl of steel-coat oats (slant a knife 45 degrees to cut a banana into quarter-inch pieces; consider the order in which toppings are added; pour whole milk to reach a centimeter above the top of oats). I recall with vividness the surprising maple-dusted flakes of the Peasant salmon fillet, a preparation I would have never considered on my own. Travel reminds us that an extraordinary meal need not come from a prestigious restaurant, but a chef who considers ingredients, enjoys tradition, and seeks deep pleasure in the simplicity of sharing their craft. When we travel, we classify a wonderful meal less by taste and more for the memory of reclining, drinking a nice glass of wine, and breathing in mystifying flavors. In returning home from Vermont, however short or near the trip, I entered into my own kitchen with a reclaimed love for the intimacy that comes from sitting down to share a meal around the humble table.