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travel: vermont and new hampshire

It was not long after my trip to Maine last summer when Sharon asked if I would be willing to come out to Vermont in March to learn about organic maple syrup farms. My reply was, “That’s prime ski season in Colorado.” Sharon convinced me that this would be a worthwhile adventure and she has never steered me wrong.

To be honest, I am not much of a syrup person. Most likely this is because I’m not a sweet breakfast person (or a breakfast person for that matter). However, years ago I did make the switch from “syrup” to pure maple syrup in my house because I realized how much junk there is in “syrup”. By junk I mean highly-processed, manufactured, chemical-laden ingredients. Pure organic maple syrup (what I use) has one ingredient and it’s all natural and minimally processed. It should come as no surprise that someone who titles her blog use real butter would insist on using pure maple syrup. But I wanted to learn more. It was enough to pull me away from my ski season for a weekend.

I wrote back to Sharon, “I’m in.”

A Song of Ice and Sugar

The Hand: Sharon Kitchens
Master of Coin: Arnold Coombs (Coombs Family Farms Facebook page)
The Small Council: Matt Armendariz, Rebecca Crump, Ashley English, Joy Wilson, myself, and Ellen Daehnick (my guest). [I realize The Hand and Master of Coin are both part of The Small Council, but just work with me here.]

Full disclosure: My transportation, lodging, meals, and activities were sponsored by Coombs Family Farms with no obligation on my part. All photographs, words, experiences, and opinions are my own.

Day 0: Boston to West Chesterfield: The Butcher Shop, Chesterfield Inn
Day 1: Guilford (VT), Brattleboro (VT), Alstead (NH), Walpole (NH): Ted’s Sugarhouse, Coombs Candy Kitchen, Bascom Family Farms, Burdick Restaurant, Chesterfield Inn
Day 2: Norwich (VT): King Arthur Flour Mothership
Day 3: West Chesterfield to Boston: fly home

Day 0: It took 9.5 hours to go from my house in the Colorado Rockies to a car to a bus to a plane to a car to dinner at The Butcher Shop in Boston. There, I met up with my partners in crime for a lovely reunion over multiple boards of antipasti (Prosciutt, Mortadella, Sopressata, Rosette de Lyon, Finocchiono, Petit Jésus), pâtés and terrines (duck liver mousse, gamebird en croûte, pâté de campagne, rillettes du jour), and housemade sausages. Servers loaded our table with cheeses, beet salads, hummus, pickled vegetables, marinated olives, Parmesan, Marcona almonds, breads, mustards, and honey while we did our best to clear plates and make more room. It was a divine welcome to New England and a great way to kill time waiting for the rush hour traffic to abate. Sharon navigated Boston traffic and a snow storm in New Hampshire to deliver us safely to the Chesterfield Inn in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, our home base for the next few days.

three types of housemade sausages

matt and joy contemplate where to begin

this was just our half of the table

nighttime at the chesterfield inn (the night we arrived, it was snowing)

Things I really liked from Day 0
Dinner at The Butcher Shop.
Catching up with friends on the long drive to West Chesterfield.
A good night’s sleep at the Chesterfield Inn.

Day 1: The Chesterfield Inn is a quaint establishment nestled near the Connecticut River, which dictates the boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. In the morning, I could get a better sense of the layout of the property and the neighboring woods. I met Yoda, the resident kitty who likes to perch (or curl up) in the mail tray and lazily observe guests as they come and go. We all convened in the sunroom for breakfast with our host, Arnold Coombs, a charming seventh generation maple farmer who produces organic maple syrup, organic maple sugar, and pure maple candy.

the inn by morning light

feels like new england

the inn’s mascot, yoda

yoda runs the place like a boss

every breakfast had a selection of maple syrups (and maple butter)

cinnamon maple french toast

After an energized and animated breakfast conversation, everyone piled into the Suburban and hit the road for (Arnold’s) cousin Ted’s sugarhouse (also known as a sugar shack or a sap house) across the border in Guilford, Vermont. Ted’s sugarhouse draws on 800 or so taps and reduces the sap into syrup in a wood-fired evaporator. Coombs Family Farms was the first to implement reverse osmosis in the maple industry to separate sap from water resulting in a 75% reduction of their carbon footprint. It’s a cozy, unadorned operation tucked away among the maples in this little corner of Vermont. When you step into the building, the moisture and the smell of wood fire and maple syrup envelop you. The steam is an entity unto itself, rising from the evaporator and drifting up toward the cupola vents or eddying into forgotten corners. Meanwhile, Cindy was tending a pot of boiling maple syrup to get the right consistency (it has to flake off the spoon just so) for sugar on snow – a traditional taffy-like confection enjoyed by locals during the sugaring season. Cindy provided pickles and fabulous fresh homemade doughnuts as accompaniments – a mingling of sweet, sour, salty, crunchy, cakey, chewy. Breakfast what?

a tiny step fall in the creek alongside the property

the frozen road

venting steam from the top of the sugarhouse

ted explains the evaporation process that transforms maple sap into maple syrup

the evaporator is fueled by wood burning

left: boiling maple syrup and drizzling it on clean snow; right: sugar on snow with a pickle

Before I could steal yet another delectable doughnut hole, Arnold grabbed an armful of buckets, lids, spiles, and tools and led us outside. We were going to learn to tap a tree. I felt happily at home in the snow, that cold air rushing through my nostrils triggering my nose to run. White snow, naked tree branches, frozen muddy tracks indicative of the early spring thaw and freeze. The tree stand from which a maple syrup farmer harvests sap is called a sugar bush. Sugar maples and black maples are the main sources of sap as they tend to deliver a higher sugar content than other types of maples. We were there when it was still too cold for the sap to run. Sometime in late winter or early spring, the daytime high temperatures will break the freezing point, the nights will still freeze, and the snows will melt. Before this happens, you tap the trees. When it is warm enough for sap to run (near 40°F), sugaring in New England (and Canada) begins in earnest. The season can go as long as six weeks, but when trees bud the maple sap turns an off flavor and the season is considered over.

If you’re in New England and want to participate in the sugaring festivities, New Hampshire Maple Weekend is March 23-24, 2013 (this weekend). Get on that.

joy taps a sugar maple

making sure the spile is secure

the bucket and lid in place, ready to collect sap

We all got a turn at tapping maples around the property after Arnold deftly showed us how it’s done. He’s been tapping trees since he was four years old. That’s something. I think the only thing I’ve been doing consistently since I was four years old is run my mouth. So we each tapped one tree. Now imagine if you will, tapping a few thousand trees which is a typical number for a small family farm. My forearms ache just thinking about it. Because the maple syrup industry is so intimately tied to the health of the forests, Arnold takes an active interest in the environment, sustainable practices, our changing climate and its impact on the trees. His stewardship of the land is rooted in both short-term and long-term visions. When we had sufficiently burned off the calories we had consumed in the sugarhouse (ha!), Arnold took us to Brattleboro (also in Vermont) to tour the Coombs Family Farms maple candy factory. Theirs is one of three (soon to be two) maple candy producers in the country. It’s not a big money maker, yet Arnold keeps it running because of his dedication to what is good and right and not what is necessarily profitable. I have mad respect for people like Arnold Coombs, even if he did make me wear a hairnet.

left: filling maple candy molds; right: candies drying

maple leaf maple candies ready for packaging

processing maple fondant at the factory

Next stop: The Brattleboro Food Co-op, a.k.a. The Awesomest Food Co-op on the Planet. The only thing missing was a bag of Tim’s Cascade jalapeño potato chips, which would have made it nirvana. Is anyone reading this far or do you all just scan the photographs? We grabbed lunch to go and hopped the state line to Bascom Family Farms in Alstead, New Hampshire. There we met Bruce Bascom, Arnold’s business partner and the head of Bascom Family Farms. They cover the commercial side of maple syrup (as opposed to the consumer side of maple syrup which Coombs Family Farms manages) and are the largest supplier of maple syrup farming supplies. Both Bruce and Arnold are committed to helping small maple syrup farmers. We toured the facility and followed the process of receiving, grading, storing, blending, and bottling. Outside, Arnold pointed out the modern method of tapping trees which uses plastic tubing and vacuum pumps in a network to harvest maple sap.

bascom family farms

mount killington rises in the distance

grading syrup based on translucence

left to right: grade a (3 grades): light amber, medium amber, dark amber, and grade b

in the blending tanks room

glass bottles to be filled with maple syrup

plastic tubing: the modern way of tapping trees

Upon our return to the Chesterfield Inn, we settled into the lounge for hors d’oeuvres (local cheese, venison summer sausages, pâté, fruit, maple fruit spreads, bread, crackers) and maple cocktails. (I had a half-strength maple mojito which was terrific, but the room was spinning like a carousel.) Dinner was a maple-themed feast of maple walnut bread, jalapeño corn muffins, green salad with maple balsamic vinaigrette, a choice of beef, salmon, or chicken entrée, and a maple crème brûlée or vanilla ice cream with chocolate maple sauce. Fantastic.

ready for dinner after learning all about maple syrup

lovely green salad with maple balsamic vinaigrette

grilled salmon with maple sugar dry spice rub and cinnamon maple butter

Things I really liked from Day 1
Yoda, the cat at the Chesterfield Inn.
Visiting Ted’s sugarhouse.
Cindy’s homemade doughnuts.
Learning to tap a sugar maple.
The Brattleboro Food Co-op.

Day 2: The next morning, we enjoyed another lively breakfast session covering a myriad of topics. Sharon had originally scheduled a snowshoe at a nearby park after breakfast, but there wasn’t enough snow nor did there seem to be much interest. So the two of us decided to go for a brisk walk and get our own time together to talk. Even for a group as small as ours, I still desire one-on-one conversations to really connect with an individual. I value that kind of interaction, which I managed to get during our long drives in the Suburban. And despite the lack of more cerebral exchanges, I thoroughly enjoyed making friends with two-year old Huxley, Ashley’s delightful son. By morning’s end we bade Arnold Coombs farewell and thank you, passed through Brattleboro (to hit up the co-op for lunch) and drove north to Norwich, Vermont to visit the King Arthur Flour’s beautiful flagship campus.

huxley made friends with everyone – here matt helps put his boots on

huxley is bundled up to go out and play

a wonderful day for a road trip and pastries

king arthur flour’s campus has a bakery and café, baker’s store, and baking education center

ashley, sharon, and the knight of armor

about to get schooled

Arriving with time to spare before our baking class commenced, we milled about the baker’s store. Sometimes it’s a good thing (financially) that I travel light such that I’m not tempted to buy everything in sight and schlep it home. That said, I not-so-secretly wish we had such a store near my house. Our class was on pizza – making two different doughs (semolina pizza dough and poolish), shaping the pizza dough, assembling the pizzas, baking in a wood-fired oven and the industrial ovens, and of course eating the final masterpieces! Everyone had great fun and our instructors were so knowledgeable, friendly, and all-around terrific.

jessica weighs the flour

explaining the poolish dough

shaping the dough

joy photographs a pizza baking in the oven

matt proudly shows me his first pizza

my poolish dough pizza margherita

my two semolina dough pizzas

King Arthur Flour graciously provided our group with salads, apple cider, cookies, and boozy chocolate mousse bombes to accompany our pizzas. This was by far the most fun I’ve ever had in a cooking/baking class. On the ride back to the inn, I had a great time trading crazy medical emergency stories with Ashley in the back of the Suburban. Life is so crazy. And awesome. Crazy and awesome. Then I stayed up late talking with my roommate, Ellen, until 2:30 in the morning. Silly that two friends, who both live in Colorado just an hour from one another, had to fly to New England to find the time to slumber-party-girl-chat. But when you’re home, it’s rare to find yourself without the everyday demanding your attention. The lack of sleep was well worth it.

Things I really liked from Day 2
Getting outside for a walk.
King Arthur Flour’s baker’s store.
King Arthur Flour’s pizza class.
Bonding with friends, old and new.

Day 3: On this day, we packed up and drove the 2.5 hours to Boston’s Logan Airport to catch our various flights home. Ashley and her family continued north to Maine for more adventure. It was a wholly educational and enjoyable trip to Vermont and New Hampshire. I spent time with friends, met good people, ate amazing food, visited wonderful places, and learned much. I was given a glimpse into a part of Vermont and New Hampshire that I hadn’t known before. I’ve gained a whole new respect for the process and product of maple syrup and the individuals that make it happen. Sugar on.

i made matt pose in front of his work from a shoot he did for target (the bunny and egg!)

You can read about Ashley’s trip too!
Our awesome hostess with the mostess, Sharon, wrote a post about the weekend as well.
And here’s what my gal, Rebecca, had to say.

I would like to express my gratitude to Sharon for planning yet another awesome trip and to Arnold Coombs and Coombs Family Farms for being such a gracious and generous host. My thanks to all involved who made this excursion such an enriching experience.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

on the road: new mexico to colorado rolling solo: colorado fall shoot travel: the big island of hawai’i travel: maine, the great state

30 nibbles at “travel: vermont and new hampshire”

  1. ARC says:

    Stunning photos, Jen. And those two states are ones I’ve always wanted to visit (but haven’t yet!)

  2. Thilwen says:

    I read the whole text ;-) Lovely!

  3. sweeteva says:

    I read every word and was fascinated to hear about your wonderful experience

  4. Caitlin says:

    I may not comment much, but I do read every word of your posts. I don’t just skim the photos ;) And now I’m super jealous – I’ve wanted to do a KAF baking class for so long, and I adore maple sugar candy.

  5. Bing Chou says:

    So glad to see you’re making the switch from “syrup” to syrup. Having been born and raised in New England, your post has me nostalgic for syrup, maple candy, and most of all maple butter. By the way, our friends at Savory Spice have maple sugar – great in oatmeal!

  6. megan says:

    i’m so jealous of your trip!!!!!!!!! it looks like it was AWESOME!!!!

  7. selina says:

    “Things I really liked from Day 1
    Yoda, the cat at the Chesterfield Inn.”

    You are awesome! xo

  8. Michelle says:

    It is so great reading stories about New England I grew up there and now live in OK…one of my close friends is a novelist and her books take place in NE…and her newest book about to come out actual starts of in the Chesterfield Inn…and she wrote a Children’s book about sugar on snow…the new book is called “More than You Know” by Nan Rossiter…really enjoy your blog!

  9. Delaney says:

    Yum on all of this! Favorite line: “I think the only thing I’ve been doing consistently since I was four years old is run my mouth.” Amen to that!!

  10. sweetmaddy says:

    I love Tim’s chips too – the jalapeño but also the salt & vinegar MMM. I love this post too – my cousins grew up there so I have great memories of visiting them. They would send us maple candy and syrup every year for Christmas and I was the only one in my family who ate it! That maple-heavy dinner you attended sounds SO good, I can never get enough maple!

  11. Tanya says:

    Jen, i really love your travel posts and this one is just awesome! love the photos as well. i’m actually planning a trip to Vermont in the fall right now!
    p.s. really loved your Maine post as well and actually visited many of the places you wrote about. hoping that you’ll continue sharing your vacations with us; love all the details and your photos are stunning!

  12. Laurel says:

    Thank you for visiting New England and writing about some of the awesome things to be found here! If you come back, I hope you make it further north to Montpelier or even Burlington next time. Burlington’s Church Street pedestrian way was designed by the same person who designed Boulder’s Pearl Street (not as big or cosmopolitan, but still nice). Some of my favorite things are the lake and its islands and all the amazing views you get of both from everywhere in Burlington. We got bald eagles, moose, and all kinds of neat boreal birds and bogs in the Northeast Kingdom. The border area with Quebec is also amazing. Then there’s a couple other great co-ops, Hen of the Wood Bistro…I could go on. So please come back again for more if you get the chance!

    But, sadly, we don’t have one Target in VT (wish we did)… so that photo must have been from NH or MA :)

  13. Kristin says:

    Read it. Looks like a great trip. I want to visit King Arthur Flour, but would definitely need someone to hang onto my money.

  14. JulieT says:

    Oliverde in downtown Boulder sells a yummy Maple Balsamic for local readers who want to enjoy some of that Vermont style goodness…

  15. Bob Burgess says:

    Yep, read every word. Loved it and love your blog, as well. I forwarded it to a friend in Maine who will be thrilled by it.

  16. Kathryn Swanson says:

    Fun to see you traveling and making wonderful images along with Joy again. Jealous!!!!! :)5o

  17. Cindi says:

    Omygosh – thank you for taking us along on your adventure! Your photos – as always – are just stunning. Love the pix of the little guy and what a gorgeous cat! And the food pix – good enough to eat. I’m with you on the pure maple syrup. We are so lucky to have a constant supply – my SIL and BIL live in Canada and always bring us a bunch when they visit. :)

  18. jill says:

    What a trip! Thanks for sharing…..and yes, I read! Yoda is a cutie. love the facial markings. Never heard of Tim’s cascade chips. That pizza class looks awesome and right up the TPH alley…and he would loveeeee that breakfast. Still trying to imagine the pickle and maple snow, my salivary glands are going crazy.

  19. farmerpam says:

    Yeah, thanks for the visit. We’re small time sugarmakers and I’d like to thank you for the mention of REAL maple syrup. For us, it’s a labor of love. NorthEast Kingdom is where all the snow is at, sorry you didn’t get any!

  20. Karen says:

    I love your posts and photographs! So glad to see this is the syrup I’ve been buying at Whole Foods all along! Now I want to visit the farm! Quick question, is grade B considered the ‘best’ maple syrup? Is it because it’s the most pure or flavorful? I think we’re used to thinking of things labeled grade A as the top choice so that’s a little confusing.

  21. Mary says:

    I almost never comment, but I do read all of your posts! I just don’t look at the pictures… :) But seriously, I love your blog. I’d come back for the photography alone, but I’ve gotten many wonderful recipe ideas and love your writing. Two of my personal favorites are the argentine empanadas and the roasted red pepper and goat cheese tart. I’m currently living in Vermont and am glad you got to visit a small corner of our state. It’s really lovely in the summer, and the fall, and the winter… mud season a bit less so, but there’s nothing like standing in the steam coming off of a wood-fired evaporator.

  22. Alan says:

    My wife has relatives in that area (Athol, Mass) we love it up there, picking apples is something we have to do whenever we are there. As I am from Florida I will leave it until it is a bit warmer…

  23. kelli says:

    yes …at least… i do read what you write …even though i love the pix too…

  24. jenyu says:

    ARC – thank you, A! I’ve popped into NH before in graduate school, but this trip was far more culinary (and delicious) :)

    Thilwen – :)

    sweeteva – ha ha! You guys are so cute! Thanks for reading it all!

    Caitlin – oh hon, you would LOVE a KAF class. It’s pure awesomeness.

    Bing – awww, I didn’t know you’re from New England! That maple butter is something else!

    megan – it was fabulous!

    selina – who doesn’t love a chubby kitty who runs a quaint inn in New England? ;)

    Michelle – how cool is that?! You grew up in a lovely place. And sugar on snow was a total treat!

    Delaney – ha ha!

    sweetmaddy – amen to that, sistah! I like the S&V too, but jalapeño wins every time. It was fascinating to see how much care goes into the production of the maple candy and yet it isn’t heavily processed. I think the maple candies are nice, but the maple candies dipped in dark chocolate are even better!

    Tanya – whoa! That’s going to incredibly beautiful! I hope you have a wonderful time :) And yes, whenever I travel someplace and bring my camera, I always share a little of that here! xo

    Laurel – How cool! Thanks for that bit of trivia :) Church Street sounds lovely and to be honest, after traveling around in the end of winter when the trees are at their barest, I have thought a lot about coming to New England in the fall for a photoshoot. Yes, you’re right – that Target was in Boston ;)

    Kristin – tell me about it. KAF is HEAVEN for bakers!

    JulieT – nice!

    Bob Burgess – aww, thank you!

    Kathy – yes, it was lovely to see Joy again and we had a great time tapping trees and making pizzas :)

    Cindi – you ARE lucky! :)

    Jill – the pickle and maple snow is actually really good (and of course, add a homemade doughnut and it’s the stuff of dreams) :)

    farmerpam – that’s okay! We got snow here ;) And yes to real maple syrup, none of that fake crap!!

    Karen – good question! The grading has been confusing in part because Canada, the US, and then Vermont all do it differently. Coombs has a good explanation here: and it’s really a matter of what you prefer. I prefer grade B because I like the stronger flavor – it’s stronger because they boil it down more – and because I tend to cook or bake with maple syrup more than eat it on pancakes and waffles. It’s totally confusing and the industry is working on developing and promoting a standard scale.

    Mary – Vermont is lovely. I’m guessing I visited in the “least pretty” time of year, but I still found it to be utterly charming. You’re lucky to live in such a beautiful place.

    Alan – apple picking! I definitely miss that about the northeast :)

    kelli – ;)

  25. TJ says:

    boiling maple syrup and drizzling it on clean snow & sugar on snow with a pickle – sounds like food fairy tale! (the snow in BJ is oftentimes grey…) thanks Jen for taking us on a virtual tour of Maple Syrup making!! :)

  26. Linda Butwinick says:

    Love your writings, the trips & photos. I live in Minnesota & have visited the hidden sugar shacks deep in the woods off the North Shore of Lake Superior. Wonderful.

  27. Stephus @ stephsapartmentkitchen says:

    Wow. As always, your photos are incredible and what a fantastic opportunity! OF COURSE your pizzas at King Arthur turn out picture perfect and impeccably made. I gasped out loud when I saw the photo of the different grade maple syrups. It makes me so happy to know that you enjoyed your time in my home, New England :)

  28. ErikaWAK says:

    After 21 years of spending my vacations in Vermont, I thought I knew just about every corner of the state. Thank you for showing me some new places to visit and things to do!

  29. PQBaggs says:

    Lovely that you can come visit my area of the world (I live in Vermont, you would have driven within a mile of my home). I love your photos of beautiful Colorado and find myself fascinated by your description of my area. We’ve had good sugaring weather the last few days–cold nights and warmish days. You would have seen the sap running this week. I too like the darker syrup (grade B or dark amber) and wanted to clarify that the darker syrup is from the sap that runs later in the season; the lighter syrup comes from sap that runs earlier in the season.

  30. Maple Weekend with Bloggers « Delicious Musings says:

    […] trip to the airport and Jen (check out her gorgeous, thoughtful post on our trip here) and I were back with the gang plus Ellen at Barbara Lynch’s The Butcher Shopfor dinner.  By the […]

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