Sunday, August 24, 2008

Three Days: Eat, Drink, Repeat

"You say it's your birthday It's my birthday too - yeah They say it's your birthday We're gonna have a good time I'm glad it's your birthday Happy birthday to you."
-The Beatles

Well, my birthday was technically a bit over a month ago but sometimes gifts aren't always available when needed. In this case, Carrie and Meghan signed Matt and myself up for a cooking class at The Inn At Essex, Vermont:

"Prepare a three-course meal in our famous "Chef Inn Training" culinary class with Chef (Courtney) Contos. You will use fresh ingredients from our garden. The Inn's very own Horticulturist, Stephanie Solt, will be in the class preparing us for our garden tour and will be available for gardening questions."

Fun stuff! The prospect of prepping and cooking a meal (for the student chefs in training and two opportunistic, tag along spouses) in a professional test kitchen with fresh products from the kitchen garden and professional oversight and guidance was too much to ever consider saying no to. Oh, and the the Inn is part of the wonderful New England Culinary Institute (NECI).

So...we now have a reason for a road trip to VT for the weekend!

Day 0:

Thankfully, Carrie's parents were able to take the boys for the weekend while we escaped. Friday started with a little kids' back-to-school party at the house. Needing some quiet time for work, I left mid-way through the party for the Gardner Ale House in Gardner, MA as they have food, beer and free wireless access so I can work remotely. This being said, the weekend of food, beverages and repetition began close to home at the GAH with their very drinkable, Czech-alike pilsner (needs some Perle hops to crisp and bitter it up, IMO) and continued later with Berkshire Brewing Corp.'s Steel Rail Pale Ale (my absolute favorite summer beer).

Day 1:

Off to VT after some morning errands. First stop...Harpoon Brewery in Windsor,VT. I've been a big fan of Harpoon since I moved to MA 11 or so years ago. The Oktoberfests at their Boston location were always fun with friends and they make the single best IPA in the US. The Windsor brewery had some construction going on but that didn't stop and serving and tasting! The IPA is great, as I just stated, so I mostly veered away from it, instead going for a succession beginning with their cider, up to the Summer Ale, a gratuitous IPA and finally ending with their (wheat wine) Triticus.

Hmmm...time is getting tight so we'll have to put-off a trip to Long Trail Brewery until our descent back down the state. Off to the White River Junction area where I missed the Norwich Inn Brewery in Norwich,VT six weeks ago when I was at a conference at Dartmouth College. Lunch was straight-forward and not a complaint was to be heard in the gentrified, old inn. Around the table we had the following in both various tasting flights and pints: Whistling Pig Red Ale, Old Slipperyskin IPA, (I think) Jasper Murdock's ESB, Fuggle & Barleycorn and the (favorite) Famous Sidekick.

Holy Impreial Stout, Batman! We need to find our way to Essex, VT to begin cooking in 90 minutes!!!

OK, so it wasn't too difficult. We make it to the Inn at Essex 30 minutes before the class begins, check-in, freshen-up and find our way to The Tavern for a pre-prandial libation (or three). They didn't brew on the premises so, poor us, had to settle for Long Trail Brewery's Belgian White Ale while we waited (read more of this post for more info).

Matt and I assembled (pints in-hand) in the test kitchen and greet our instructors. Very casual, wonderfully pleasant chefs and class participants. There was a broad range of talent and experience in the room and we all came together as a group and prepared a three-course meal that did us proud:
  • Nibbles of Grafton cheddar with smoked sea salt and habenero maple syrup along with crustini with local herbed chevre
  • Panzanella with heirloom tomatoes, grilled shrimp, fresh mozzarella (and other yummies)
  • Corn risotto with pan-seared scallops and roasted golden beets (and other yummies)
  • Molten chocolate cake with lavender shortbread and pomegranite-infused vanilla ice cream (and other yummies)
It was a fun experience that you don't really get when you're cooking for family or for a specific party, even if you know how to follow the recipe you're given and know the techniques; it's just fun being in a good kitchen with good ingredients with like-minded people. We followed it all up with a (much-needed) walk after dinner and spent 90 minutes or so touring the ornamental and kitchen gardens and actually getting a much more technical education than the kitchen segment!

Husk cherries are really interesting to eat and jewel vine attracts bears...two useful things to remember.

So now we're fat, slow and happy for the night. What better to do than go back to the bed and breakfast we've taken rooms at. Wait...the same B&B owned by a Lithuanian, Olympic family? The same B&B on Rt. 7 just outside of Burlington,VT? The same B&B...yes, that Carrie and I shared our first weekend away at when she discovered the joys of Burlington for the first time. Selection of the B&B was a completely random event, I'm told (only place with rooms on UVM move-in weekend).

So how do we wrap-up a day of driving, eating, sipping, cooking and synchronicity? A few bottles of wine in front of the TV watching the Olympics and Iron Chef USA. Sigh...maybe we are getting old but I slept GREAT that night.

Day 2:

Yawn, stretch, argh...daylight. What is this strange, bright orb in the sky? Actually, the weather has been absolutely perfect. 80F or so, clear skies and no humidity. Oh yeah, we also just ate and drank ourselves to happy oblivion yesterday. Let's do it again today!!!

B&B breakfast was good for everyone except me (eggs Benedict and I can't stand eggs unless they're cooked to some rubbery form that allows them to be a vehicle for better tasting things).

I don't know everything but I remembered a few things about Burlington that I hoped hadn't changed. First off...right fine coffee and nibbles at Muddy Waters on Main St. in Burlington. I swear, this place is a close cousin of the great Coffee Exchange I loved when working in Providence, RI.

What's Burlington and the associated edge of Lake Champlain if you don't take a tourist/UVM parent stroll up and down Church St. in Burlington? Meghan bought Birkenstocks while Matt and I dreamed of more beer. Birkenstocks in-hand, beer was ready to be acquired!

Did someone say more beer? Right, that! A short stroll back to Vermont Pub and Brewery had us seated for another set of tasting flights and myself going straight for the two cask-drawn offerings - Dogbite ESB and Mick's Smoked Stout. We emerged, aware of our geographic location and with a vague sense of how long it would really take to get anywhere. Especially when we needed to visit the Magic Hat and Long Trail breweries on the way!

Magic Hat was nixed, sadly but understandably. I think we all tried to rationalize it in some way but suspect that we would have tried to do Magic Hat AND tried to do Long Trail. Especially when a trip to Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream in Waterbury, VT for a factory tour and tastings were in order for the day.

As it was, finding Long Trail in Bridgewater Corners, VT was a feat when you don't really have directions or have conflicting directions. I point my finger at Meghan at this point but that's mainly because my BlackBerry died and I didn't have Google Maps (my god, what in the world has travel come to???) and her directions just "felt" wrong based on the previous day but she got us there in the end. Kudos to Meghan.

Long Trail Brewing
...oh how I've loved thee. Your Long Trail Amber introduced me to VT brewing and I've never stopped loving you. The Hibernator and Double Bag got me through some special times and I was just as happy a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon your Belgian White. Oh my. Your food menu was standard pub grub but the flights of tasting brews were enjoyed by everyone and my new-found dedication to the Belgian White leave the food as a distant, unneeded memory.

So this is a great weekend and b-day gift, right? Yes, yes it is, if you're not following the box scores. I want just ONE last pint, however. We need to go through Greenfield, MA and I want to stop at The People's Pint. I haven't been here in years and it might totally disappoint me. I doubt it but it could happen. It opened the year I moved to western MA and was the only reason I would ever consider leaving my genteel existence in Northampton at the time for a pint of beer. Times have changed and the Amherst Ale House appears to have been replaced by a strip mall so I hold-out for a time when I can revisit the People's Pint and pretend I'm a decade younger and a decade more hip than now.

We didn't stop for a pint but I'm still thankful for a great weekend and was equally happy to see the boys and dog again after 36 long/short hours. Time to finish this post, have one last pint of Steel Rail and call it a night.


meg said...

your comments were too good. i just linked to you:)

meg said...

your comments were too good. i just linked to you:)

ELK said...

We are jealous - I miss the People's Pint. You do know that the Vermont Pub and Brewery was started by a Barre, MA man... all the better, right?

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