Fall Getaways: Cook's Country

Delicious weekend getaways where you’ll eat well and maybe get inspired in the kitchen.

Early autumn farm markets are the inspiration for this year’s getaway: crates of tangy apples, rotund squash and baskets of kale. Fall leads to highways of molting leaves and inns serving fresh-pressed cider by the fire. Our mission? Find the best cooking programs in the most idyllic settings.
 

Salt Water Farm Cooking School
Lincolnville, Maine

The Details: Salt Water Farm Road, Lincolnville, Maine, 207-230-0966, saltwaterfarm.com; open June through October.

You’d never suspect Annemarie Ahearn isn’t a Mainer — that is, she’s not a native. Originally from Wisconsin, she summered here, gathering blueberries and building forts at the log cabin her father built when he was nineteen. Maine’s savage beauty remained a beacon. Living in New York, she worked for Saveur magazine, Dan Barber (of Blue Hill New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and Tom Colicchio of “Top Chef” fame, but she hatched an idea of starting a recreational cooking school along the coast. While many of her peers were still sussing out what to do with their lives, the twenty-four-year-old attended the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. Ahearn already had the culinary chops, but she wanted the training to develop a business plan for Salt Water Farm.

Salt Water Farm opened in 2009 as part of a family compound on a field near Camden, Maine, overlooking lupines, lobster boats and the islands that punctuate Penobscot Bay. The kitchen, housed in a converted antique post and beam cedar-shingled barn, is where Ahearn and guest chefs offer three-day workshops and three-hour single-subject courses from June through October. Courses cover everything from roasting to pickling to distilling: baking savory pies; raising laying hens; beer brewing; roasting a meal over an open fire (which highlights the kitchen’s handcrafted stone hearth and pizza oven). When the meal is ripe, participants might dine beneath the stone patio trellis surrounded by a fire pit, stonewall and spruce trees. During fair weather, they sit at the indoor farmhouse table, which is punctuated by autumn gourds or mason jars of zinnias, sunflowers or lupines.

Beneath the kitchen’s exposed beams and hanging copper pots, participants scrub up at the farmhouse apron sink before the day’s class, part of a three-day workshop offered monthly. Ahearn doesn’t just teach cooking, she starts at the shopping list: what to look for when selecting fish, how it should appear, feel and smell, how to cook lobster (they require less water than people think and should be steamed, not boiled), which type of flour to use for a pie crust (don’t add too much water). The ambience is cozy; you feel as if you’re in the kitchen of a friend who just happens to be a gourmet chef while Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald croon. After a trip to the harbormaster’s house to buy lobsters for our chowder (and where we learn about lobster selection and the difference between hard and soft shells), she teaches the best knife angle for shucking oysters that will be dished up with a sherry vinegar and shallot mignonette.

Ahearn is knotted to the land. She is devoted to supporting local purveyors for her cooking school and restaurant and to making the most of seasonal fish and produce. Instruction often involves field trips: Participants might board a boat to forage chanterelles on a nearby island, rake wild berries for blueberry buckle and cradle Easter-colored eggs from the Araucana hens. The school nests on a seventeen-acre former sheep farm, so many ingredients are plucked from its vegetable and herb gardens. Ahearn is quick to credit it as a family operation: Her father has become a farmer who tools around on a tractor while her mother handles the accounting and floral arrangements for the school and Ahearn’s latest venture, a cafe.

Ten miles south in Rockport is Salt Water Farm at Union Hall. Ahearn opened the cafe last spring. A renovated 1856 brick meeting hall with a deck eyeing the harbor, the cafe also sells baked goods and local products ranging from pack baskets to buckwheat flour and Abenaki flint cornmeal. The chalkboard menu shifts daily with recurring cameos from popular items such as a grilled cheese and leeks sandwich or a dish with littleneck clams, mussels and arbol chile.

Ahearn believes in the Mainer edict that everything should have (at least) two uses: For example, the restaurant’s compost is recycled at the farm and the menu includes Jonah claws, crab claws that are typically discarded when they are tangled in lobster traps. Head chef Sam Richman, who ran a supper club out of his Brooklyn apartment and worked for a number of renowned chefs before migrating north, also likes to heat things up in the winter by offering a Mexican night that highlights his expertise running an authentic Mexican kitchen. Richman was one of the talents Ahearn was able to lure from New York, but she had one caveat for all candidates: They must visit in winter before committing to the job. No minds were dissuaded; however, a few people opted for just working during the busier warmer months.


Where to Stay

The Hawthorn Inn, Camden
This Queen Anne Victorian mansion, built in 1894, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Steps from the Camden harbor and village, the Hawthorn Inn has a cozy ten rooms with several that feature fireplaces and Jacuzzi soaking tubs. Innkeepers Ted and Lisa Weiss are welcoming without being obsequious. The decor is romantic and elegant — a fresh palette for the new owners, who took over this summer.
9 High St., Camden, Maine, 207-236-8842, camdenhawthorn.com; fall room rates start at $175, which includes breakfast.

 

The Essex Resort
Essex, Vermont

The Details: 70 Essex Way, Essex, Vt., 802-878–1100, vtculinaryresort.com; fall room rates start at $219.

“There won’t be an angry British guy yelling at you,” the chef assures us. Eight of us are gathered for a winter squash cooking class at the Essex Resort, a culinary inn near Burlington, Vermont. Its Cook Academy offers everything from Indian to sushi classes, a summer kids’ camp (where children learn to make sushi and ricotta gnocchi, go berry picking and picnic and swim at the resort) to canine cooking (you make dog treats — dogs aren’t donning chef hats).

The chef looks official in his papery white chef hat as we knot our apron strings; the table at our test kitchen is already set for the meal we will prepare. While we chop, mince and saute (the ingredients for each dish are already laid out for us), the Vermont native teaches us when to use smoked salt, which kinds of oil are best for high heat, the easiest way to remove the papery layer on garlic, how a blender “bruises” olive oil, and other trade tricks. “The most important elements for cooking are flavor, taste, color and texture,” he says. “You want to balance the flavors and have sweet and savory, for example.” He cautions us against being too liberal with ingredients because “you can always add, but you can never subtract.” When the dishes are complete, we experiment with plating: lacing the dish with cilantro vinaigrette (mine resembles kindergarten art). We tuck into seared scallops with brown sage butter sauce, butternut squash risotto, brown sugar roasted acorn squash and salad with creamy Vermont goat cheese, cranberries and pumpkin seed vinaigrette. It tastes better knowing it’s a reward for our work. Over scoops of pumpkin bread pudding with warm rum sauce, the group agrees that cooking from a book is not the same. As one participant notes, “a cookbook is like a textbook, whereas this inspires you to recreate the menu at home,” plus there is nothing like sharing a meal with new friends.

The Colonial-style resort is set on eighteen acres, anchored by the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. It is punctuated with photos of the teaching staff and lush pictures of plump peppers and tomatoes on the vine — still lifes to inspire the home chef. Much of the produce is grown onsite, with laying hens supplying fresh eggs. With sixty rooms (half with fireplaces and soaking tubs) and sixty suites (some of which are equipped with kitchens, but who wants to cook when you’re surrounded by professionals?).

The inn has two restaurants: the fancier Junction or an elegant pub called the Tavern, with seasonal patio seating.

Junction features an open kitchen, where the chef doubles as dining room host, welcoming guests, explaining the menu, making wine suggestions and offering cooking tips. Both the three-course and five-course menus use locally sourced ingredients, and while the cuisine is unmistakably Vermont in origin, it’s accented with French and European influences.

The Tavern is dark wood and sepia photos of Vermont scenes (think sheep and sugar shacks), with dry-aged local beefs and microbrews on the menu.

Besides classes such as Cooking with Kale, Bistro Favorites and Dining with Vermont Cheese, the roster includes field trips to vineyards and sugarhouses, craft breweries, snowshoeing and hot chocolate, and others. And to burn off calories, the resort includes a Northern Lights Rock and Ice center, where you can try rock climbing and other challenges. There is also a 22,000-square-foot spa with a pool, fitness center (try the Wave machine, which simulates roller blading or skate skiing), sauna, steam (you can always sweat out the calories) and treatment rooms. If the relaxation area of chaise loungers with chenille throws, snacks, magazines and a gas fireplace isn’t restful enough, try the twenty-five minute Anti-Stress Express massage or sink into the outdoor hot tub.


Where to Eat

Misery Loves Company, Winooski
After a cultic devotion to their food truck, Misery Loves Company opened a brick and mortar restaurant in the Burlington ’burb of Winooski (along with a nearby bakeshop). It’s Vermont, so of course they’re farm to fork; however, this lunch and dinner restaurant is also nose to tail. They make their own sausage and dish up exotic choices like pig’s tail, sea urchin and offal. They also pickle their own veggies and churn out homemade pasta and honey butter. The menu shifts daily and always includes a number of small plates; go for Winooski Wednesdays when sixteen-ounce cans of Heady Topper (ranked the number one beer in the world according to microbrew fanatics) are only $5. Prefer something lighter? Try Citizen Cider, a local hard cider with the airiness of Champagne.
46 Main St., Winooski, Vt., 802-497-3989, miserylovescovt.com.


Where Else to Learn

Shelburne Farms, Shelburne
This nonprofit education center is housed on a 1,400-acre working farm on the shores of Lake Champlain just south of Burlington. Programs include a Vermont traditional foods and health symposium, the annual Harvest Festival, a children’s farmyard and programs for families, students and educators. The campus makes a great picnic setting: grab a loaf of fresh-baked bread onsite and the farm’s award-winning cheddar for lunch with a view. The property also has a (seasonally open) nineteenth-century inn and four guest cottages available for rent. Note: While the center and walking trails are open year-round, the inn is closed and certain activities are limited between mid-October and early May.
1611 Harbor Rd., Shelburne, Vt., 802-985-8498, shelburnefarms.org; room rates from July through October start at $165.

 

The Silo Cooking School at Hunt Hill Farm Trust
New Milford, Connecticut

The Details: 44 Upland Rd., New Milford, Conn., 860-355-0300, hunthillfarmtrust.org.

Rachael Ray, Jacques Pepin and Martha Stewart are just a handful of the celebrity chefs who’ve made cameos at the Silo, Connecticut’s first recreational cooking school (Robin Leach, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” host, offered a class called Champagne Wishes and Caviar Dreams). Skitch Henderson, the former music director for NBC, and his late wife, Ruth, an ex-fashion model, had the connections to lure such luminaries to the Litchfield Hills for cooking classes in converted cow stables.

It was 1968 when the couple bought this bucolic compound in New Milford: 200 acres of pasture and croplands ribboned by miles of rock walls. The property housed a pair of Federal-style houses, sheds, stalls, whitewashed stables and a two-story cattle barn with attached silos. On weekends, Skitch piloted a John Deere tractor while Ruth championed artistic causes; both mused on starting a business in the idle cattle barn. Its first iteration was a country store with hard-to-find cooking and serving ware, which stocks a curated collection: cookbooks, teapots, Calphalon cookware, obscure kitchen gadgets, jewelry and ceramics from local potters, a Silo product line that includes pepper jelly and salsas. There’s a gallery for exhibits of artwork by area students and professionals. The space also hosts lectures as well as poetry, music and dance performances.

Framed concert posters from Skitch’s heyday punctuate the walls and exposed chestnut beams support fifteen-foot cathedral ceilings in a space that offers some eighty classes annually (gingerbread house classes for adults and children sell out early), including custom team building and private party classes. Cooking school assistant director Nancy Stuart also directs the kids’ cooking programs. Past courses have included a “Mad Men” retro cocktail party; meatless Mondays series; grilling al fresco and many more.

Today’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Feast, taught by the charming Cypriot Rea Varveris, opens with a shot of ouzo. Varveris gives an overview of the ingredients and recipes before splitting the class into small groups so that three to four of us can work together on individual recipes at pre-set stations. The instructor offers tips on such nuances as knife skills, kneading technique and the secret to layering phyllo. When everything is prodded and deemed finished, we fill plates that could double as platters, sip wine and compare recipes at the communal farmhouse table.


Where to Stay

The Inn at Kent Falls, Kent
The flair of fashion merchandising guru Ira Goldspiel is evident at his Colonial-style bed and breakfast in nearby Kent. Goldspiel restored and updated the 1740s structure to create three guest rooms and three suites (one boasts the original old wide plank flooring, and fireplaces in the bedroom and bathroom). There’s a screened-in porch, Frette linens and spa-like baths with claw-foot tubs for relaxing after a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Morning launches with Ira’s homemade granola and double-baked brioche French toast.
107 Kent Cornwall Rd., Kent, Conn., 860-927-3197, theinnatkentfalls.com; fall room rates start at $215, which includes breakfast.

 

Artisanal Cheesemaking at the Inn at Round Barn Farm
Waitsfield, Vermont

The Details: 1661 East Warren Rd., Waitsfield, Vt., 802-496-2276, theroundbarn.com; fall room rates start at $175

I fantasize about being an Etsy girl: making goat cheese, knitting hats and plucking warm eggs from Araucana hens. The dream doesn’t often march past Pinterest, so I signed up for a cheesemaking class in the dairy state (of New England). Taught by the founders of Three Shepherds Farm of Warren, the course is held in nearby Waitsfield at the Inn at Round Barn Farm each fall and spring. Learning in the dairy farm-dotted Mad River Valley would be inspiring — and my editor wouldn’t fly me to Central America for their Belize class.

Larry and Linda Faillace of Three Shepherds Farm have been making cheese since the ’90s. Larry has a Ph.D. in animal physiology; the family imported 125 Belgian East Friesian sheep and quickly bonded with Buttercup, Pumpkin, Sweetpea and Olga, to name a few. Yet a tragic and political battle with the USDA ensued during the Mad Cow scare, the details of which are chronicled in Linda’s book, Mad Sheep. Their three shepherds are now grown: son, Francis, was the pasture and flock manager, Heather was the milker, and Jackie became America’s youngest professional cheesemaker at eleven years old.

Linda always advised her children to dream big. When they told her those supersized dreams, she’d say, “Okay, now dream bigger.” Jackie appeared in Gourmet when she was just fifteen above a caption of America’s dairy princess — not a moniker most teenage girls dream of, but farming runs in her genes. Linda was raised on a farm with cattle, pigs, chickens and horses while Larry grew up with relatives in the restaurant business. Plus, he’s Italian. Enough said.

For years, Linda, Larry and their children ran a tiny grocery store in a nineteenth-century schoolhouse building with a community garden in the back. I envy how Etsy they are, along with their breezy compatibility. Linda giggles at her husband’s dry humor and both are natural teachers: they’re ceaselessly patient and encouraging as we fumble with measurements. They remain passionate cheeseophiles even after instructing nearly 3,000 students around the world. Course participants divide into aspiring home cheese-makers: people who want to make cheese commercially and foodies looking for a vacation. In October 2008, they had an inordinate number of stockbrokers signing up for class. “So many people have a romanticized notion of cheesemaking,” notes Larry. “Then they learn that it’s 75 percent washing dishes, plus lifting heavy pots and having to be indoors on a sunny day.”

On day one, we’re given a notebook with the recipes for the cheeses we’ll make (along with many others we can try at home). The beauty of this endeavor is the ingredients remain essentially the same: salt, milk, starter and coagulant. The variety is in the process. However, you might launch with a particular type of milk depending on your desired end product: some cheeses do better with pasteurized milk while others like it raw. If something starts to sour — so to speak — while processing, it’s easy enough to morph it to another kind of cheese. We did this while stretching mozzarella on the second day; after creating several perfect lumps, we couldn’t stretch it properly once it cooled off so we turned the remains into queso blanco.

Before we make ricotta, we learn about labels on milk cartons and the facts behind milk processing that is fodder for a Michael Moore documentary. (Larry jokes that the subtitle of their course should be the dirty secrets of the dairy business). We learn that cheesemaking mimics the digestive process and how the advances of the Roman Empire depended on cheese because having that sustenance meant they could send the army out for long distances. After we make ricotta, we use the remaining whey water to cook pasta, which we then dish up with our fresh ricotta and sprinkled paprika. Another endeavor is quark, which tastes far better than the name sounds. We drizzle maple syrup on top of its creamy yogurt flavor; earlier, we sipped sweet raw milk uddered by Von Trapp cows that morning. Yes, those Von Trapps. Besides a wine and cheese pairing lunch, the course includes a special dinner prepared by the Inn at Round Barn Farm chef, Charlie Menard. Multiple courses (including homemade kimchee) are served in the barn. It’s cedar-shingled, insulated and heated with maple floors, oak beams and birch trees strung with white lights. Iron candelabras hang from a forty-foot high ceiling.

You know this is Vermont when the postman used to deliver by bicycle. That neighborly feel is epitomized by the Inn at Round Barn Farm, where guests are welcome to a basket of slippers by the front door. The property was a former dairy barn until the late 1960s. When the farmer’s wife hit seventy, she told her husband, “Either the cows go or I go.” Rumor has it that the farmer considered her ultimatum for three weeks before deciding to sell. Jack and Doreen Simko bought the place and spent years restoring the barn and converting the house to an inn where some of the twelve bedrooms have the original cathedral roof rafters and barn board ceilings, along with canopied Tempur-pedic beds, steam showers, Jacuzzi tubs and gas fireplaces.

The Simkos’ daughter, AnneMarie DeFreest, now runs the operation. (Her black lab, Cooper, can be booked for guests’ hikes.) In the summer, a farmer leases the property and the inn’s food is grown 120 yards from the barn. Breakfasts are epic: maple pork sausage and homemade cranberry oatmeal scones, apple slaw, sweet potato waffles. In the fall, guests press cider from Empire and Cortland apples on the property and the fresh nectar is served the next morning.


Where to Eat

Hen of the Wood, Waterbury
A converted gristmill is the cavernous setting for Hen of the Wood. Picture rough-hewn beams, an open kitchen, votives flickering from their perch in crags of slate walls that echo the rock of the waterfall outside, and a branch-sculpted chandelier. Chef Eric Warnstedt, along with co-owner and wine specialist William McNeil, have racked up multiple accolades, including James Beard nods. The menu changes daily and pays homage to Vermont’s dairy farms, which equals an average of ten Vermont artisanal cheeses. The New York Times’ food columnist Mark Bittman has said, “I’m sort of in love with the joint.” After tasting their brown butter crepes with king trumpet mushrooms, buttercup squash and house-made ricotta, I had to agree.
92 Stowe St., Waterbury, Vt., 802-244-7300, henofthewood.com.

 

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