Eat Your Whey Through Vermont Cheese Country: Brattleboro and Beyond

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Eat Your Whey Through Vermont Cheese Country: Brattleboro and Beyond
Grafton Village Cheese Co. (Oliver Parini)
Aug 12, 2019

This tip is an excerpt from Wine Spectator's Sept. 30, 2019, issue, "Cheese Across America: A Traveler's Guide." Pick up a copy, on newsstands now!

Windham County and the town of Brattleboro serve as Vermont’s southern ingress and a first impression of the Green Mountain State for most visitors. Like much of Vermont, the scenery has changed little over the past century, aside from a few later-model cars dipping between the maples, sycamores and white pines that line the colubrine Route 30, snaking in concert with the West River.

Downtown Brattleboro is a vibrant small-town arts haven, with first-Friday gallery walks, a museum and art center and the Vermont Theatre Company; nearby chamber music festivals include Marlboro, Yellow Barn and Pikes Falls. The Food Co-Op is the town’s main hub, with restaurants and bakeries lining Main Street.

Grafton Village Cheese Company
400 Linden St., Brattleboro
Telephone (802) 246-2221

An employee cutting cheese at Grafton Village Cheese Co.
Oliver Parini
Cheeses are available for purchase at Grafton Village Cheese's store

Fifty-some years after the original Grafton Cooperative was destroyed by fire in 1912, the creamery was resurrected by the Windham Foundation, a nonprofit institution dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of Vermont’s rural communities.

The 2,300-square-foot Brattleboro location includes a state-of-the-art production facility, where Grafton Village’s cheddars are made most days of the week, observable from the mezzanine of the retail store. The shop carries more than 200 cheeses from Vermont and beyond, including Grafton Village’s cave-aged clothbound cheddar, mixed-milk Shepsog and alpine-style Bear Hill, in addition to craft beers, ciders and wines.

The Four Columns Inn and Artisan Restaurant
21 West St., Newfane
Telephone (802) 365-7713
Rooms 15, plus a private guesthouse

The exterior of Four Columns Inn, with fall-colored foliage in the background
Kelly Fletcher Photography
The Four Columns Inn is a short drive from Brattleboro.

Twelve miles up Route 30 from Brattleboro lies the county seat of Newfane. The historic village center, Newfane Common, is studded with Greek Revivalist and Victorian buildings from the town’s mid-19th century heyday, including one of southern Vermont’s finest inns, the Four Columns.

The main house dates to 1823, built by a Vermont statesman and “veteran of the Revolutionary War, who had married a young woman from the South … quite a bit younger,” laughs owner Charles Mallory, a shipping magnate whose boutique luxury hotels include the three Delamars in Connecticut.

“He contrived this plantation-looking facade to impress her,” he says of the antebellum Greek Revival features and the four two-story Ionic columns for which the inn is named.

The home was converted into an inn and restaurant in 1969 and went on to attract a celebrity clientele that has included Mick Jagger, Paul Newman and Sting. Mallory bought and renovated the inn in 2015. Most of the rooms feature pillow-topped king-size beds, French linens, Italian towels, Jacuzzi tubs and double-sided gas fireplaces.

Southern (Vermont) charm and hospitality are the stock-in-trade at this quiet property, which includes the excellent Artisan Restaurant, a spa and fitness center, an outdoor pool set amid the inn’s flower and vegetable gardens, and more than 130 acres of private wooded trails.

The casual dining room’s exposed beams, holdovers from the building’s previous life as a barn, are matched by wooden tables and chairs, each leg neatly fitted with a custom wool sock in the interest of noise reduction.

Chef Erin Bevan arrived in 2017 by way of some of Boston’s best kitchens, and her weekly handmade pasta specials are the main attraction.

Bevan marries an elegant execution to her locavore improvisations. A late-summer menu featured straw and hay Spaghetti Carbonara, mixing egg yolk (straw) and spinach (hay) pastas with lardons from North Country Farm, eggs from Coopers Coop (12 miles away), cheese from Parish Hill (19 miles) and locally foraged black trumpet mushrooms. Manager Casey Oldenburg, who oversees the wine list, stays local with his pairing suggestion: the minerally and crisp 2016 La Crescent ($46) from Lincoln Peak Vineyard, near Middlebury.

The concise but well-selected list of about 60 wines is strongest in Italy (Scavino Barolo 2012, $115) and the West Coast (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis 2014, $120; Owen Roe Ex Umbris 2016, $63) but includes picks from Austria, France, Germany, Spain, New York, Vermont and more.

“I’m proud to feel like I’m nourishing the people who come to eat here,” Bevan says, “with [food] that’s superfresh and comes with all this clean karma—the way these animals are raised and that they come from such a hyperlocal area.”

Big Picture Farm
1600 Peaked Mountain Road, Townshend
Telephone (802) 221-0547

The owners with their young daughter, several goats and sheepdog
Oliver Parini
Big Picture Farm owners Lucas Farrell and Louisa Conrad and their daughter Maisie, with some of their goats and one of their sheepdogs

Elvis and Josie, a friendly pair of 80-pound Maremma Sheepdogs, welcome visitors to Big Picture Farm. On Sunday afternoons, owners Louisa Conrad and Lucas Farrell open their farm to the public, trotting out Fern, Junebug, Gertrude and their 40-plus other goats, and serving Big Picture’s caramels and goat’s milk farmstead cheeses, Haiku and Sonnet.

Haiku is a velvety semifirm cheese beloved for its subtle tanginess; Sonnet is the more grown-up of the two, a cave-aged tomme with sharper, nutty flavors and a texture not unlike that of a young Manchego.

Conrad, an artist who grew up in New York City, and Farrell, a poet and Colorado native, met at Middlebury College in Vermont. Following artist residencies in Iceland, they returned to Vermont, taking a cheesemaking apprenticeship at Blue Ledge Farm, where they fell in love with goats.

Conrad and Farrell married in 2010, with a wedding registry that included goats and farming equipment. “My first goat was Fern, given to me by my best friend from high school,” says Conrad, “and some of my dad’s friends got us the shiniest 10-gallon milk pail anyone has ever seen.”

The couple bought the 18th-century farmhouse across the road in 2017. They’ve given it a Brattleboro-meets-Scandinavia aesthetic, with photos from their time in Iceland, as well as Icelandic sheepskin pelts draped over the furniture. In the spring, they rent out the farmhouse’s nine rooms individually for kidding-season weekend retreats, a chance to meet “puddles and puddles of baby goats.”

SoLo Farm & Table
95 Middletown Road, South Londonderry
Telephone (802) 824-6327

An octopus dish with a glass of red wine in the background
Oliver Parini
SoLo's top draw, crispy octopus, is plated on original ceramic dishes by waitstaff member and artisan potter Cindy Ehlenfeldt.

On the eastern edge of Green Mountain National Forest, SoLo Farm & Table occupies a restored 1790 colonial.

The foyer, hung with pastoral engravings, opens to a hearth, sitting room and bar, and past that the kitchen. The sensation that this is dinner at a friend’s house is occasionally cemented by the appearance of a pajama’ed, bedtime-resistant child. Owned and occupied by the Genovart family—wife Chloe runs the front of the house, husband Wesley runs the back; son Rafa, 8, and daughter Esmé, 4, are support staff in training—SoLo is a homecoming, of sorts.

Chloe grew up in nearby Manchester. Wesley grew up on the Spanish island of Mallorca. In 2001, having come to Vermont to be near his aunt and brother, Wesley found work, and met Chloe, at a restaurant in Manchester.

Wesley went on to cook at South Londonderry’s Three Clock Inn before the couple moved to Boston, then New York, where Wesley was the opening chef at Degustation. Chloe served as host and wine steward there before becoming maître d’ at Per Se. Married in 2008, the couple was expecting their first child in 2010 when opportunity knocked in Vermont.

The Three Clock Inn, in foreclosure and having fallen into disrepair, was up for auction. “We thought, let’s just go check it out,” Chloe recalls. “[Wesley] started bidding, and I was looking at him like, are you crazy?” They won the auction—“It was crazy,” he laughs—and a serious renovation project as reward.

Rafa was born in 2010, and SoLo, shorthand for South Londonderry, opened in May 2011. The cuisine is Mediterranean-influenced, with a farm-to-table philosophy: dill and rye seed pappardelle, with rosemary, olives and shaved Parmesan, stars rabbit confit from Wannabea Farm in Manchester Center.

There is, however, one dish never sourced locally, and it might be SoLo’s greatest attraction. Wesley insists his octopuses come from Spain. It’s an animal he feels so connected with that, for a time, he stopped serving it. “They’re amazing creatures—such smart, intelligent beings that I took them off the menu … but they are delicious,” he laughs again, “so many people kept asking for it, and I missed eating it!”

His Crispy Spanish Octopus has a three-step preparation: simmered whole, then portioned and fried, and finished on the wood-fired grill. It was recently set with cauliflower couscous, curried sultana puree, hot sauce and chicharrónes. Chloe pairs it with Frédéric Mallo Riesling Alsace Grand Cru Rosacker 1998 ($75). “It’s a really beautiful bottle, an older vintage … I want something with minerality but a little bit of body, something to contrast the heat of the hot sauce and the unctuous quality of the octopus.”

The 200-selection wine list (a dozen available by the glass) is strongest in California, Oregon, France and Spain, with Italy and Austria well-represented. West Coast notables include Bergström, Merry Edwards, Heitz, Ridge and Phelps, but Spanish selections are the highlight, including R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia White Rioja Reserva 2003 ($95) and Aalto Ribera del Duero 2015 ($120).

“Like our food, I like to put things on the wine list that excite me,” Chloe says. ”I’m drawn to smaller-production, grower-produced wines with a story.”

“We took a chance [coming back to Vermont],” Wesley says. “And I don’t think we could be happier.”


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