It was quiet when we woke up this morning. Snow quiet. Over night, we received a couple of inches of snow on top of the previous few from the other day. Snow acts as muffler and creates a calm, especially on the weekend when the concern about a nasty work commute isn’t there. Unfortunately, snow gets a bum rap; it just isn’t winter without it.
Today’s was a dry, fluffy snow, which meant the temperatures outside were rather cold. Anyone who’s shoveled snow will quickly remark that it’s better to shovel this snow than the “warmer” weather, heavy wet snow. With the light stuff, one can clear the walkway, driveway and car in a matter of minutes, which is exactly what we did.
It was too pretty outside so we opted to go out for breakfast. Before leaving the house, though, we dressed in our L.L. Bean winter jackets and, most importantly, put on our favorite winter boots: Bogs. We learned about Bogs a few years back from Deb Paisley of Paisley Farm & Greenhouse in West Boxford, MA. We thought, “When a New England farmer recommends a boot, he (or in this case she) knows this from practical use. We picked up ours at the Kittery Trading Post in southern Maine. It’s turned out to be one of the best things we ever did. Though Bogs aren’t from New England, they’re perfect for our region.
With Bogs on and feet warm, we hopped in our S.U.V. Yes, it has four-wheel drive (4WD) to make the journeys around Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut a little easier when the white stuff falls. 4WD, unfortunately, does not turn a New England country road with 14 inches of snow into a flat dry interstate in summer. We see more 4WD vehicles on their roofs during a snowstorm than regular cars. Nonetheless, it helps, but only with a healthy dose of Yankee pragmatism.
We went out, had a great breakfast that included Rhode Island-style jonnycakes with real Vermont maple syrup. After a pleasant and warm trip out into the snow, we’re now back home, sitting by the fire, and happily telling you about it. Thank goodness for warm shoes and four-wheel drive.
No matter where you travel in New England, you will find books: at antique shops, rental homes, inns, bookstores and even some restaurants and coffee houses. In New England, we love to read. It’s been part of our culture since the region was settled in the 1600s. Reading and books define us. A friend once remarked, “I enjoy meeting people, but I particularly like visiting their homes for the first time and seeing their bookshelves. What they read tells me so much about who they are.”
How those books got onto the shelves is also a story, one that’s really a narrative of life. When we first started dating in the 1980s, we often found ourselves in a bookstore after a nice dinner or an invigorating hike. (Things haven’t changed much for us since.) It didn’t matter whether the bookstore had new or used books, because what was on the pages of those books always left a lifelong impression. They became part of us. Perhaps the story we write now is an attempt to attach us to our books, inspiring a future reader long after we’re gone.
Today, when we pull a book off the shelf, it immediately evokes memories of the day we bought it and of that particular time in our lives. For instance, we fondly remember two cookbooks (one Greek, the other Eastern European) that we picked up in 1988 after a fall visit to Pack Monadnock in Peterborough, NH. Now, when either of those books is removed, we recall hiking the Wapack Trail that day, dining afterwards at Hiroshi Hayashi’s innovative Latacarta restaurant, discovering a great recipe for Shopska salad and listening to Pachelbel’s Canon later that evening. It’s fascinating how our brains retain information by association.
Other bookshelves tell stories too. Recently, we vacationed by the Oyster River in Chatham, MA on Cape Cod. Like many New England seasonal, coastal properties, our rental home had three elements familiar to many of us: beach paintings; musty smells; and bookcases of old, out-of-print books. Such bookshelves are a chronicle of decades of New England guests and snapshots of periods in American history. We were immediately drawn toward the hardcovers and paperbacks in our rental cottage.
One title in particular drew our attention: Massachusetts: A Guide to the Pilgrim State, edited by Ray Bearse. It was printed in 1971, the second edition of a book originally commissioned by the WPA in 1937. In the preface, the editor reflects on how much things changed in the time period between the first and second editions. Reading the latter edition forty years after its publication left us equally moved. It not only provided an interesting view of how much things had changed since 1971, but also affirmed how many of those things we hold so dear remain constant. But with the book in our hands we asked: Who put this on the bookshelf in Chatham? Why did they come to New England? What happened to the author? Why did he choose to write about Massachusetts? What other visitors over the years picked up the book? Did the book influence their visit?
During that same trip, we went to some used bookstores on the Cape hoping to find another copy of the book. Even one of our favorite New England bookstores, Parnassus Book Service in Yarmouthport, MA didn’t have it. After several more attempts we realized our search might be futile, but we finally found the book online, and bought it. At the time of this writing it hadn’t yet arrived, but we know the book will end up on one of our bookshelves. From now on when we remove it from the shelf, we’ll recall our trip to Chatham, reflect on how much Massachusetts has changed, remember a wonderful vacation with family, and savor the smell of just-ground coffee and fresh-baked muffins from the Chatham Village Café where we wrote this story.
There are many common signs of spring in places where changes of season are clearly evident: flowers pushing up through the last patches of snow to reach the increasing sunshine; birds returning to nest; and frogs serenading from their vernal pools. Here in New England, we have a few more signs of spring: towns repairing potholes; rural cars tackling mud; schoolboys stripping down to shorts and tee-shirts on the first day over fifty degrees; and crowds returning to Fenway Park for Red Sox baseball. We also have a brief, rite of spring that provides lasting and sweet pleasure for the remainder of the year: maple sugaring.
Maple sugar season typically begins in March and lasts until early April. It begins when warm days follow cold nights and trigger the sap to flow or “run.” During this brief season, New England becomes host to many sugar shacks, which are small cabins where collected sap is boiled into maple syrup. When buds appear on the maple trees, these shacks quickly disappear as the sap ceases to flow. This entire ritual takes place quietly, often going unnoticed by most people, unless one is in the maple sugaring business or doing it as a hobby. It’s interesting to consider that this all started with the Native Americans. Little did we know – or anticipate – we’d be joining the world of maple sugaring and syrup production. And it was all by mistake.
The most compelling reason why we bought our 105 year old fixer-upper several years back stood outside our front door: a huge, beautiful and majestic 100 year old street maple, that we named “Big Bertha.” Though we heard rumors that the previous homeowners had tapped Big Bertha for syrup, we had become so busy that we neglected to follow up on our plan to continue their tradition of making syrup. This year – by accident – we had no choice but to try our hand at maple sugaring.
Last November, Big Bertha was maimed during the installation of a new waterline to our home. She lost part of a major limb as a result of the backhoe placement. This incident came as quite a shock, especially since the branch was removed without our consent. Bertha sustained an unfortunate injury, but it was better to lose a limb than to lose an entire tree. According to the contractor, we had been just minutes from losing her if the water line hadn’t been able to be snaked under the tree. Big Bertha sat right on top of the 105-year-old water line.
Big Bertha spent much of the winter resting and recuperating, blanketed by mountains of snow. But a few weeks back, the warm days brought her to tears, literally. She began crying from her wound. The constant weeping, though rather upsetting to us, led to the realization that her sap was running. Maple sugar season arrived when we realized her limb became a huge tap.
With pan in hand, we rushed out to collect the sap. Using what we captured, we made wonderful syrup. That old saying came to us: “When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.” We modified it for our purposes: “When a contractor wounds your maple tree in the fall, you make maple syrup in the spring.” It’s just a bit of consolation for the loss of her beautiful limb, which we will miss dearly when the leaves arrive. Perhaps it was her way of sharing this part of her long life with her new guardians.
So what was the result? Bertha’s syrup was delicious, the best we’ve ever had! As the sap boiled down to syrup, the aroma permeated the house. We were left with a nectar rich in maple flavor with stunning amber color and clarity. Fortunately, her wound should heal by next year, so we’ve decided to buy some real taps for next season and continue this New England tradition. Maple sugaring was a great experience, and a sweet way to end a long, bitter winter!
The only things missing are the pancakes and the French toast…
It’s October in New England, which means we’re getting treated to our annual parade of colors from the trees to the pumpkins to the mums. Though we’re not a big region of the country, we do have enough climate diversity that we can enjoy the show for about a month. Missed it in Vermont and New Hampshire? No problem. Catch it in on Nantucket or in Connecticut.
But there’s so much more to fall in New England; the other senses won’t be denied. Many of us know when the season arrives not just the the sight of leaf changes, but by the smell of the season. Fall has a different aroma and we – either consciously or subconsciously – seek it out. Our palettes won’t be denied either because the last of the harvest brings its own special seasonal offerings. Recently at a harvest festival in Rockport, MA we had our first mulled cider of the season made from local Cape Ann apples. It certainly took the edge off the remains of an Atlantic storm that was kind enough to provide some very stiff winds on a brisk day. We’d be remiss if we were to forget the sense of sound. Though the equinox begins to usher in a quieter time, it also gives us the rustle of newly-fallen leaves, closing music for a beautiful season. And finally, fall affects the sense of touch, which could be the brush with an early snow flurry or the feel of a just-picked apple.
Seasons are a gift of place and New England is one of the most generous in the country. Your senses will be grateful.
On a recent, beautiful, summer evening, approximately seventy-five lucky individuals converged on Wilson Farm in Lexington, MA at closing time. Gathering among rows of tomato plants and other ripening farm vegetables, the crowd slowly filled the chairs that flanked three long tables draped with white tablecloth and adorned with beautiful fresh cut flowers. Many in attendance had never met before, but would share a common bond tonight: a culinary experience with fresh food from New England.
Dining in a location where one typically doesn’t sit down to eat (like in a field, a dock or a barn) is a novelty, and only added to the anticipation of knowing that much of our dinner had been picked hours earlier from the very field where we now sat. For us, it was reminiscent of the feeling we would get while picnicking with our young sons on a rainy day in our living room: out of the ordinary yet quite special.
Through the din of conversation, our servers (folks who worked at the farm stand and recently trained for the evening) began serving up course after course upon the table, some plated individually, and others offered family-style. With each course, Wilson Farm Chef Todd Heberlein would proudly and passionately explain each dish’s contents, philosophy, and thoughtful preparation. The colors, aromas, and flavors were an amplification of their freshness and a testament to Chef Heberlein’s artistry.
As the courses passed, the sun was replaced by candlelight, adding another welcome dimension to the evening. Ultimately, seventy-five content, satiated people left Wilson Farm as friends – not just with one another, but also with a passionate local chef and with a farm that very much embraces its New England heritage.
There is no better way to celebrate the harvest than to dine on food, simply and lovingly prepared where it was grown, shared at a community table among people who appreciate it and enjoyed in the fresh air beneath the open sky.
As we’ve said many times before: New England is as much about the people as it is about the history, culture, food and the landscape. We saw this here as well. Jim Wilson, one of the owners of Wilson Farm, was present the entire evening, sharing his big smile and ensuring that we were enjoying ourselves. Chef Heberlein didn’t hide either, making the rounds and checking to make sure we were smiling. Great New Englanders. Great farm. Great evening.
OK, full disclosure (in case you haven’t read our story): The Two Palaverers was the name of a tavern in colonial Boston. Though The Two Palaverers is no longer with us, more than a few colonial taverns still dot the New England landscape. Many of the remaining ones are tastefully preserved, but their taps have run dry.
Fortunately, the contemporary New England brew scene is far from running dry. Recently, we had a chance to visit the American Craft Beer Fest at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Our intent was to taste every New England brew we could find. Though we’ve been hunting down craft beers for years, we had the pleasure of being chaperoned by our brother-in-law from Vermont, one of the most passionate craft beer guys we know. We used to think he came down to visit us because he enjoyed Massachusetts, but soon realized it was all a front as he was really just looking for an excuse to get to Andover Liquors, one of the better craft beer retailers in New England.
Here’s the summary: all six New England states are brewing – and brewing well. There is, fortunately, no uniform style. We found IPAs, porters, stouts, lagers, wheat beers, summer ales, etc. If you like your hops beyond the level of an IPA, you’ll have choices there, too. New England beer is like New England herself: historic, diverse, and never boring.
We’d also like to call-out and thank fellow New Englanders Jason and Todd Alström, founders of BeerAdvocate. These brothers, in our opinion, are doing great things not just for New England brewing but for beer in general. In addition to running an informative web site, BeerAdvocate hosted the American Craft Brew Fest. They also wrote one of the best pieces on New England beer that we’ve read. Thanks guys.
-The Two Palaverers
Here is a sampling of New England brewers at the Craft American Brew Fest:
We love a great beer or ale, but finding an equally-great venue that serves them up properly is often a challenge. That’s why the Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA had been on our radar since we heard about its opening in 2008. They are serious beer connoisseurs. Unfortunately, our schedules over the past couple of years only permitted a few quick stops in “The City of the Seven Hills.” Last week, after a recent run through the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, we had a window of time to explore Worcester in greater depth. Stopping at the Armsby Abbey was the obvious choice for some light fare and some extraordinary brews. Several years back our expectations of a specialist pub were set by one of the finest in the country: The Brick Store Pub in the Atlanta, GA suburb of Decatur. They knew their Belgian ales; they knew their other European brews; and they knew their American artisinals. We soon discovered that our new place in Worcester did too – and then added some New England flare.
The Armsby Abbey, though a relatively small establishment, boasts a rich selection of American microbrews and craft European offerings. Beer enthusiasts will find many things to savor, but novices need not worry because the staff is quite generous with their assistance. We ordered Malheur 10 and Malheur 12 Belgian ales. Joe Scully, or any of the other talented members of the Abbey team, freely offer direction and recommendations. We spent time chatting with Joe during our visit about the selection and pairing processes. He is passionate and knows his beverage and menu offerings in great detail, something we’ve come to expect from better destinations in New England. Many of the Abbey’s brew selections change regularly, with current draught choices posted on a large, prominent black board across from the bar. The Abbey catalogues bottled beers separately, many with impressive pedigree and others lesser known, but equally good.
Beers and ales are not the only things the Armsby Abbey knows well. They also specialize in boutique distilled spirits and limited-production American wines. On the dining side, their “Farmhouse Menu” consists of fresh, artisan products, many of which are locally sourced and organic. Rather than make a substitution of lesser quality, the Abbey will simply not serve an item should they run out of a small purveyor’s ingredient. We were impressed by the menu’s variety, categorization, and especially taken by their “slates,” which are carefully chosen selections of farmstead cheeses, meats and various condiments. The “New England Slate” is a cornucopia of New England products from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont, that also includes local honey from Princeton, MA along with mustard from Worcester.
It was great to find a world-class pub like the Armsby Abbey in Worcester. Their bias toward locally-sourced, New England fare made it even better.
There is great anticipation among New England food lovers each winter for the upcoming bounty. We’re not talking about oysters, even though they remain one of our favorite local delicacies. We’re talking about shrimp, specifically Maine shrimp, whose arrival is met with ever-increasing fanfare. A recent proclamation on Chowhound captured it well, citing both their wonderful taste and their versatility in a broad range of recipes. What’s surprising is that many in New England aren’t familiar with them, although a recent article from Midcoast Maine Free Press suggests that may be changing. We decided to share our own discovery.
Spending a good deal of time over the years on the bayous of Louisiana and in the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia changed our perception of shrimp forever. We were introduced to White shrimp, Brown shrimp, Pink shrimp, Royal Reds, etc. Knowing spawning cycles and seasonal patterns was not an exercise in science but rather a necessity for gastronomic indulgence. Buying the right shrimp at the right time from the right vendor was the recipe for the right dish. It spoiled us. We found that not all shrimp was created equal.
Unfortunately, we never gave much thought to local, New England shrimp. Was it lack of marketing? Could it be ignorance on our part? We don’t know, but our epiphany came during a wonderful Chinese New Year meal prepared by some neighbors a couple of years ago. This was the first time we heard about Maine shrimp. They explained that the tiny, sweet, cold water delicacies from the Gulf of Maine were only available in late winter – and only for a very brief time. Our neighbors were fortunate to have a camp on an island off the Maine coast, giving them an upper hand in knowing about this regional specialty.
Intrigued, we immediately began looking for these small crustaceans, but without much success. Then one day late last season, out of the corner of our eyes, we saw them at a local market: tiny, bright, and pink. So colorful in fact that we thought they were cooked, even though they were raw. We didn’t purchase any that day because we had existing dinner plans that evening. The next day we returned only to discover that they were gone, the season brought to an abrupt halt. Just like that. No more Maine shrimp would be arriving that year. Talk about poor timing!
This year we vowed to be more prepared, especially after reading an article about themin The New York Times informing us that the 2010 season would be extended through May. That was welcome news for our culinary mission to find and successfully prepare these little, elusive jewels. And found them we have from Maine to Massachusetts.
So what’s the big deal?
These cold water shrimp are completely different from any shrimp we’ve prepared and eaten. They are extremely delicate, sweet and succulent with a soft, melt-in-the-mouth quality. While many Mainers eat them raw, we prefer them cooked, just quickly enough for them to begin releasing some of their sweet “liquor.” Part of their characteristic charm is the subtlety of their flavor. Also important to us is that they’re from New England. (Perhaps biasing us a bit.) Not all are as enthusiastic as we, though, and Jacqueline Church offers a counter opinion. It wouldn’t be New England without a diversity of views, even if we’re talking about what’s in our own back yard.
Devra First from The Boston Globe referred to them as our own regional bugs. Having lived in the south, we agree with her and regard them as New England’s very own version of the crawfish, crawdads or mud bugs (as those in New Orleans refer to them). Although they visually resemble crawfish in appearance, Maine shrimp are slightly larger in size, lending themselves rather well to crawfish substitution in Southern dishes. Purists may argue this point, as that is where the similarities end, especially since Maine shrimp are from saltwater and crawfsh are from fresh water. Indeed, they are a different species with a different taste, but they certainly work in the kitchen.
We enjoy the flexibility in preparation,with most approaches being rather simple and quick. We either sauté them Spanish style with garlic, oil and a dusting of cayenne or boil them with Old Bay seasoning. Leftovers can be shelled and made into a creative shrimp salad. Shelled shrimp can also be used for such dishes as Low Country shrimp and grits, or for a creative, lemon-infused scampi, which adds a sweetness to the latter much like adding Limoncello would. One other interesting preparation we found is serving them in a stir-fry over coconut scallion rice. With the Maine shrimp in season now, we have them at least once a week. Even our teenage shrimp hater comes back for seconds. One final note on preparation: exercise caution because their small size makes them easy to overcook, so careful preparation is the key.
These little beauties are not expensive and range in price from $3.99 per pound unshelled to $8.99 per pound shelled. Two pounds easily feed a family of four. If you don’t see them, ask your local fishmonger to get them for you. Be sure to specify your preference for shelled or unshelled. With the season extended to May, there is no excuse not to indulge.
-The Two Palaverers
Photos credits: Bangor Daily News, Laura Ciampa, Rob Ciampa
One night last week at about 10:00 p.m., we put on our boots, picked up our shovels and cleared 8 inches of wet, February snow. It was quiet and peaceful, the solitude occasionally interrupted by the random snow plow. We were in the “snow zone,” our shoveling motions synchronized and unconsciously coordinated. It was a great opportunity to talk about our day and contemplate the upcoming Red Sox season. A snowy evening is very soothing.
For the first time in our New England lives, we don’t have a snowblower. Before we moved out of the region for several years, we had a big, orange, dual-stage Ariens machine. It would displace the mightiest of snowbanks in about five minutes. There was no need for it when we moved Atlanta, so we sold it for a song. Knowing we would eventually return, we should have put it in storage up here. After returning to New England, we contemplated another Ariens, but we bought a house without a garage in an old neighborhood. Apparently the handy New England barn built with the house over one-hundred years ago was removed several owners back, so we’d have no place to store the snowblower anyways. As for the concept of having a barn, we’ll just need to keep those aspirations for our very own New Yankee Workshop on hold, at least for a while. And we’ll keep shoveling in the meantime.
Alas, here we are again with more snow in the forecast, but things seem different now: New England has become Atlanta. At the first flurry, people clear out the grocery stores, towns cancel school, and everyone goes into a panic. What’s happened to us? We used to look forward to snow. We used to embrace it. What’s happened to us? A recent editorial in the the Andover Townsman (MA) articulated it best:
Snow in New England? Chill out
You probably heard a lot less hype about the storm that delivered 8 inches of snow Tuesday than you did about the big nothing of a storm that breezed though last Wednesday. But let’s give the weather people a break. You can’t blame them for focusing on the first storm – they know what sells.
There was a time not terribly long ago when New Englanders and Andoverites were viewed as hearty people who could take a mid-range snowstorm in stride. But, more and more, at the first sign of flakes we seem to be flooding the highway to drive home, or running to Market Basket and filling shopping carts with canned goods. Many of us act as if we might be stranded for weeks without chicken noodle soup, when, in truth, there are ever-ready plows clearing the roads.
As with many other things, Americans do tend to get hysterical about the weather these days. Of course, severe weather can be life-threatening, but few storms fall into this category. It’s time for us all to relax a bit when a snowstorm is forecast. Next storm, how about we wait for the roads to clear, light a fire when we get home if we can, and enjoy the scenery. Chances are, for most of us, there will be a can of soup in the cupboard should we get hungry. – February 18, 2010
Be a rugged New Englander again. Go enjoy the snow – even if you don’t have a big snowblower to move it around.
In the early 1980’s, a wave of small independent cheese shops sprung up in the suburbs around New York City. It worked out well for those of us not in the city because traveling into Manhattan was often challenging and – as it is today – very time-consuming. Until then, we were limited to the choices at our local grocery stores, which consisted mostly of the processed, pre-packaged or generic uninspired varieties.
I had the privilege of working at The Better Cheddar Cheese Shop, one of those new, avant-garde purveyors in northern New Jersey. Located at the historic Tice Farm in Woodcliff Lake, the small shop carried cheeses that were exotic and sophisticated to our unseasoned and unrefined palates of the time.
Over time, we became rather busy and our clientele grew. We had both regular local customers as well as those from the city who were escaping for a day in the “country.” (It always seemed more like suburbia and less like “country” to me.) Richard Nixon was a frequent visitor to the farm, having settled in the area after leaving Washington, D.C.
With great enthusiasm, I learned all that I could about cheese, albeit the hard way – by tasting and talking with wholesalers. We didn’t have the books, training or internet so prevalent today. We were excited by our “large” number of imported cheeses, now paltry compared with contemporary cheese counters. On the domestic side, I remember cheddars (Wisconsin, New York and Vermont), some fresh mozzarella, feta, and assorted spreads with cheddar and cream cheese bases.
Sadly, the farm and many like it were replaced by large corporate buildings and homogeneous mini malls. Though I saw many of the small local cheese shops quietly close their doors, I never lost interest in cheese. It is always a thrilling sight and a culinary pleasure for me, whether home or abroad, to walk in to a well-stocked, knowledgeable and friendly cheese shop. It feels like home to me. When I moved to New England decades ago, I was immediately impressed by the regional, budding cheese culture. Surprisingly, it dates back to the English and Dutch settling of North America.
Today, I am especially pleased to see so many more New England cheese artisans practicing this wonderful art, which is a true labor of love. Increasing numbers of these cheese makers travel the globe learning from world renowned cheese masters and incorporating classic styles while leveraging their own unique terroir and indigenous fare. Many are winning national awards. Comparing this growing specialty cheese industry to the evolution of the US wine industry, I think we have much to look forward to as these artisans develop and refine their craft.
New England artisan and farmstead cheeses come from all six states; some producers have been doing this for years, while many are new. I applaud their efforts. Though I haven’t yet tried all the New England cheeses, I am determined to do so. Perhaps it is the locavore in me, but I feel a strong connection, an inherent sense of pride and a good deal pleasure from enjoying cheese produced in my own region of the world.
I encourage cheese lovers to sample and enjoy these creations from New England. Serve them along side your old standbys and international favorites. Ask your cheesemonger to point you toward the local and regional varieties. The more we seek out New England cheeses, the more readily available they will be.
Be sure to take advantage of local cheese offerings when you see them on restaurant menus. Remember that many of the farmstead cheeses are produced from the farm’s own herd and yields are justifiably low. Some are sold exclusively to local restaurants, but many are available retail to the general public.
Though my cheese shop in New Jersey is a fond memory, I am fortunate to benefit from the cheese purveyors and cheese artisans of New England.