Once upon a time as a high school student in Vermont, I won a local scholarship to take a summer trip with Earthwatch, an international nonprofit that sends travelers into the field with scientists to promote sustainable environmental practices. The anonymous donor chose to send me to the wilds of Ontario, Canada to research ancient red and white pine trees. I boarded a plane for the first time in my life to get there and spent several magical weeks being lulled to sleep by the gentle rustle of quaking aspens, replacing morning showers with chilly lake plunges, scampering through ancient pine forests and navigating the shores of pristine lakes by canoe. Our primary task was to identify plants in both ancient forests and forests that had been replanted by lumber companies in order to quantify the loss of biodiversity.
My boyfriend Roberto is Roman and the first time he came to my childhood home in Vermont one bright spring morning several years back, we took a train from my apartment in NYC and picked up a rental car in Springfield, MA. He laughed at the city’s uncanny resemblance to Poland, the gray train station, the bright billboards and the plethora of large hotels that spread across this small New England city. As we drove along the highway through western Massachusetts, waves of vibrant green hills rolling by the car window, he glimpsed the central Italian region of Umbria, famous for its black truffles and olive oil, amongst many other highly delectable edibles. Never before had I beheld the romance of Italy in my wholesome New England, but glancing out the car window at the gentle, undulating scenery, I had to wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps someone should put the tourist industry on to this potentially profitable comparison.
Mud season in Vermont is polite this year. A practically snowless winter has left woody hilltops dry and dirt roads, often impassable in the springtime with deep pockets of mud, far more navigable. In a landscape that still bares visible scars of the violent battle waged against her gentle rivers by Hurricane Irene almost 5 years ago, a little less water may not always be a bad thing, although its overall impact remains to be seen.
Too early for leaves and without banks of melting snow to hide behind, Vermont has been drawn out into the open. I spy houses normally cloaked by forests and gaze upon a bare, stony landscape. The absence of flatlanders, Vermont speak for the city folk that drive up from the foreign flatlands south of the Green Mountains in Connecticut, New Jersey, and NYC, reveals a barrenness of another sort. Tourists do not come to Vermont during the spring mud season. Second homes are dark and driveways sit empty. A ski town with a year round population close to 1500, can swell to as many as 10,000 on a good winter weekend. Second homes are no small part of a community of this size where more than 75% of houses are owned by out-of-staters. In mud season, many businesses close, small stores and restaurants are shuttered and some locals find this a good time of year to travel elsewhere. Ghost town.
During the first weekend of April, many maple syrup producers throughout the state of Vermont welcomed visitors to their sugar houses as part of the annual Maple Open House Weekend. My friend Kate and I visited several sugar shacks over the course of the weekend, indulging in a syrup soaked pancake breakfast with heaps of bacon and sides of sausage while feeling nostalgic over bowls of sugar on snow made by pouring hot syrup over real snow. Yes, in Vermont, snow is a food, and sugar on snow brings to mind sugar glazed childhood memories of snow days and sleds, soggy mittens and hot chocolate.
Although the Vermont winter this year had been relatively snowless and the ground remained barren, dry and brown, Donna Smith of the Smith Maple Crest Farm in Shrewsbury, VT explained that her son, who now runs the farm with his wife, had rushed out in excitement with a cooler the week before when a brief snowfall insured there would be sugar on snow at this year’s open house. She scooped mounds of white snow like ice cream from the cooler onto paper plates and pressed the top of a coffee urn to spread the warm maple syrup on top. As almost any kid in Vermont will attest, sugar on snow deserves almost as much excitement as a glimpse of the first snowflakes of the year. Sleds and snow days are never very far away.
I spent the holidays back home with my family in the Green Mountains of Vermont. After a year of cooking school in Italy, replete with two internships and a thesis which I somehow miraculously managed to research and write in just over a week, sleep was primary on my daily bill of fare. But so too were visits with family and friends, strenuous mountain runs, a few sacred and precious snowflakes (there has been a real shortage of snow so far this season) and an abundant offering of local Vermont wines. Yes, you read that right. Vermont wines. I was pleasantly surprised too.
Known for its maple syrup, craft beer, orchards and ciders, and a rich dairy industry chock full of popular ice creams and artisanal cheeses, Vermont has never been famous for its wine industry. But that could be changing and not without good cause. The Green Mountains are, after all, some of the oldest mountains on earth, add to that a noteworthy French heritage, a rich agricultural community deeply entrenched in sustainability and local, community based food since at least the 1970s, and a discerning clientele—In the early 1990s, West Dover, the small town I grew up in plus the neighboring town, Wilmington, had approximately 3000 residents combined, but between just two inns, the Inn at Sawmill Farm and the Hermitage, they could boast approximately 76,000 bottles of wine (Snow Country, Oct 1994, pg 206)—and you seem to have all the obvious makings for the birth of a wine industry.