Archive | Spring 2013



In the past the term local indicated a sense of place, which encompassed the traditional knowledge held by the people inhabiting a certain geographic area, the set of resources specific to there and the unique character of the experiences that one could have in that particular place. It was a blanket term used to describe every area, yet it represented something totally different in each location.

In regard to food, this was wonderful—a chance to go somewhere and come across agriculture, cooking and cuisine unique to that specific section of the world.

But to me—with the rise of industrialization, globalization and the omnipresent World Wide Web—my definition of local has evolved. While the essence of the sense of place remains, it is now much less rooted in reference to a specific geographic location.

We used to predominately look at, and learn from, what was physically surrounding us, but we now have access to knowledge, ideas and traditions from all over—allowing us to transform our communities while informed by groups of people whose interests align with our own, even if they are from afar.

In this regard, my local—and the type of food that I prefer to support—is that which is grown, made and enjoyed in a meaningful way. It is knowledge and traditional practices that are in danger of going extinct, so I try, whenever possible, to visit / frequent / purchase from / and enjoy the products of people with aligned interests to mine—a humble attitude toward Mother Nature’s staggering abilities above our own, a desire to build a relationship with these natural processes and to mimic them wherever appropriate to produce food that is far better in terms of physical and sensory nourishment than we could ever create ourselves, and an understanding that there is great value and pleasure in paying attention to what we eat and how.

This is beer left to ferment for the weeks that the yeast needs, instead of pushing it out the door in days just to satisfy the market demand; it’s bread made with slowrising dough from a sourdough starter, and sold nearby so that it’s eaten within hours of being made; it’s vegetables grown in my garden, for flavor instead of durability.

It’s sharing recipes via e-mail with friends, asking my neighbors for advice during the growing season and seeking out native offerings when I visit someplace new. These things may be down the road, or they may be across the country, but I support them wholeheartedly because they are keeping our true human food culture alive. And with that thriving food culture we’ll revive more mindful eaters and producers all over, allowing us to once again embrace the original rooted sense of place that local described.

Taylor Cocalis Suarez
Good Food Jobs

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Coffee Roasted for Friends



Standing in the corner of the brightly lit warehouse is a cylindrical drum resting on four sturdy legs. The wrought-iron facing, decorated with swirls and scrolls, shows signs of wear. A slightly rusted square pan sits at the base below a round opening, a catch bin of some sort. The juxtaposition of this century-old apparatus in a state-of-the-art commercial factory raises the question: What’s this antique doing here? This piece of machinery, the Royal Roaster #4, inspired Paul Ralston to create the Vermont Coffee Company.

In the late 1970s, Paul was walking in the Bowery district of New York City in search of used restaurant equipment for a bakery he had recently bought. He passed an open doorway and saw smoke billowing out. Inside, a man in a white apron stood next to a machine, with flames licking a rotating drum. Paul had never seen or smelled coffee being roasted before. He stood transfixed, staring at the contraption and savoring the intense aroma. The man scooped the roasted beans into a brown paper sack and handed it to Paul. When Paul brewed them at home, the taste launched him back to his Italian grandmother’s kitchen table.

For his grandmother Esther, there was only one true coffee: a smoky-sweet dark roast she brewed in a stovetop espresso pot. And there was only one way to enjoy that brew: with family and friends. To this day, Paul Ralston maintains that sensibility, evident in his company’s mission statement, “Coffee roasted for friends.” Soon after that life-changing encounter with the coffee roaster in the Bowery, Paul tracked down a 1914 Royal #4 right in Bristol. He installed it in the front window of the Bristol Bakery, which he bought in 1977. And then reality set in.

“I had no idea how to roast coffee,” he admitted. “There were no books, no Internet, no one else was roasting in the area. And I still had to find coffee beans!” He did some research and found a woman named Erna Knutsen in San Francisco, the godmother of the specialty coffee business. She shipped Paul a pallet of green beans and he set to work.

Paul had a memorable virgin run. “The first time I fired up the Royal, it was night, when I generally did my baking. The flames were doing their thing under the drum, the beans were going around the pan. All of sudden, the Bristol Volunteer Fire Department came screaming down Main Street, lights flashing, and jumped out in front of the bakery. I had no idea that black smoke was billowing out the front window where the chimney pipe vented. Someone saw the smoke and thought the building was on fire. So I guess the Bristol firemen were the first folks to try my coffee.”


Paul sold the Bristol Bakery in 1983 but never stopped roasting coffee. While pursuing a business degree at Trinity College in Burlington, he built a cart, got a vending license and peddled espresso on Church Street. “Hawking food is the ultimate retail experience because you get instant customer feedback,” said Paul. What he learned is that no one was interested in espresso in the early 1980s. The entrepreneur shifted his product line to pretzels and that business took off. Paul attended classes during the day and worked his cart after school and on weekends.

After he earned his degree in 1986, Paul and his wife moved to San Francisco, where they experienced a lively coffee culture. In 1989, an earthquake struck the city, which he heeded as a signal to return to Vermont. He spent the next decade working in the skin care business in Vermont (Autumn Harp) and in London (Body Shop International). Around holiday time each year, Paul would fire up the Royal #4, which lived in his garage, and roast a couple hundred pounds of beans for family and friends, packing them in handdecorated brown paper bags.

The millennium approached and Paul felt ready for a change. He took a year off to refocus and plan his next move. “I spent a lot of time in my garage, sitting in my rocking chair next to the woodstove. I had a blackboard where I sketched out potential ideas.” Those chalk musings steadily morphed into what would become Vermont Coffee Roasters. Twenty years of roasting coffee and hearing people’s positive feedback convinced him it was time to make a business of his pleasure.

In 2001, Paul rented out a small space in Bristol where he spent the next five years building Vermont Coffee Company. He was committed to sourcing organic and fair-trade coffee as much as possible. Two of his mentors—Anita Roddick, creator of The Body Shop International, and Sister Janice Ryan, former president of Trinity College in Burlington—had introduced him to the socially responsible business model. These women proved that business could be a force for constructive engagement, cultural preservation and community restoration. To that end, Paul found coffee brokers who shared his philosophy, one in Montreal and the other in New Jersey. To this day, they connect him with the finest beans from the coffee lands: Tanzania, Sumatra, Indonesia, Peru, Mexico, Nicaragua.

Ten years ago, Paul fostered a connection in the Dominican Republic and began to work with 100 coffee farmers there. The goal was to improve cultivation methods, which would benefit both the farmers and the end product. This experiment resulted in the Alta Gracia and Tres Mariposas lines of single-origin coffee. This project required considerable collaboration with several international organizations and nonprofits. Starting this spring, a new line, Café Dominicano, will be introduced with three blends: Uno, Dos and Tres. This brand will support farmers in the three communities that produce the beans for Paul.

Vermont Coffee Company also helped fund a Dominican nursery for coffee plants, eventually growing half a million healthy cultivars in 2012. Organic compost and fertilizer were introduced, which dramatically improved the yield and quality per acre. Paul’s company helped pay for organic certification, which produced a better bean and improved the economic conditions of the farmers. He firmly believes that “The most important thing we can do is to pay a fair price for beans. The farmers earn a fair wage and the consumers enjoy a quality product.”

Paul is understandably proud of the work that has been accomplished in the Dominican Republic. “Dominican coffee has always been underrated so we are pleased to have raised that profile. In fact, at an international competition in 2010, several judges tasted our Dominican coffee and thought it was Jamaican Blue Mountain, one of the most highly regarded coffees in the world!”

Back in Vermont, the company continued to expand, outgrowing the Bristol space and moving to a new facility in Middlebury in 2006. Vermont Coffee Company now employs 16 people with diverse talents to ensure creative collaboration. “It’s a very loyal tribe. I just find the right blend of people and everything else falls into place,” Paul said. The company imports approximately 400,000 pounds of coffee beans a year. Every batch is roasted and shipped out the same day to ensure maximum quality.

“We treat our coffee like … Read More

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It’s easy to take milk for granted. It’s been around for thousands of years and is a key ingredient in delicious dishes in diverse cultures all over the world. Over the past 150 years in Vermont, dairy farming has molded the landscape that many people now view as typically rural.

“The dairy landscape, with its gentle cows, geometric hay cuts and large cattle- and hay-holding barns, is a particularly beautiful one and worth preserving,” wrote Jan Albers in her book Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. Whether it can be preserved is an open question. The gradual increase in the number of dairy farms at the turn of the last century came in response to the increased demand for this perishable product. A once-local staple in everyone’s diet, the development of refrigerated railroad cars meant the liquid milk could easily be shipped to large urban areas to meet increased demand. The dairy industry came to dominate Vermont’s agricultural output and its landscape.

But the economics of dairy farming has changed radically in the past 50 years and many dairy farmers have been forced to sell off their cows. In 2011 the number of dairy farms in Vermont fell below 1,000 for the first time in history, down from a high of 35,000 in 1880. Which makes Thomas Dairy in Rutland all the more unique, an operation that’s kept it all in the family for close to 150 years. And it has been so successful that it’s been able embrace other local families into the business.

As a child growing up on the family’s farm, John Thomas helped his father take care of the cows and later learned the distribution side of the business. Today John holds the position of treasurer and takes care of the advertising and marketing as well as customer service. His wife, Gayla, and his daughter Abby work in the front office. His Uncle Bill, who is 81 years old, is still active. Bill’s wife, Helen, is also in the front office and daughter Christa takes care of the bookkeeping. Cousin Dick Jr. oversees the processing and onsite packaging and cousin Perry is in charge of mechanical operations, including their 20 vehicles, and building maintenance. Perry is also the coordinator for HACCP, the FDA-sponsored program that ensures food safety hazards are rigorously controlled through constant monitoring and facility updates.

“This is a family business and family members make all the decisions at monthly meetings,” explained John. Dick Jr. is president, Perry is vice president and Christa is secretary; along with Uncle Bill, they are the current owners.

It all began four generations ago, in 1854, when the first Thomas purchased farmland in central Vermont just north of Rutland. In 1901 his son Orin bought his first Holstein, a dairy cow bred for its ability to produce abundant milk. The farm was 325 acres and the herd numbered 40 by the time his own son, also named Orin, took over in 1909.

Three years later the Thomas operation was big enough to begin delivering its farm-fresh milk to a local distributing plant that shipped milk to Boston in wooden railroad cars lined with ice. In 1921 the Thomas family decided to bottle its milk and deliver it every day to the homes of customers in Rutland City. Milk was not yet required to be pasteurized but the short time between milking and consumption minimized the risk of spoilage. In the early 20th century, the public health benefits of pasteurization gradually gained national recognition and in 1931 Thomas Dairy made the decision to put its milk through the heat-based pasteurization process even before this was required by federal law.

Homogenization was the next milk processing innovation adopted by the Thomas family, in 1947, the same year the company became incorporated. The fat in milk naturally rises to the surface. To distribute the fat evenly, raw milk is put through a mechanical process that breaks up the fat globules and allows the fat in the end product to be controlled, which is how it’s possible to have a variety of milk products with differing amounts of fat, from heavy cream to skim milk. This is a universally accepted practice today in the United States.

The next two decades brought expansion and improvements but also two devastating fires—in 1955 and again in 1968, when they lost the main cow barn (but luckily only one cow). The family rebuilt and carried on, expanding to 250 registered Holsteins and 500 acres of grazing land. They also now had five retail and two wholesale routes in central Vermont and continued to focus on the quality of their milk products. Thomas was one of the first businesses in the state to receive the Vermont Seal of Quality designation as part of the state Agency of Agriculture’s program to identify companies that maintained the highest industry standards for Vermont products.

A recent development in the dairy industry that Thomas Dairy refused to adopt is the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone known as rBGH or rBST, an artificially produced hormone that is injected into dairy cows to increase milk production. Though approved for use in the 1990s by the Food and Drug Administration, the Thomas family rejected the use growth hormones for several reasons. “We heard from a number of customers who urged us not to process milk containing the synthetic hormone,” said John. “We paid our producers extra not to use the hormone. As a result we lost one producer, but we we’ve been able to keep our milk hormone free.”

In 2005 the family decided to shift the focus of its business from producing to processing. The dairy business was changing rapidly with much consolidation into larger and larger conglomerates and reliable farm labor was hard to come by. The cattle and farm machinery were sold in 2005, and new storage tanks added. The processing plant had been upgraded with new equipment that made it possible to package their milk in plastic containers. Today, a diesel tanker truck goes out every day to pick up the milk from the six to seven small local dairy farms, generally with fewer than 100 cows, that are part of their milk business. The driver brings the raw milk back to the dairy’s processing plant on Route 7, where it is put into large storage tanks before the final conversion to four types of milk and to heavy cream. Milk samples are sent every other week to a lab in Saratoga to be tested for purity.

Perry Thomas, John Thomas and Richard Thomas of the Thomas Dairy family.


The difficulties of the dairy business are many, including the way milk is priced—which is, as the country recently was reminded, is all tied up with the U.S. Congress and the farm bill. Small dairy farmers and processors have an uphill battle to make a living because of the constant supply and demand fluctuations in the global market and how this affects prices, and the steadily increasing costs of the feed and fuel they need to keep their operations going.

John Thomas is hopeful that his family’s ability to … Read More

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The Only Things Predictable About
Phantom Dinners Are Great Food and Fun

Nancy Sargent delivers bowls of roasted squash soup, the first course of the evening.



By the time I arrived for the Latin Phantom Dinner at the Hostel Tevere in Warren, Vermont, a small group was already gathered at the bar. Many sipped a special cocktail—a shakeup of tequila, rosemary-infused simple syrup, fresh lime juice and a splash of Mexican Coca-Cola—that Phantom Dinner series cofounder Matt Sargent created for the event.

Some folks stuck together in pairs along the perimeter of the cozy dark bar while others jumped into the growing crowd, a mix of singles, couples and groups of friends of all ages. The mood was boisterous, and there was a feeling of excited anticipation for the multi-course Latin-themed meal to come.

Nancy Sargent, Matt’s wife and partner in the dinners, walked around the dining room tidying the tables, smoothing the bright blue runners laid atop yellow tablecloths, straightening the silverware and the orange-patterned napkins and filling the jelly jar water glasses. Three long tables were set for 32 diners.

I peeked into the kitchen where Matt layered roasted plantain halves and thinly sliced red and green bell peppers onto planks of flattened-out flank steak from Boyden Farm in Cambridge, Vermont. According to the menu, this would be the final savory course of the night, served with tangy, spicy colorado sauce and puréed black beans. (See recipe for the steak and beans on page 30.)

Matt describes his Phantom dinners as underground dining and releases the details for each dinner bit by bit on Facebook—first the date, then the menu, the price and, finally, the location a few days before the main event. When I asked him to define “underground dining,” he admitted that for fun he looked the phrase up on Wikipedia. Here is what he found: “an eating establishment operated out of someone’s home … [a] paying dinner party. They are usually advertised by word of mouth or guerrilla advertising.” Matt explained that underground dining creates opportunities for cooks who don’t own a restaurant and want to bring their food to the public.

“A lot of folks in my position have the desire and ability but not necessarily the means—i.e., a physical space,” he said. “I want to create a stage to present my food but don’t want to charge an arm and a leg for it. And I don’t have to because I don’t have the overhead of a restaurant.” Case in point: the Latin Phantom dinner, which cost $75 for eight courses with flowing wine pairings all night and a live music show. It is not a bad deal.

In the past couple of years, moveable feasts like Matt’s Phantom Dinners have become commonplace in the food world. You will see them called underground dinners, where a professional or self-taught cook (like Matt) serves food, often from a private home and under some guise of secrecy. There is also the pop-up, where a cook or chef opens up a temporary restaurant in a space that is not normally used to serve food (think art gallery, wine shop, outside in a field). Whatever you call it, this new way of eating out has created opportunities for the dining public to connect with cooks whose food they might not otherwise have tasted. Winooski’s own Misery Loves Co. is a perfect example of how this model can work. After a good run as a popup that bounced around in Chittenden and Washington Counties, Misery Loves Co. bought a food truck then quickly opened a brickand- mortar space. They were recently honored as a semi-finalist in this year’s James Beard Awards.

Matt’s Phantom Dinners are a hybrid of the pop-up and the underground scene. Like a pop-up, he rarely hosts dinners in the same place twice, and he changes the menu from event to event. The dinners feel somewhat underground because he leaks the details slowly on Facebook rather than blitzing the public all at once. And if you visit the Phantom Dinners website (, you will notice that he refers to himself and to Nancy as M and N. It is a secret, but one that is getting out.

Why the name Phantom? A phantom is an apparition—here one minute, gone the next, kind of like his one-night-only dinners. Matt likes that his guests do not know what to expect from him. There is no precedent, which gives him a fair amount of creative freedom. He can, essentially, cook whatever he wants. And he has, from a vegetarian plant-based Phantom to a Boston-themed Phantom to the Latin-inspired Phantom I attended. Judging by the fact that he now offers about one Phantom a month instead of four to six a year, diners do not seem to mind giving up control.

Below: Matt Sargent preps flank steak from Boyden Farm in
Cambridge, Vermont, to serve as the final savory course of the evening.

This time Matt was working with a sous-chef, Marty Mullane, a local cook whose main gig is at the Inn at the Round Barn Farm in nearby Waitsfield. Matt admitted that he had been prepping for the dinner for three days straight, staying up until about 1am each night to get everything done. In spite of this, he was calm as he finished prep for the dinner. He instructed Marty on how to cut jicama into batons for the second course, a marinated and roasted vegetable board served with crumbled hard-boiled egg and a spicy avocado, lime and herb sauce.

As dinnertime neared, I left Matt to plate the first course, Roasted Squash Soup with Hominy and Crispy Serrano Ham (see the recipe on page 35). I found one of the few remaining empty seats and introduced myself to my companions for the night: Erik and Priscilla Nelson, Carolyn M. Heft and Elise Hotaling and her husband, Todd. Nancy said that she noticed only three repeat guests—a good sign that word about the dinners was spreading.

The dining room buzzed with chatter until Matt stepped out of the kitchen and the entire crowd said in unison: “Hi, Matt!” Matt offered a few words, gave a quick cheers and ducked quickly back into the kitchen. The soup came out shortly after this, and the noise died down immediately as guests dug in. The chewy kernels of hominy provided an earthy backbone to the sweet and creamy soup topped with paper-thin shards of salty Serrano ham.

The Phantom Dinner series is in its third or fourth year but has only recently picked up real momentum. In the early formative years Matt and Nancy held only a few dinners per year and never offered more than four or five courses or music (Abby Jenne and the Enablers played a set at the dinner I attended). Matt explains that he and Nancy have always been great at throwing parties. For years the pair has hosted a series of big get-togethers at their home in Warren.

“Three times a year, I’d cook a lot of good food, create a signature cocktail and invite over a core group of friends,” said Matt. “Afterwards, people … Read More

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Entrepreneur-mom works to make
her new product dream come true



Sooner or later, most foodies wonder what it would be like to market their own line of food. After years of receiving compliments about Aunt Edna’s fudge sauce or their own secret recipe for a truly delectable salsa, they ponder the possibility of turning their passion into a profession and starting up a food company. After all, there are plenty of examples on the supermarket shelf of what can happen when you mix a clever entrepreneur and a good product. (Think Ben & Jerry’s or Nantucket Nectars). What was once a kitchen project given out to friends becomes a global brand, with the dollars and the glory to go with it.

However, the actual process of getting a packaged food item to market is so complicated that it deters all but the most dedicated and stubborn. Allyson Spanier is one such determined woman. She decided to fill what she considered a void in the market: all-natural baby food that actually tastes good. The road there has been bumpy and frustrating but she just may be on the precipice of a successful launch.

Spanier lives in Cambridge, Vermont, with her husband, J.J., daughter Addie, and son Bodhi,. She holds a master’s degree in education and taught elementary education for several years but when Bodhi came along she took time off to be with her children. As Bodhi approached age 2, she considered going back to work but had second thoughts about the direction her life might go. Rather than return to teaching she was inspired by her husband, who is self-employed. The freedom of being her own boss appealed to Spanier and she considered how she might earn an income while doing something on her own time schedule.

She had had an idea brewing in her head since her daughter was born but had yet to voice it as a possibility until her husband asked, “So what do you want to do?” Her answer: baby food.

When Addie was born, Spanier made almost all of her food at home using fresh ingredients. She had a few combinations that worked particularly well: pears and spinach, apples and winter squash, peaches and sweet potatoes, and beets and blueberries. She not only made the purées to nourish her daughter but tasted them often to make sure they pleased her own palate, ensuring that what she was feeding Addie actually tasted good.

As happens with all mothers, however, she didn’t always have the time to make homemade food and so she looked to the grocery store for other options. The big national brands didn’t appeal to her; the taste was subpar, the consistency unappealing and they were quite watered down. There were a few alternative, all-natural brands but Spanier found when she tried them they didn’t taste anything like the ingredients listed on the label.


When Bodhi was born, and she had even greater need for convenience, the idea of producing the baby food herself began to take shape. The concept of taste had been overlooked in the category of baby food. In fact, for most adults, the thought of eating the mealy, sometimes malodorous jarred purées is a little repulsive. Baby food companies emphasize nutrition, which is important, but we have come to accept the idea that it is OK to feed a baby food that we, ourselves, would not deign to consume.

Spanier felt that good taste was important for a developing palate and by making the purées with fresh, organic ingredients and minimal processing one could craft food that is both nutritional and good tasting. In the midst of a strong locavore movement and living in the middle of farm country, Spanier realized that she was well positioned to produce and market the food herself. She would call it, quite simply, Vermont Baby.

The first step was to figure out her first step. Luckily, she found a course offered by Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont, that was geared for exactly her kind of venture. It covered everything from packaging, FDA regulations and distribution to labeling and marketing. After taking the course she launched herself into market research both on the web and in the grocery aisles. She felt confident that her product could compete with the brands she found on the shelves if she could recreate the high-quality purée she made in her kitchen.

Her product, however, falls under the category of acidified foods (others would include salsas, pickles and some condiments). She would have to meet requirements of pH and temperature during the canning process to maintain food safety. Holding on to the flavor of the purées as she had intended them with all of these variables would be a challenge.


Spanier also needed an FDA-approved kitchen to produce her line. Luckily there is a facility in Hardwick called the Food Venture Center, where aspiring culinary entrepreneurs can rent kitchen space to make their products on a large scale in commercial-grade conditions. The Food Venture Center also helps with technical services, business plans, financing, distribution, access to food scientists and cooking assistants. For a first-timer, having this type of guidance is invaluable and it is safe to say she would not have endeavored without it. With help in the processing aspect lined up, she plowed ahead with the rest of her to-do list.

One of the most important (and fun) steps was to cement a brand image. In coming up with a label, she tried an online service called in which designers submit their ideas for a label for free. There were many responses but none of them quite captured what she was looking for. As luck would have it, she had been invited to a local baby shower and noticed that the invitation depicted exactly the style of illustration she had in mind. The designer, of course, was a Vermonter and Spanier hired her to design the label, realizing that only a fellow Vermonter would truly capture the spirit she wanted to express on her Vermont Baby labels.

With the jars and labels purchased, time at the Food Venture Center reserved and a spot at the Montpelier Farmers Market booked, there was still a major obstacle to overcome: insurance. Given the litigious nature of the entire baby industry, Spanier could not find an insurance company that would cover her for a reasonable rate.

Months rolled by as she made phone call after phone call to no avail. With everything else lined up and ready to go, she became frustrated and depressed that the insurance issue was going to sink her entire plan. So with gritted teeth, she rearranged her budget and took on an insurance company that was much more expensive than she had planned so she could at last get into the kitchen and start cooking. Finally at her first day at the Food Venture Center, Spanier rolled up her sleeves and prepared to make her first recipe at 30 times the scale of her homemade batch. Instead of cooking for one toddler, she now faced a 40-gallon steam pot and a pile of pears and spinach that made your fingers … Read More

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There is nothing like finding a warm brown egg in a pillow of hay. Each morning I look forward to pulling on my mud-crusted boots and stomping out to the coop to collect the brown eggs—which, like the chickens that lay them, each has its own “character.” Some are smooth and caramel-colored, others beige and freckled; others are so large they don’t fit into cartons.

I leave the coop knowing my girls have worked hard to lay the eggs I enjoy regularly with my coffee and toast or, on the weekends, in a heavenly stack of fluffy pancakes. I enjoy knowing that the food I cook with and consume with family and friends comes from animals that are happy and loved.

* * *

Three years ago I ate my first fresh eggs at a B&B on the Isle of Mull. I was in Scotland as a studyabroad student and on spring holiday in the westcoast isles. Breakfast each day consisted of the most golden scrambled eggs I had ever seen. They were fresh eggs, my hosts informed me, and had come from their very own chickens.

These eggs were the best I had ever tasted. Soon after my return to the States, I began to notice that chickens were not only being raised in the backyards of families in Scotland, but were steadily laying in the backyards of chickenenthused owners in my beloved Vermont, too. I began to take an interest in these so-called chicken owners. How many eggs did a chicken lay each day? Were chickens messy? And most important: Were they friendly?

* * *

I’m a Pennsylvania girl—a suburban Pennsylvania girl, specifically. I grew up on a block that has a beautician, a doctor and a funeral parlor. Today I live in the rolling hills of the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. From the dinner table there is a vista of purple, snow-capped mountains. Just beyond the garage is the chicken coop.

I suppose the origin of my fascination with chickens is similar to the famous question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? I cannot say whether my attraction for chickens began distinctly when I had my first farm-fresh egg or if it stems from my love for furry, feathered and fuzzy creatures (as a child and even today, I have an exceptionally serious love for stuffed animals), but I can say that I am attracted to keeping chickens for both the chicken and the egg. I love my flock of feathered friends and I love knowing that happy, healthy chickens produced the eggs I eat.

* * *

I inherited my 12 Rhode Island Reds from a family friend. The afternoon before their pickup, I raked out the coop, spread fresh sawdust on the floor and hosed down the grain cylinders. The coop—a homemade little haven complete with two roosts, 12 laying boxes and a wood stove to keep the chickens warm in subzero temperatures—was built years before by my boyfriend and his father, who as a child kept dozens upon dozens of chickens. The warning he wrote as a 10-year-old in red spray paint across the coop door still reads: BE AWARE OF CHICKEN. After their arrival one autumn evening, I ended up naming several of the chickens after characters from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Voldemort is the smallest and darkest of the flock; Dudley is the largest and, ironically, the most personable; and Luna is the ever-shifting name for the chicken who has the whitest tail feathers. I quickly discovered, because chickens molt, that the chicken I originally christened Luna probably lost her name within a week to a chicken with an even whiter backside.

* * *

Today I keep a bucket of chicken-friendly veggie scraps and other leftovers—waffles and oatmeal being two of their most coveted dishes—to feed the girls. Grapes from the arbor outside the dining room are another favorite; occasionally they will play a game of chicken rugby with a tomato or two. We get an average of eight to a dozen eggs a day, though in the colder months the number of eggs can drop. As for maintenance, the girls are very self-sufficient. They eat, they sleep, they greet me when I visit and they lay delicious eggs. All I have to do is keep their grain bin filled, their water bowl clean and collect their eggs. On warm days I let them roam free in the yard. It’s impossible not to smile while watching a chicken run.

Tending to my chickens has fulfilled a companionship I have somehow always craved, and also a kind of spiritual void. Not only do I care for 12 feathered sweethearts that weave around my ankles when I visit them, but after I collect their beautiful brown eggs each morning I can divvy them out to family members and friends and eat them myself knowing that the eggs were, I truly believe, “made with love.”




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Eight years ago, we got our first backyard hens from a family who wanted their lawn back. In one fell swoop we had a coop, waterer, feeder and five mature birds, so we didn’t have to make many decisions as we dove into the land of chickens. This was really great because we’d been considering getting hens for a while and the options were kind of overwhelming—what breed? What kind of coop? How much room should I have for a chicken run? Should we hatch chicks, or buy pullets?

As we’ve had to answer some of these questions over the years, one of our best resources has been word of mouth. So to put together this primer, I talked with my son, Francis, and some people at University of Vermont Extension. Amanda Gervais and Hannah Harwood work at UVM in crop and soils research. Gervais and her family run Savage Gardens in North Hero, growing vegetables and keeping 2,000 laying hens. Harwood is expanding her small flock of 11 hens this spring. Here’s some advice to help you get started.



In general, Gervais said, hens that lay green and brown eggs are very nice in temperament, while the breeds that lay white eggs tend to be very nervous. New Hampshire Red, Silver Wyandotte, Buff Orpington, Ameraucana and Auracana are all good choices.

My family has mostly had mutt birds we hatched from friends’ hens’ fertilized eggs, and we’ve been happy with both the animals and their eggs. But right now we have four Rhode Island Reds, and their uniformity is very appealing. I love looking at their creamy yellow legs and dark rusty feathers.

Another consideration is whether you want to eat your laying hens after they’ve finished their laying cycle. Full-grown hens can lay about 4–6 eggs a week for 2–3 years. The rate varies with nutrition, length of daylight and other factors. Barred Rocks and Red Rocks are both heavy breeds, which is good if you want a plump stewing hen.

Yet backyard hens might become pets instead of dinner, so bear that potential in mind. When we got hens we told our kids that we wouldn’t name them because they were eventually going to be dinner, and we were lucky that the boys just bought that line of thinking. If I had to do it again, I might be more open to whatever attachments might occur between kids and birds. Or, who knows, adults and birds.


Hatching chicks is really fun, but raising them is dusty business. Chicks kick up a storm from their feed, and that dust can really powder the place where they grow. Feed stores sell live chicks, and some farms do, too. You can also order them and get them shipped to you.


Gervais said you need three square feet per bird in the coop itself. For a chicken run, you’ll need about 10 square feet per bird if you really want them to get enough to forage. “Any smaller than that, you just kind of make a dirt yard—and also, there’s not enough area for the hens to get away from manure,” she said.

To keep hens healthy, give them enough room indoors and out, and keep water and feed free from feces. An easy solution for the latter is to put the containers up on a slotted platform like a milk crate.


Daily chores do not take much time. Morning and night, you need to open and close the coop door and do a headcount. Generally the birds go inside at dusk all by themselves. Collecting eggs and checking to make sure there’s enough water (a quart of fresh water per bird per day) and feed (the amount varies with how much foraging they do) might take 15 minutes a day, but usually less.

Quick daily checks of the hens’ eyes and combs tell a lot about their health. Clear eyes and bright combs are what you want. If you do get a sick bird, separate it from the flock—this is when we’ve called on farmer friends to suss out trouble. A few veterinarians look at chickens, and you can get a list from UVM of the ones that do. Seasonally, the coop will need cleaning. This might take a couple of hours, and you’ll want some place to compost the used bedding. Other irregular tasks are setting up fencing or netting to keep away hawks, foxes and other animals that want to harvest your birds. If you have enough room, you could occasionally move the run and coop— chicken tractors are a fun solution.

Mostly, hens don’t need a lot of your time, and the lure of fresh eggs is great payment for someone to help you take care of the hens when you go away for the weekend.


Chickens love leftovers. We give our chickens all our fruit and vegetable scraps, though some people avoid garlic and onions. If alliums do influence the flavor of eggs, we can never taste it. We also feed scrap bread from the bakery, and layer pellets from the feed store. In addition to bagged feed, Hannah Harwood sprouts wheat and feeds about a pound or two of sprouts a day to her hens. “They seem to like it a lot,” she said. “They gobble it up every morning. Their yolks seem really rich and bright, especially in the winter when they’re not getting grass.”

Those yolks might be the best ad for keeping chickens, but what the birds lend to family life is pretty great, too. Kids and chicks don’t just make nice portraits, but good relationships, too.

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Fostering symbiotic relationships

Photo courtesy of Stark Hollow Farm



At the end of a dirt road in Huntington, surrounded by the Green Mountains, sits Stark Hollow Farm, a tenacious little farm with a big mission. Owner and farmer Vanessa Riva and her partner, Laura Smith, raise heritage breed animals and foster a symbiotic relationship among the plants and animals on the farm, themselves included. One hundred percent grass-fed sheep and game rabbits, pasture-raised pork and free-range laying hens all coexist at Stark Hollow Farm, “supporting each other,” as Vanessa describes it. “We have a holistic approach,” Laura adds, “promoting a synergy among the animals.” This is sustainable agriculture at its best.

The spring shearing of the sheep, for example, is used for insulation in the rabbits’ and chickens’ housing structures. And the chickens are regularly placed in the same pasture as the sheep to help keep down their level of internal parasites, a primary health concern for sheep. “The chickens sanitize the patch where the sheep are feeding by scratching and making it harder for the parasites’ eggs to hatch,” Vanessa explains. This method results in a balance and is much more effective than using toxic substances. “Some farmers try to eliminate the parasite with chemicals, but it doesn’t work. They always come back.”

On the day of my visit, the first creatures to greet me at the end of the driveway were a flock of hens and a ram with curly horns. The rest of the flock was up in the pasture behind the house, but this ram was having a “time out.” Vanessa describes how, when they moved here in 2009, the pastures hadn’t been farmed in 25 years: “They were very rough and brushy.” To solve the problem, she put the pigs out on the land to root, which aerated the soil. Over the years their composted manure has added nutrients. The grazing sheep have also helped to diversify the plants in the pastures by spreading seeds around through their waste. And the chickens speed up the composting of manure thanks to their scratching.

Four years later, the pastures are healthy and nourishing. Stark Hollow Farm’s rotational grazing methods have proven “good for the soil, good for the plants and good for the animals,” Vanessa says. An MIT-trained engineer, Vanessa designed the farm’s modular barns and is the main farmer, handling all of the work with the animals. She’s originally from Northern Italy, where she spent summers and weekends on her family’s farm, which is still in operation. Her uncle, with whom she occasionally consults for farming advice, grows Arborio rice and raises a variety of animals. With her musical accent and twinkle in her eye, her affable spirit is complemented by Laura’s more serious temperament. A full-time civil servant with the state, Laura grew up on a farm in Vermont and has a business background. In her free time, she manages the farm, oversees the fleece and is the resident gardener. The two relocated to Vermont in 2006 from Oakland, California, seeking “a better way of life and a closer connection to the earth.”


They’ve found that connection at Stark Hollow Farm. Not only are these women committed to a diversified farm, but also to raising heritage breeds, primitive breeds in particular. “Many breeds have been lost,” Vanessa says. “Everything is becoming more homogenous.” They like that they’re helping to preserve the animals’ genetics, which promotes biodiversity. “Heritage breeds are a lot more expensive for us,” Laura says, “but it’s worth it because we’re supporting the conservation of animals that would otherwise go extinct. The vast majority of pig breeds are already gone.”

They’ve chosen breeds that naturally fit into the Vermont environment: Icelandic sheep, Tamworth pigs and a variety of laying hens, such as Blue Andalusians and Silver Laced Wyandottes. Heritage breed game rabbits are more challenging to find, but Vanessa is in the process of searching. The Icelandic sheep are the farm’s main product—for the meat, the wool and the breed stock. Icelandics have the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest and purest breeds, and just recently were removed from the watch list maintained by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They’re also a hardy breed that thrives in cold weather.

“I try to keep them as much in their natural environment as possible,” Vanessa says. “I leave their barns open even on really cold days. They love being outside. The land and the animals do better with each other this way.”

Stark Hollow Farm’s flock consists of two rams and 29 ewes, all of whom Vanessa thinks will bear young this spring, but she’s not aiming to increase the flock at this point. “They start becoming numbers instead of personal sheep,” Vanessa says. “They all have names and different personalities. I can recognize them all by the end of the summer. I can tell even by hearing their bleats who it is.”

During lambing season, Vanessa checks on the ewes every two hours. “If there’s a problem,” she says, “you have to act right away.” With no help other than from Laura, she admits that she’s “like a cadaver by the time they’re done.” It’s apparent, though, that she loves working with the animals: “The breeding cycles are tied to the season. I end up feeling and understanding on a deeper level the cycles of nature.” Sure, it’s hard work, but as she says, “I try to do as much as I can by hand; it’s better for the plants and animals, and for me too. It helps me feel closer to nature.”

Most of the lambs will be sold as meat in the fall—while supplies last, that is. Icelandic lamb is a highly sought after, premium lamb, prized for its delicate flavor. It’s exceptionally tender, while at the same time lean, increasing its appeal. Not surprisingly, it routinely sells out. Laura has shipped it as far away as Arizona and Nevada, with customers sometimes paying more for the shipping than for the lamb itself.

“The taste of the meat is better when animals are happy, not stressed. You can’t compare the flavor,” she says. “Our customer is someone who wants to know how our animals are raised.”

Also highly prized, Icelandic wool is renowned for its natural color variations and does not need to be dyed. Brown and black are its two base colors, but the sheep produce a great variety of shades, including white. Stark Hollow Farm sells the wool right off the sheep’s back and also after it’s been processed. Luxuriously soft lambskin pelts are especially popular.

Neither Vanessa nor Laura knits or weaves—where would they find the time? Vanessa has plans to make and sell shepherds’ crooks with the rams’ horns in the future, though, and also hopes to start making cheese, a pecorino like she grew up eating in Italy. “It will probably just be for our own consumption,” she says, but after a pause she smiles and adds that she already has a name for it in mind. If it’s anything like their exquisite Icelandic lamb, customers will be lining up for it at the end of their dirt road.… Read More

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There was a brief hint of the coming spring over Daylight Savings weekend back in March. The temperatures peaked into the high 40s and the sun shone for a few days straight.

Eager to leave behind the dreariness of February, Vermonters let themselves be coaxed outside by the brightness and warm weather. I took a long walk that weekend and dreamed of the months ahead when I could leave my house without a jacket and maybe even see fresh green grass. My husband and dog gleefully chased one another around outside. Unfortunately, as is the case with March in Vermont, the weather quickly turned wintry again. We got a foot of snow a few weeks later.

Of course, this blip of spring-like weather and fast return to the cold did little to disrupt Christa Alexander and Mark Fasching of Jericho Settlers Farm. By March, they were deep into preparations for the growing season ahead. Among many other tasks, they planted and potted seeds, weaned their winter-born pigs, transplanted cold-hardy crops such as scallions, lettuce and cilantro into their hoop houses and hired and trained a new summer crew. Once April and May hit, they prepped seedlings in their greenhouse, harvested early salad greens from their hoop houses and seeded and plowed cover crops in their vegetable fields. By June, most of the seedling transplanting was done and the pair, who founded the farm in 2002, began harvesting twice a week.

Christa and Mark take their primary harvest from September through November, though they harvest what they can (mainly greens and tomatoes) year round from their hoop houses. They add to their hectic spring and early summer schedule by making wholesale deliveries, attending the Burlington Farmers Market, growing grassfed beef and lamb, pasture-raised pork and chicken and eggs. They also distribute a year-round CSA share, which kept me and my husband well fed over the winter.

I asked Christa to tell me what vegetable or fruit she most looks forward to eating during this early part of the growing season. She was definitive: cherry tomatoes. Lucky for Christa (or perhaps because she loves them so much) she and Mark grow a few varieties, including Sungolds, Yellow Minis, Red Sakuras and Black Cherries. Christa enjoys the tomatoes straight off the vine—sweet, fragrant, fuzzy and warm from the sun.

Taking inspiration from Christa, I developed a recipe for a simple cherry tomato salad that celebrates these little round jewels in their natural, raw form. Instead of flavoring the salad with the usual Italianinfluenced oil and vinegar, I whisked together a quick dressing of lime juice, fish sauce and a touch of sugar then tossed the tomatoes with cucumber for crunch, sliced jalapeño for heat and fresh mint and basil leaves. The salad will make your mouth water. Add grilled steak and a side of fragrant Basmati or Jasmine rice and you have a meal.

Jericho Settlers Farm
22 Barber Farm Rd., Jericho
Farm stand open every day 8am–6pm\



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In The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook, food columnist and Dishing Up Vermont author Tracey Medeiros takes the reader on what feels like a private tour of some of the finest kitchens in the state and the farms that supply them.

Table’s 150 recipes range from reworked classics like French toast (cleverly made with day-old dinner rolls) to original dishes like Sage and Cherry Tomato Polenta. Designed to satisfy a range of dietary preferences—carnivore, omnivore, paleo or vegetarian—every course is covered. Full of luscious gluten-rich foods, there are plenty of gluten-free offerings as well, including numerous recipes made with potatoes, corn and vegetables as well as gluten-free Whole-Grain Waffles.

While I sampled most of the recipes—all delicious—the ones that most intrigued me were those that focus on utilizing a high percentage of locally grown and unusual ingredients, such as Food Works’ Winter Root Pancakes, the Warren Store’s Harvest Hash and Foote Brook Farm’s Stuffed Collard Greens, a New England twist on stuffed grape leaves.

Medeiros addresses the old joke about why Vermonters lock their cars in August (so people won’t put zucchinis in them) by including recipes for Chocolate Zucchini Cake, Squash Blossom Fritters and Zucchini Spread. Turnip lovers, of which I am one, will be thrilled with the Turnip Green Salad, Roasted Roots and Turnip Potato Gratin.

Some of Table’s recipes have been passed down through generations; others are new creations making use of Vermont’s growing number of distilleries, specialty foods and ethnic cuisine. Dishes made with wild edibles—ramps, nettles, fiddleheads and mushrooms—are included as are recipes for farm-fresh basics such as homemade mayonnaise, salad dressings, tomato paste and fresh ricotta cheese.

Medeiros celebrates the bounty of local food and the brilliant people who produce it by sharing profiles on Vermont farms, restaurants and food producers, bringing the reader into the lives of the varied, talented and committed agripreneurs in the Green Mountains. A portion of the Table Cookbook proceeds are being donated to the Vermont Food Bank, expanding connections between farmers, chefs and communities and extending access to local foods to all Vermonters.

As Vermont continues to be a pioneer in locally grown food, the burgeoning “culinary-supported agriculture,” as coined by Screamin’ Ridge Farm founder Joe Buley Jr., is championed in this easy-to-use cookbook, which brings the possibility of food sovereignty and the bounty of Vermont’s farms and culinary expertise into everyone’s kitchen.

The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook: 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State, by Tracey Medeiros (Countryman Press, 2013) More on the book at To get a listing of Tracey’s book tour dates visit



Edible Green Mountains Kitchen Events at Brook Valley Appliance is a place to feature our local farmers and artisans, as well as talented chefs who are coming together to share their craft. We believe that the kitchen is the heart of the home and the garden is a place of comfort and joy.

Our events are designed for home cooks. We are developing the curriculum to help you learn new skills from hands-on classes to demonstrations to tasting and savoring. Our first featured guest will be cookbook author Tracey Medeiros (Dishing Up Vermont and The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook) on Wednesday, June 19 for lunch and Friday, July 19 for dinner.

To make your reservation or for more information please visit

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