I’m not a big skier. I grew up in the shadow of the slopes in the Pocono Mountains, but the icy Pennsylvania conditions made skiing decidedly unfun for fall-prone little-ol’ me. Heading up north to the premier ski resorts on the East Coast never even occurred to me. In fact, it wasn’t until my baby brother went to college in a small town outside of Burlington that I ever explored or experienced the beauty and wonder of the Green Mountain State.
My mom and I took him and helped him move into his apartment. When he was ready to go off on his own, we had plenty of free time to explore. Shimmering lakes and verdant mountain vistas — the natural appeal was nothing short of amazing. But one of the things on top of my to-do list was a cool food tour in Burlington. We learned so much about the history and heritage behind this quirky city’s culinary prowess. From its penchant for all things maple syrup to its role in the farm-to-table movement, I learned that Burlington’s evolution is forever linked to its local cuisine.
VERMONT MAPLE SYRUP
Vermont and maple syrup go together like peanut butter and jelly. The state produces around 47 percent of United States’ maple syrup in its 1,500 plus sugarhouses. It’s an integral part of the agricultural heritage in Burlington and throughout the state. I discovered that most local historians believe that early settlers learned the art of maple production from Native Americans. There are many legends among regional tribes that tell the story of the first maple syrup, so the exact origins are unclear. Researchers have found that European settlers quickly learned how to collect the sap from maple trees. They adapted the process to use the technology they had. For example, while Native Americans cut the bark and allowed the sap to collect in a hollowed log, 17th-century settlers used augers, spiles, and buckets to collect the sap before boiling it in iron kettles. Modern tools are different, but the quality of the syrup remains intact. In Burlington’s many restaurants, I found maple in everything from lattes to desserts to the glaze over perfectly roasted veggies.
CHEESE: VERMONT’S DAIRY HERITAGE
Wisconsin isn’t the only cheesemaker in the U.S. Vermont has been making cheeses since the 1800s, in some cases using the same processes that artisans employ today. I wasn’t clear on why cheeses made here taste so different. For example, Vermont cheddar has strong, sharp flavors that stand out from cheese made in other areas. The minerals in the soil and water used to feed local cows impact the flavor of the cheese. In the earliest days, Vermont cheese was made with raw milk. The first factory-made cheese was produced in 1851, making the shift from farm to industry. But modern cheesemakers strive to recapture the art of cheesemaking. I didn’t have a chance to hit the Vermont Cheese Trail, but I did get to sample some exquisite cheese dishes while I was in Burlington. Mac and cheese (obvious, I know) was a great litmus test for me, but my favorite unexpected twist was apple pie served with a wedge of cheddar. That was a memorable bite that’s made its way back to my own kitchen and dessert table many times since.
HUNTING, FISHING AND FORAGING IN THE GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE
Buying local isn’t a new concept to Burlington residents. Hunting, fishing, and foraging have long been part of the food culture in Vermont. These traditions have carried over into modern-day food movements like Field-to-Fork and Farm-to-Table so popular in Burlington and other areas of the state. These initiatives celebrate residents’ relationship with food while creating pride in the state. Vermonters are encouraged to use wild game as part of their seasonal diets, with many local butcher shops including rabbit, venison, and pheasant in their lineup of available meats. The natural surroundings lend themselves well to fishing and hunting. Foraging for fiddleheads, morel mushrooms, and dandelions is a fun pastime for some. Foraged foods have even found their way onto the menu in many Burlington restaurants.
PUTTING MY BURLINGTON KNOWLEDGE TO USE
A few months after I returned home from my trip to Vermont, my brother came home for break. I decided to welcome him with a small dinner party — a couple of his buddies and a few family members who wanted to hear all about college. I made lake perch, which can be fished right out of Lake Champlain, steamed fiddleheads, and macaroni and cheese with a blend of Vermont cheeses. For dessert, I prepared a maple pumpkin pie. It was a hit with my brother and his guests. But it was also a fun night for me. I got to flex a little bit of the know-how I picked up while touring the fun and funky city that my brother now called home.