Green Mountain Grub: The Best Things to Eat in Vermont

There’s more than maple in this outdoorsy New England state.

By: Melissa Pasanen
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Greatest Meals in the Green Mountain State

A leader in the farm-to-table movement, Vermont treasures its agricultural heritage and working landscape. From maple sugarhouses to hillsides dotted with black-and-white cows, the state is full of foods that are raised, crafted, caught and foraged locally. Iconic food and drink includes classic New England recipes with nods to the native Abenaki people and to Quebec up north. At the same time, a new generation of chefs has become known for fresh takes on traditional ingredients like heirloom cornmeal, venison and fiddlehead ferns.

Apple Pie (with Cheddar)

Like many Vermonters, multigeneration apple orchardist Ray Allen believes “Apple pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze." And Allen knows apple pie. The Allenholm Farm apple orchard in South Hero has been in his family since 1870, and he’s prepared the very flaky crust for each of the 2,000-plus pies annually sold at the orchard since 1990, when his wife dared him to perfect a pie recipe. New Englanders also believe in pie for breakfast, and, at 80, Allen has sure earned his slice.

Go to: Allenholm Farm Store

Chicken Pot Pie

In most places, chicken pot pie is lidded with a pastry crust, but Vermonters top their chicken, gravy and vegetables with a quilt of biscuits. To try the authentic version, your best bet is booking a seat (early!) at a chicken pie supper like the one held every October at the Richmond Congregational Church, going strong for 70 years. On the restaurant side, head to Penny Cluse Cafe, a beloved Burlington destination for eclectic comfort food since 1998, and order the chicken and biscuits, served over supremely flaky buttermilk biscuits.

Go to: Penny Cluse Café

Aged Cheddar

Vermont Cheddar has been recognized as among the best in the world. At Cabot Creamery, Grafton Village and Shelburne Farms, sample and watch the process. For topnotch grilled cheese, try the seasonal cart at Shelburne Farms' historic farm barn or head to the MKT cafe in Grafton for a daily grilled cheese like three-year Cheddar, apples and ham. The iconic Vermont Country Store's Weston location has a huge, traditional general store wheel of Cheddar and serves creamy mac and cheese next door at their restaurant. Prohibition Pig in Waterbury is known for creative mac and cheese, but the basic made with Cabot Clothbound needs no adornment.

Go to: Prohibition Pig

Chili Dogs

Whether you call them Michigans, Red Hots, Coney Island or Texas dogs, hot dogs topped with a finely ground meat chili, chopped raw onions and yellow mustard are as beloved by Vermonters as if they came from the Green Mountain State. During warm weather, seasonal snack bars like Brigante’s Snack Bar in Colchester and Beansie’s Bus in Burlington are favorites. At Handy’s Lunch — a third-generation Burlington icon in its own right — they call it a Texas dog, and it’s available year-round. The bun is griddled buttery-crisp on the outside, the hot dog snaps under your teeth and the chili recipe is a family secret.

Go to: Handy’s Lunch

Fiddleheads

Vermonters know spring has finally arrived when the delicate, fiddlehead-shaped tops of certain species of ferns poke up in the woods. Fiddleheads were traditionally steamed, sauteed with butter or simply creamed. In restaurants, they might be combined with mushrooms for a spring ragout, as they are at Mary’s at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, or married with perfectly seared scallops and other tender cusp-of-spring vegetables by the James Beard Foundation Award-nominated team at Misery Loves Co. in Winooski.

Go to: Misery Loves Co.

Farmstead Cheese

From renowned Jasper Hill Farm up in the Northeast Kingdom to Vermont Shepherd down in Westminster West, Vermont claims the highest number of cheese makers per capita, close to 50 at last count. Many craft cheese with the milk of their own animals, which makes them farmstead cheese makers. The Vermont Cheese Council offers a map of cheese makers with visiting information. The repeat James Beard-nominated Hen of the Wood restaurants in both Waterbury and Burlington compose exquisite local cheese plates. In Brattleboro, try the Port, chocolate and cheese plate at Duo Restaurant.

Go to: Hen of the Wood

Lake Perch

There is a long history of fishing in and around Lake Champlain. In winter, small ice-fishing huts sprout on its surface. Since 1951, family-owned Ray’s Seafood has bought buckets of yellow perch and other lake fish from local anglers. At the family's Essex Junction location, they serve the haul as excellent fried perch fillets in a light, crunchy batter. Ray’s also wholesales to other restaurants like Bleu Northeast Seafood in Burlington, where the fried perch sandwich comes with spicy slaw and Old Bay aioli. The preparation makes it easy to taste why lake perch have been called “poor man’s shrimp.”

Go to: Ray’s Seafood

Gravy Fries

Before every Vermont restaurant jumped on the poutine bandwagon — inspired by our friends to the north — there were gravy fries at Nectar’s. A late-night Burlington destination since 1975, it earned fame hosting the first gigs of Phish, which honored original owner Nectar Rorris by naming its first major-label album after him. Gravy fries have never pretended to be high cuisine, but piles of crisp fries under homemade turkey gravy are still a solid way to fuel a night out.

Go to: Nectar’s

Switchel

During the heat of the summer haymaking season, Vermont farmwives mixed up a thirst-quenching, rehydrating drink made with cider vinegar, maple, molasses and ginger. Cabot-based Vermont Switchel Company bottles the refreshing beverage inspired by a seventh-generation family recipe, selling it nationwide. While not the original intent, switchel makes a great cocktail mixer, as shown by the success of a drink dubbed Switchel in the Rye, served seasonally at the Burlington tasting room of Mad River Distillers, where they combine Vermont Switchel with jasmine simple syrup and their own locally made rye whiskey.

Go to: Mad River Distillers Tasting Room

Maple Cream Pie

Made with the family’s own dark syrup and a flaky lard-and-butter crust according to Kate McDonald Beattie’s original recipe, the maple cream pie at The Creamery Restaurant has not changed in nearly half a century. In fact, Beattie herself made the pies, topping slices of rich maple-sweetened custard with freshly whipped cream, until she was in her early 90s. One of her daughters is the current pie maker for the family-owned restaurant, which serves homey fare in an 1891 building that was once the local creamery. Another fine example of maple cream pie can be found at the P&H Truck Stop in Wells River.

Go to: The Creamery Restaurant

Ramps

Among the earliest edible greens to sprout through the frosty Vermont soil are ramps, or wild leeks. They are as eagerly anticipated by chefs today as they were welcomed by native Abenaki. Resembling scallions with an increasingly pungent bite as they mature, ramps are suited to various spring preparations, including pickling and grilling. On restaurant menus, they might punctuate a dish like the braised oxtail-stuffed squid with spring radishes and grilled ramp aioli served at the James Beard Foundation Award-nominated SoLo Farm and Table in South Londonderry, or you might find them starring in the ramp and potato soup with ramp dumplings at Ariel’s Restaurant in Brookfield.

Go to: SoLo Farm and Table

Heirloom Apples

Vermont's state fruit is deeply rooted back to when every homestead had a few trees. Scott Farm in Dummerston is known for its diversity of heirloom apples, including Thomas Jefferson's two favorite varieties, Esopus Spitzenberg and Maiden's Blush, which are particularly suited to drying. Every fall, the orchard hosts an heirloom apple dinner featuring dishes like rabbit stuffed with Baldwin apples, bacon and chard. The James Beard-nominated team at Kitchen Table Bistro in Richmond showcases heirloom apples on the fall menu in preparations like slow-roasted rack of pork with squash risotto and apple relish, as well as Grandmother's Apple Cake with brown sugar apples.

Go to: Scott Farm

Gilfeather Turnip

Recently named the Vermont state vegetable, this heirloom turnip variety is sweeter than most (likely due to some rutabaga influence in its ancestral line), and the town of Wardsboro honors the humble root with a whole festival every October. There you can fill up a tray with everything from Gilfeather turnip soup to surprisingly good doughnuts made with turnip. Seasonally, the Four Columns Inn in nearby Newfane features Gilfeathers in the form of a velvety bisque or maybe in a rich gratin layered with Grafton Cheddar and local heavy cream.

Go to: Four Columns Inn

Pickled Eggs

To get through the long, barren winter, Vermonters used to can and pickle everything they could fit in jars, including cucumber "tongue pickles" (made from overgrown cucumbers, the round ends resembling tongues), fruit and even eggs. Large jars of pickled eggs can still be found sitting on some general store and deli counters, including the one at Gill's Delicatessen in Rutland, where they make their own vinegar-garlic version. Restaurant chefs have also taken to pickling eggs in creative ways, including a turmeric-tinted one served on the housemade pickle plate at Hired Hand Brewing Co. in Vergennes.

Go to: Hired Hand Brewing Co.

Sugar on Snow

Vermont leads the nation in maple syrup production, and the natural sweetener flows through menus of every type: It's poured over fabled pecan-pumpkin pancakes at the Blue Benn diner in Bennington and mixed into cocktails like the cayenne-maple-spiked margarita at Popolo in Bellows Falls. For the purest taste, head to the sugarhouse of a producer like Morse Farm in Montpelier, where maple sap is boiled down into syrup. (About 40 gallons of sap yield 1 gallon of syrup.) During sugaring season, a traditional treat is fresh syrup ladled on snow to set up like taffy, often with a pickle and plain doughnut.

Go to: Morse Farm

Maple Baked Beans

For a true Vermont experience, head to the town of Georgia where the J sisters (June, Jolly and Jerrilyn) have been baking Vermont yellow eye beans with the family’s own maple syrup, slab bacon and yellow mustard for more than 50 years. Every week, they sell up to 16 pounds from the deli and freezer at their Center Market, greeting most customers by name. For maple baked beans with table service, try the Chelsea Royal Diner in West Brattleboro, where diner classics get a fresh, locavore twist and the beans feature local syrup and their own diner-raised pork.

Go to: Center Market

Tourtiere

French Canadian immigrants brought many recipes to Vermont, but Quebecois meat pie, called tourtiere, stands out. Families baked dozens for end-of-year celebrations that lasted through the night. The two-crusted pies are usually filled with ground beef and pork, onions, mashed potato, cinnamon, and cloves. Quality Bake Shop in Essex Junction has made them for more than 30 years, based on a family recipe.

Go to: Quality Bake Shop

Cider Doughnuts

Ripe apples lure crowds to Vermont orchards every fall, but the freshly fried cider doughnuts many offer are equally compelling (if not quite as healthy). The tender cake doughnuts are made with apple cider in the dough, then usually rolled in cinnamon-sugar hot out of the fryer. During apple season, fans go straight to the source, like Shelburne Orchards in Shelburne or Champlain Orchards in Shoreham. Year-round, head to Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury or indulge in the excellent mini cider doughnuts fried fresh three times a week at the Addison 4 Corners General Store.

Go to: Addison 4 Corners General Store

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream

Founded in 1978 in an old Burlington gas station, Ben & Jerry’s grew into Vermont’s most-famous food brand after Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield first mixed big chunks of candy and cookies into their own ice cream. The company is now owned by Unilever but stays firmly rooted in Vermont. Flavors like Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Cherry Garcia are legendary, and the Waterbury factory tour is the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction. If you dare, order the Vermonster sundae, made with 20 scoops of ice cream, fudge brownies, bananas, cookies, choice of toppings, hot fudge, whipped cream and marshmallows.

Go to: Ben & Jerry’s Factory

Heirloom Corn

Sweet, fresh-picked corn gets all the glory, but it was corn cultivated for drying that sustained the native Abenaki people who first settled in the region we now call Vermont. Old heirloom varieties like one called Calais Flint Corn, saved by farmers Roy and Ruth Fair of North Calais, have made a resurgence. Vermont cornmeal shows up on restaurant menus throughout the state, including Black Krim Tavern’s jalapeno cornbread with pickled sweet peppers and pork belly, made with corn raised and milled in Randolph, the same town as the restaurant.

Go to: Black Krim Tavern

Lamb

Most people associate Vermont with cows, but in the 1800s the hillsides were dominated by sheep, raised largely for wool, and Vermonters still eat more lamb per capita than most Americans. The beautiful restaurant overlooking Quechee’s covered bridge at Simon Pearce’s glass and pottery workshop offers a fine local lamb burger served with a mint and Vermont feta salad. At Shelburne Farms, the striking National Historic Landmark and home to a working farm and environmental education nonprofit, the seasonal restaurant features lamb raised on-site in dishes like slow-roasted lamb shanks with chive blossom gremolata.

Go to: Inn at Shelburne Farms

Salt Pork and Milk Gravy

Salt pork is another throwback to traditional food preservation; when farm pigs were processed in the fall, some of the fatty pork belly would have been salted and stored in a barrel “down cellar” to last through the winter. The Thursday special at the Wayside Restaurant — a landmark for honest, Yankee fare for almost a century — is crunchy, peppery fried strips of salt pork with a thick, mild milk gravy. The dish has even been recognized in the culinary hall of fame of the Tunbridge World’s Fair, which takes place each September.

Go to: Wayside Restaurant

Venison

Vermont's blazing hillsides of fall foliage are matched by the blazing orange of hunters' vests. At seasonal community game suppers like the one hosted by the Bradford Church of Christ each November, dishes might include bear stew and beaver meatballs, but restaurants favor venison when it comes to representing the state's deep hunting culture. Chefs mostly use farm-raised meat, though state regulations do permit wild game within a window around deer-hunting season. Try the award-winning, smoky-sweet venison chili at The Lobby in Middlebury.

Go to: The Lobby

Maple Creemees

The correct spelling is almost as controversial as the best source, but everyone can agree that Vermont’s version of soft serve (creemee, creemie or creamie), made with real maple syrup, is the state’s top frosty treat. Some prefer sugar makers like Morse Farm, Bragg Farm in East Montpelier or Palmer Lane Maple in Jericho, where they make real maple sprinkles too. Others swear by seasonal snack bars or stands like Maynard’s in Moretown or LegenDairy Maple and Ice Cream in Williamstown. Newcomer standout Canteen Creemee Company in Waitsfield offers a Maple Madness sundae crowned with maple cotton candy and maple crystals.

Go to: Canteen Creemee Company

Boiled Cider

Since 1882, the Wood family in Weathersfield has simmered its own fresh-pressed cider down into tart-sweet boiled cider syrup. Cooked even further, it becomes cider jelly. The family’s cider press dates to the 1880s, creating a scene so historically compelling that parts of The Cider House Rules were filmed there. Boiled cider was originally a preservation technique, but today it’s prized as a way to add depth to baked goods, the cider vinaigrette drizzled over a salad of kale, salami, sliced apple and charred onions served at Okemo Mountain’s Epic restaurant, and the Wood’s boiled cider whole-grain loaf baked weekly at the King Arthur Flour Bakery and Café in Norwich.

Go to: Epic at Okemo Mountain Resort

Craft Beer

Historically, Vermonters made sap beer using maple tree sap — now brewed seasonally by Fiddlehead Brewing and Lawson’s Finest Liquids — but, more recently, the state has built a global reputation for craft beer. Beer pilgrims flock to Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro and The Alchemist, brewer of fabled Heady Topper, along with dozens of others bubbling up around the state. For beer-influenced eats like rich Cheddar and lager soup or beer-marinated steak along with house brews, try the Trapp Family Lodge Bierhall on the picturesque Stowe property, founded in 1950 by the von Trapps (of The Sound of Music) and still run by the family.

Go to: The Alchemist Brewery and Visitors Center

Spring-Dug Parsnips

Before supermarkets stocked tomatoes year-round, Vermonters endured months of limp root-cellared vegetables until the ground thawed enough to unearth cold-sweetened, crisp spring-dug parsnips. “When the snow melted and people began to dig parsnips ... let freedom ring!” wrote Louise Andrews Kent (aka Mrs. Appleyard), an authority on Vermont cooking. Chefs around the state take advantage of this sweetness in creative ways. At The Downtown Grocery in Ludlow, spring-dug parsnips might be used to both flavor a milky broth and add earthy crunch as garnish for handmade lobster ravioli with spring peas and house-grown pea greens.

Go to: The Downtown Grocery

Cider, Hard and Sweet

Before Prohibition, hard cider was the beverage of choice, a way to preserve fresh cider and safer to drink than water. Many orchards like Dwight Miller Orchards in Dummerston press their own sweet cider, but hard cider has also staged a comeback. There is also ice cider, fermented from frozen cider into a sweet-tart dessert wine. The Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center is home to Newport Ciderhouse Bar and Grill and to Eden Specialty Ciders’ hard cidery and tasting bar. Along with hard ciders on tap, menu specials might include apple and shallot-crusted steak with a cider-whiskey sauce, as well as spiced apple cheesecake with cider-bourbon salted caramel.

Go to: Newport Ciderhouse Bar and Grill

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