As the days grow long, farms around Vermont set the table and invite guests in for some of the sweetest meals in the state.
For more than 20 years the best place to taste the earliest zucchinis, delicate potatoes and other fresh vegetables Bob and Sara Schlosser grow in Wolcott was at the Stowe Farmer’s Market. Then, in 2010,the Schlossers invited their patrons to a Farm to Fork sunset dinner at Sandiwood Farm. The tradition has continued with two or three dinners a summer.
Sara starts by serving appetizers and taking guests on a tour of the farm. The Schlossers set up a table in the greenhouse where they serve vegetable-centric favorites such as Swiss chard sushi rolls, toasted Jerusalem artichoke crisps, wood-fired pizza with chanterelles harvested from the farm, and desserts topped with maple whipped cream from the Schlossers’ sugaring operation.
The menu is set according to what’s ripe in the Schlossers’ garden and one of the family’s goals is to offer meals at a variety of prices. Some are fancy three-course affairs, and others are more affordable. (The original chef was Sara and Bob’s daughter, Sandi, but this year’s dinners will be prepared by Sean Morrison, the executive chef at Stowe’s Plate restaurant). Dinner is served at sunset, and family-style at one long table with seats for about 120. “This is community dining at its finest,” says Sara.
“It’s about so much more than the food,” says Maureen Sullivan, who has a ski home in Stowe and has traveled to Wolcott from Boston three times in the last four summers to participate in Sandiwood Farm’s dinners. “It’s an extraordinary place, in such an unusual setting. You’re dining on top of a hill at sunset,” says Sullivan. The farm offers views of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak.
In recent years, more and more Vermont farms have started inviting diners to enjoy the harvest onsite. The meals range from barbecue picnics to open-air fine dining in pastures and orchards. Costs range from $25 for the Friday night “Burger Night” at Shelburne’s Bread and Butter Farm to $235 for the elaborate, five-course, annual sit-down feast that Outstanding in the Field puts on. There’s even an event known as “Farm to Ballet,” a farm-themed ballet performance that is hosted at eight farms around the state where guests can sample fare prepared by local food trucks or the farmers themselves.
Why the surge in outdoor dining? As Helen Whybrow, chef and co-owner at Knoll Farm in Waitsfield mused when asked the same question, “What doesn’t taste good when eaten outside in the beautiful Vermont evening air?”
Knoll Farm looks out at the Mad River Valley. It seems like the quintessential certified-organic Vermont farm yet the dinners that Whybrow serves twice a summer come with a twist. Whybrow is an expert in Middle Eastern cuisine and her open-air picnic-style dinners feature Icelandic lamb, fresh vegetables and live music. Guests are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and blankets. The lamb is entirely grass-fed in her pastures. The kebabs are marinated with warming spices like coriander, cumin, cloves and cinnamon. Sides are bright salads of fragrant, fresh-picked tomatoes, feta and olives or a roasted new potato salad with rosemary, lemon and a hint of sweetness imparted by dried fruits. Every meal comes with homemade pita or lavash topped with fennel and cracked pepper. For dessert, there are hand-made pies made with Knoll Farm blueberries.
Across the mountains in Panton, butcher and farmer Alessandra Rellini shares her Italian heritage with guests in an idyllic farm setting near Lake Champlain. “When you come here, it’s like walking into an Italian home for dinner. Expect to be here for three to four hours,” says Rellini of Agricola Farm. One night every month of the year she offers an authentic eight-course Italian dining experience, featuring her pasture-raised pork. Dinners start with a quick tour of the farm and its characters (including the chickens, vegetable gardens, sheep and pigs) and conclude in the two dining rooms of Rellini’s 1850s Victorian-Georgian farmhouse.
You don’t typically find pigs like Rellini’s in America, or Vermont-infused traditional Italian dishes like her frittelle– a fried dough stuffed with dandelions, homemade ricotta and foraged lamb’s quarters. Rellini likes eclectic cuts of meat, and her pigs are raised to grow slowly, to impart their meat with the tastiest, richest, most complex flavors possible. “The recipes are really simple,” says Rellini. “Our shoulder roast is braised in wine with rosemary and salt. That’s it. The point is that you use the highest quality ingredients, so the flavor of the meat is allowed to come through.”
Burger Night at Bread and Butter Farm has been a favorite of Champlain Valley locals since it was first launched in 2011 by farmers Corie Pierce and Chris Dorman. Farm staff serve 6-oz burgers made with grass-fed beef raised at the classic farm, which straddles the border between Shelburne and South Burlington. Everyone gets a heaping portion of salad, freshly picked from the garden that day. Food is served family-style to live music from local musicians on the rustic, wooden stage while everyone picnics on the green lawn by the barn. The front row is typically comprised of dancing kids.
At North Pomfret’s Cloudland Farm, nearly every vegetable and cut of meat served is grown and raised on the 1,000-acre farm and served in a post-and-beam dining room built from white pine harvested onsite. The farmers are Cathy and Bill Emmons, and the farm has been in Bill’s family since 1908. The Appalachian Trail runs through the property, which is populated by Black Angus cattle, horses, Cornish-cross chickens, turkeys and pigs. Bill and Cathy make their own beef sausage, pickles and sell beef and homemade jerky.
At one of their year-round farm dinners, an appetizer might be fried celeriac topped with pickled ramps, spicy mixed greens and homemade sourdough bread. Main courses feature homemade sausage from their pasture-raised cows or braised beef with rhubarb gastrique and gremolata. The three-course dinners are white tablecloth affairs, complete with tabletop bouquets and candles. The meals are served regularly on Thursday through Saturdays, and the dining room seats 50 people.
In May, The Woodstock Inn and Resort unveiled The Red Barn at Kelly Way Gardens, a dining venue set in a 19th century barn with a rustic-chic interior. The farm grows more than 200 varieties of organic vegetables, 50 varieties of herbs, 75 varieties of berries and 200 varieties of fresh flowers for the resort’s many rooms and its celebrated kitchen. Gardener Benjamin Pauly and executive chef Rhys Lewis host small Sunday dinners at the enhanced 19th century Red Barn in July and August featuring Vermont cheesemakers, farmers and bee keepers, as well as fruit from Kelly Way’s orchards, gardens and mushroom glen. The Barn will also host cooking classes.
While many of Vermont farm dinners are regularly-scheduled events and occur more than once a summer, a few are more like true pop-up style parties.
Imagine walking on a path through a field at dusk. Through a tunnel of trees ahead, you can hear laughter, people talking, glasses clanking. A cow bellows, and you can smell wood smoke and the sweet aromas of pork, fresh carrots and fingerling potatoes roasting over embers. You emerge into a pasture, and someone offers you a cocktail, “A Choice Bit of Calico” or a “Blood in the Sand,” and a seat at a long, table.
This is an Adventure Dinner, hosted by Middlebury-based craft distiller Stonecutter Spirits. Diners RSVP for a gathering limited to 50 to 75 people, get a ticket, and are texted the exact location of the dinner 24 hours in advance. Past dinners have been held in a woodland clearing at Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, and in a pasture at Stitchdown flower farm in Bethel.
The dinners consist of local meats with fresh Vermont herbs, fruits and vegetables. Menus are paired with craft cocktails built around Stonecutter Spirits’ Single Barrel Gin and Heritage Whiskey; the former of which won a Double Gold Medal at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Co-founder Sas Stewart, 35, says the goal is to curate a complete dining experience, from the locally-crafted props to the sites that host them, to the locally-sourced foods and spirits. Farmers and chefs chat with guests about the meal and past menus have included pork from Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, butter from Vermont Creamery in Websterville, and cold brew coffee from Abracadabra Coffee Co. in Woodstock.
Perhaps the most well-known farm dinner is one held annually by the Outstanding in the Field caravan as it crosses the country making stops in more than 80 locations. The organization prides itself on being “the world’s first pop-up restaurant–in a farm field.”
It works like this: a single, long table adorned with a white tablecloth is set up in an extraordinary place where food is grown or produced. Over the course of four and a half or five hours, 100 to 200 guests share a communal, family-style meal comprised of ingredients grown or created onsite or nearby. The farmer’s story is told and celebrated through a farm tour. The meal is prepared by top chefs who offer wine and beer parings.
On August 26, the Outstanding in the Field tour returns to Ploughgate Creamery at the Bragg Farm in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. The century-old farm is owned and operated by Marisa Mauro, who makes small-batch, European-style cultured butter. The meal will be prepared by guest chefs Nate Ward and Aaron Josinsky of Winooski’s Misery Loves Co., (a 2013 and 2016 James Beard Award semifinalist) which offers new twists on comfort food classics like poutine and chicken and waffles.
Last, if you can imagine an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord in one of the most beautiful “barns” you’ve ever laid eyes on, you’ve arrived at the annual Vermont Fresh Network Annual Forum Dinner at Shelburne Farms. Vermont Fresh Network member restaurants partner with local farmers to prepare tapas-style dishes using the freshest Vermont ingredients. The event is held in the courtyard and former stables of Shelburne Farms’ red brick Coach Barn, on the shores of Lake Champlain.
The Vermont Fresh Network is a nonprofit dedicated to connecting Vermont farmers with local chefs and restaurants. Member restaurants enter into a buyer’s commitment to source at least 15 percent of their ingredients from Vermont annually. The forum is its annual fundraiser. This year, the event will start with a “Vermont Artisanal Products” tasting, where the state’s foremost cidermakers, cheesemakers, winemakers, brewers, distillers, and farmers present samples along with the stories behind their award-winning products. This is the place to taste just-picked heirloom varieties of bell peppers, tomatoes and melons, and to discuss the merits of different curd textures with your favorite artisan cheesemakers.
Dinner is a grazing feast featuring tapas-style dishes by more than 80 of the state’s finest chefs. In the past, Leunig’s Bistro, Burlington’s renowned French restaurant has participated, as have Farmhouse Tap & Grill, Warren’s The Pitcher Inn and Bar Antidote of Vergennes. Every year, attendees vote on the “Best Bite.” In 2017, Juniper Bar and Restaurant and Thornhill Farm stole the show with their slow-roasted pork Cuban with spicy mustard, homemade pickles and Springbrook Raclette on a Red Hen Bakery Baguette. In 2016, Burlington’s Daily Planet served up a confit Cavendish pheasant thigh with madras curry, toasted coconut rice cakes, stone fruit chutney, and cashew brittle. The evening wraps up with an ice cream social, hosted by Strafford Organic Creamery. In 2017, the event attracted more than 600 diners.
Part of the Vermont Fresh Network’s mission is to encourage people to take the time to get to know their food. And that takes time.
Many of these meals are exercises in slowing down. You eat with a family of strangers, and you may have a glass of wine while taking a walk through the fields that grew the potatoes, nasturtiums and fresh herbs that appear on your plate.
When you take your table to a farm, you get the rich satisfaction of sitting in the dusk with farmers and chefs and basking in a place that has nurtured others before you.
9 Farm Dinners Not to Miss
If you want to taste the freshest and most eclectic dinners in Vermont, book a farm dinner. Many farms offer just a few dinners each summer. Reservations are required and dinners sell out quickly so plan ahead. You can always call to see if there are last-minute openings or if additional dates have been added. Otherwise, to visit and sample from farms around the state, plan an itinerary for Open Farm Week, August 13-19, when farms set up everything from tasting stations to full dinners. Details at diginvt.com
Agricola Farm Dinner Club, Panton, June 23, July 7, Aug. 18, Sept. 8, and monthly year-round. 5:30 p.m. Cost: $75, BYOB. agricolavermont.com.
Bragg Farm & Ploughgate Creamery, Outstanding in the Field 2018 Summer Tour, Fayston, Aug. 26, 3 p.m. Cost: $235 (includes wine and beer parings). outstandinginthefield.com.
Bread and Butter Farm, Burger Nights Shelburne, Certain Fridays June 29-Aug. 31, 4:30 p.m. Cost: $25. breadandbutterfarm.com.
Cloudland Farm, North Pomfret, Thurs.-Sat., 6 p.m., Mid-June to Mid-October. BYOB. Cost: $32-$49. cloudlandfarm.com
Kelly Way Gardens’ Red Barn Dinner Series, Woodstock, Sundays in July and Aug., 5 p.m. Cost: $55 + cash bar. woodstockinn.com
Knoll Farm Kebab Night, Fayston, July 27 & Aug.24, 6 p.m. Cost: $25 adults, $12 kids. knollfarm.org.
Multiple Locations: Project Farm to Ballet 2018. July-Aug., various times. Ballet: $20. Buy your dinner at onsite food trucks. farmtoballet.org.
Sandiwood Farm Farm to Fork Dinners, Wolcott, July 21 and Aug. 15, 6 p.m. Cost: $50-85. sandiwoodfarm.com.
Vermont Fresh Network Annual Forum Dinner, Shelburne, Aug. 5, 5 p.m. Cost: $75. Includes wine, cider, beer tastings. vermontfresh.net.