Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Vermont's Sweet Treats

Montpelier to Bennington
July 12, 2010
With a population of just 8,200, Montpelier is our country’s smallest state capital, and it is our only state capital without a McDonald’s (no problem for us). We pick up our morning lattes and pastries at La Brioche, a New England Culinary Institute café staffed by its students. I give them an A+.

We really shouldn’t be eating sweet treats for breakfast, because our next stop, hardly more than half an hour away, is the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Plant tour in Waterbury, Vermont. This is Ben and Jerry’s first plant, and it has to be their smallest, running just two lines, producing just two flavors of ice cream each day. But, we actually get to see a real plant in operation, and learn about every step in the process of making their ice cream. After the tour, of course there are samples. Today’s sample is “Chocowlate Chip,” made with fair trade certified vanilla ice cream with fudge cows. As the tour emphasizes, all Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is made from the milk of cows that have not been given any growth hormones or other bad chemical stuff, in keeping with their three pronged corporate mission—social, economic and environmental.

The tour includes a very entertaining and educational movie about the history and social philosophy of lifelong friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield and their company, which they started after completing a correspondence course in ice cream making from Penn State. We learn that Unilever bought the company in 2000, and Ben and Jerry have moved on to pursue other interests. Out in the entry foyer, next to the noisy machine that presses pennies, a video on a small television mounted overhead features Ben and Jerry’s side of the hostile take-over by Unilever story. They also talk about Ronald Reagan presenting them with the Small Business People of the Year award in 1988. “They gave us an award for being everything they were totally opposed to,” Ben says incredulously.

One of the many things we admire about him is that as CEO of the company, Ben limited his pay to seven times the pay of the workers on the ice cream filling line. Today the national average for CEO pay is over 160 times the lowest paid staff. A nice fringe benefit that all Ben and Jerry’s workers enjoy is the option to take home three pints of ice cream at the end of every day that they work.

Afterward, we hop on Route 7, which takes us south through Vermont farm country, where many contented chemical-free cows graze and provide milk for the cooperative that supplies Ben and Jerry’s.

In Richmond, Vermont, we stop to see this round meeting house built by five different church denominations—Baptist, Christian, Congregational, Methodist and Universalist. Completed in 1814, it has been used for church services and town meetings ever since then. We learn from our guide that the first Tuesday in March is Town Meeting Day, a state holiday when all cities and towns across Vermont hold meetings to discuss and vote on local officials and school and town policies and budgets. The Richmond town meeting was held in this meeting house from 1813 until 1973, when the woodstoves that heated the building were determined to be unsafe. Now the round (actually sixteen sided) church is a National Historic Landmark. Although no church congregation meets here regularly, it is a popular location for weddings during the warm months and the site of occasional interdenominational church services.
Further down Route 7 in Charlotte, we stop to stretch our legs at the Vermont Wildflower Farm, which has a winding trail with plentiful flower and wildlife identification signs that takes us through the farm’s fields and woods.
The New England Maple Museum is an unassuming building along Route 7 in Pittsford, Vermont. We stop in expecting a small exhibit out back that is little more than a marketing tool for the big shop selling all things maple up front. We are pleasantly surprised to find an entertaining and artifact-rich presentation of the history of maple syrup production in this region, told through the voices, videos and well-used tools of local farmers.

Here are some of our favorite fascinating facts:

If all the maple syrup manufactured yearly in the maple producing areas of this country was divided up among US citizens, each would have less than one teaspoonful. (We consumed considerably more than our yearly quota today—more on that later.)

Maple syrup has fewer calories than honey, sugar or corn syrup, and is a good source of essential minerals, with as much calcium as an equal portion of milk.

It takes 50 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The sap begins as 2.5% sugar and boils down to 65% sugar in the syrup.

On a good day, sap runs at a rate of two drops per heart beat, taking eight hours to fill a sixteen quart bucket. A good day for running sap is one when the evening temperature is below freezing and the daytime temperature is in the 40s.

We end our museum tour in a tasting room, where we try the four different grades of maple syrup. The syrup is graded by color, which corresponds with flavor strength—Grade A Light Amber (delicate maple flavor), Grade A Medium Amber (mild), Grade A Dark Amber (robust), and Grade B (darker than Grade A Dark, and industrial strength). After multiple taste tests, I decide my favorite is Grade B, the most “mapley”, while Dick prefers the Grade A Medium Amber. Then we proceed to the product testing area, where we sample maple butters, cookies, and a variety of jellies and relishes.

As could be predicted, we depart with a big bag of maple treats, and a diminished appetite.

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