Hooked on Vermont: a Q&A with Julia Clancy, Resident Vermont Guru
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Julia Clancy, restaurant critic and recipe developer, is fascinating. Here’s two things she’s done recently: ran a pop-up restaurant on a heritage pig farm in Vermont and drank raw milk, still warm, straight from the source. One more: She made lamb’s heart pate mixed with maple syrup made by the neighbors. Last one? She is now the restaurant editor for Boston Magazine, a recipe developer, and one of the newest To Taste contributors. After hearing a few enticing bits and pieces of her stint living and working in Vermont, I knew we had to dive deeper. What lies below is your guide to what to eat and where all over the state of Vermont (tip: arrive very hungry) as well as a tale of a woman with many, really cool lives in just the last few years.
Go ahead and open a second tab now so you can look at vacation rentals in Vermont for this summer. After reading this, you’ll be needing it.
Q: First, what brought you to Vermont? Where exactly were you?
A: I landed in Vermont in 2015. I’m a Boston native, and Vermont was this place that lodged itself in my brain pretty early. As kids, it was where we’d road trip for apple picking, where carrots had tops. There was so much land and quiet. Before Vermont, I was cooking in restaurants in California — I moved out there for a stage at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and then cooked full-time at Zuni Café in San Francisco. My partner, Brad, and I were living in the Inner Sunset out of one suitcase each. He got a phone call one day about a job opportunity in Middlebury, Vermont. It was a no brainer.
I deeply wanted to live in Vermont, particularly as a cook, where a locally driven food mentality is more a pragmatic way of life than it is a luxury of another income. It’s where I pulled local milk out of the gas station cooler, packed next to bottles of Gatorade. I wore a few hats in Vermont. I got to know virtually everyone in town during my first six months by working at Otter Creek Bakery, where owners Ben and Sarah Wood have been helming the ship for 35 years. Regulars have tabs kept in a box of index cards beneath the register — some go back two decades. After that, I was the private chef of WhistlePig Whiskey and a collaborating chef with Stonecutter Spirits (please find Stonecutter’s barrel-aged gin and thank me later). I had a two-year pop-up restaurant on Agricola Farm, a heritage pig farm run by hardy Italians, including a renaissance woman named Ale. Later, I was a food & drink writer for Seven Days newspaper, and then spent two years as the Recipe Developer & Tester for EatingWell Magazine. I lived in Vermont until last November, when hard-to-pass-up job opportunities, for both of us, brought us back to the Boston area. But I’m hooked; since leaving four months ago, I’ve been back six times for work-related stories. That I’ve pitched. Because I can’t stay away for long.
Q: Where are you and what are you doing now?
A: I’m currently the restaurant critic at Boston Magazine. It’s all a new realm to explore, having worked Back of House and in test kitchens for my whole professional cooking career. I’d like to help build a food community that sees the restaurant world from Back of House forward as much as it does from the inverse. I’d like to see that fourth wall between the restaurant and the diner shift a bit — to consider dining out as a nuanced, layered and compelling moving mechanism. The best restaurants know the language they’re trying to speak; they know the story they’re trying to tell through food. This language can’t be faked or copied — people can smell that from a mile away. It could be a bowl of khao soi or pepperoni pizza or misir wot with injera or omakase or egusi stew or a multi-course tasting menu. There’s a language, there, and I love to see it spoken intentionally.
Beyond Boston Magazine, I’m also a recipe developer, cookbook collaborator and freelance writer.
Q: Most surprising thing(s) you ate in Vermont?
A: Raw milk, straight from the cow. Still warm. It was from a Jersey cow, and so rich it tasted like buttered popcorn steeped in cream. Vermont also gave me access to the offal and off-cuts that I didn’t know I loved. On Agricola Farm, where I had the two-year pop-up, Ale and I would make lamb’s heart pate with coriander and maple syrup from a neighboring farm. She’d make charcuterie from pig jowls and lardo. I’d braise pig cheeks and chicken necks in Shacksbury Cider, a local cidery owned by my friends David and Colin. Once, when it was seven degrees and Vermont was a sheet of frozen snow, Ale made us chicken hearts stewed with canned tomatoes and bay leaves. We sopped it up with heels of ciabatta from a recent pop-up — Stefano, who also worked on the farm, made this awesome, sour ciabatta bread. So damn good.
For Boston-area folks: M.F. Dulock is a butcher in Somerville with an amazing selection of nose-to-tail meat.
Most surprising place: the rock scramble at the top of Mount Abraham (a.k.a. Narnia). And, post-hike, jumping into Bristol Falls on the way back down the Lincoln Gap.
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Q: What food do you miss most from your time in VT?
A: Dairy. Vermont is a goldmine, a treasure trove of local dairy. My friends Chad and Morgan own a goat dairy called Ice House Farm — they make goat’s milk yogurt and kefir that I crave constantly. Maple creemees from Cookie Love on the side of Route 7. Access to farmstead cheese as a way of life: Twig Farm tomme, Sweet Rowen Farmstead cheese curds, Jasper Hill’s Alpha Tolman, the neighbor’s cheddar.
Monument Farm’s chocolate milk: sold at the natural food’s co-op and the gas station alike, and even served on draft from its own milk cooler at an old-school place in Middlebury called Fire and Ice (one of those stalwart spots where there’s a wheel of Cabot cheddar under a hood and the salad bar’s built into a boat).
Q: Ok, let’s talk about restaurants. Can you please give us a list of your favorites in VT?
A: Can I ever. For the sake of not overwhelming everyone (including myself…), here’s the short list:
Haymaker Bun Co. and The Arcadian (Middlebury): wife-and-husband team Caroline and Matt Corrente own this dual spot on Otter Creek River. By day, it’s Haymaker Bun Co., where Caroline makes supremely special sweet and savory brioche buns. (Also: best coffee in town, thanks to Brio Coffeeworks.) At night, there’s homemade pasta and an awesome cocktail program at The Arcadian, Matt’s gig. The bucatini all’ amatriciana or the squid ink orecchiette with chiles are a couple of go-tos — ditto for a draft negroni.
Thai @ Home (Middlebury): Chef Hasna parks this tiny orange house on four wheels in the parking lot of the Vermont Sun gym in Middlebury. She’s open for a handful of hours a day, cooking homemade Thai food from a 2-by-2-foot kitchen galley. Wanna Phafuk (a.k.a Hasna) was born and raised in Rayong, and her husband is a local builder in town. Her green curry got me through Vermont winters, and I love her black sticky rice with coconut.
Doc Ponds (Stowe): Beer list of dreams. I love to go on the quiet hours after a hike, say around 2pm or 3pm. I tend to get the same thing: homemade BBQ chips and onion dip, Doc Caesar, flank steak with chimichurri.
Honey Road (Burlington): I’ll gladly eat anything chef Cara Chigazola-Tobin makes and drink any wine that beverage director Allison Gibson picks. I get a double order of that stunning muhamarra. The kale salad (stay with me) is a destination-worthy kale salad. Pastry chef Amanda Wildermuth kills it on all fronts, especially the tahini sundae with halva.
Misery Loves Company (Winooski): Great cocktails, lovely neighborhood atmosphere, and a dinner menu that fits whatever mood you’re in: adventurous small plates or elbows-on-the-table fried chicken with honey butter.
Pizzeria Verita (Burlington): Wood-fired pizza, including a blistered number layered with speck, charred corn and fior di latte. Great spot for aperitivo cocktails (another negroni I love). The homemade mozzarella is special.
Lucky Next Door (Burlington): Tiny, cozy, all-day spot with my favorite banana bread.
The Downtown Grocery (Ludlow): Genuine warmth and hospitality. Chalkboard menu changes daily, as does a wine list geared toward small producers.
Philo Ridge Farm (Shelburne): Baker and pastry chef Meg Dawson is so good at what she does. She makes a muffin (a muffin!) that I’d drive (and have driven…) an hour out of my way for. In warm weather, a good coffee and a baked good or a sandwich eaten on the outside patio overlooking the farm is complete luxury.
That’s a good place to start.
Q: So, my vision of Vermont (I’ve been once) is that it’s full of small towns with no shortage of charming specialty shops: farm stands, bakeries, breweries, third wave coffee shops…Is that true?
A: I’d agree with that. In many ways, Vermont operates like its own country. There are so many gems to unearth, and they’re all scattered among these small cities, towns, and old hamlets tucked into the fabric of a mountain state. It’s a treasure hunt. Here are a few personal favorites.
Tea: Stone Leaf Tea House in Middlebury.
Farms: Find whoever your local farmers are, say hi and ask how they love to use that Sunshine squash. Find any farmer’s market and go to town. Among my favorites: Burlington Farmer’s Market, Shelburne Farmer’s Market, Capitol City Farmer’s Market, Waitsfield Farmer’s Market. Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne has Summer Burger Nights with live music, and an onsite coffee shop called Blank Page Café. Pizza on Earth is a weekend pizza pop-up on a small farm in Charlotte. Charlotte Berry Farm churns their own ice cream from their own berries and diary for the scoop shop and ice cream truck called Sisters of Anarchy. And that’s all within a 10-mile stretch of Chittenden County.
General Stores: Buxton’s (Orwell). Willey’s (Greensboro). Putney General Store (the town saved it, twice, after it twice burned to the ground in an electrical fire). The Elmore Store. The Dorset Union Grocery (Cindy and her wife, Gretchen, are community pillars in a town with an inn, a post office and a general store for everything else). The Craftsbury General Store.
Breweries: Vermont is a beer mecca. Even as a beer writer, I could barely tap the surface of this unbelievably deep, collaborative brewing culture. The breweries that hold a particularly special spot for me: Foam Brewers (I consider Todd Haire up there with the world’s greatest brewmasters). Zero Gravity (find me on the patio, with a bottomless bowl of popcorn and a draft of whatever’s new). Fiddlehead Brewery (grab a growler and take it next door to Folino’s Pizza; they’ll have cold glasses for you in a reach-in fridge). Foley Brother’s Brewing. Red Clover Ale Co. Hill Farmstead. Wunderkammer Bier.
Wine: The quiet revolution of the Vermont wine world is geared toward natural and biodynamic local makers. Scope out a bottle from pioneer Dierdre Heekin of La Garagista Farm & Winery. Vigneron Krista Scruggs of ZAFA wines and CO. in Burlington is another enormous talent. Ditto for winemaker Ethan Joseph of Iapetus Wine in Shelburne. Find Dedalus in Burlington; it’s one of my all-time favorite wine bars and wine shops. And Beverage Warehouse in Winooski is an unassuming, destination-worthy jewel for a vast, creative wine and beer selection.
Q: Lastly, what’s one thing you don’t miss about VT?
A: Getting stuck behind a tractor going 10 miles an hour on Route 7. Not too fond of getting lost in the back-roads of a mountain pass, a lane formerly intended for cows, with zero cell service.