Wednesday, October 29, 2008

New England in Autumn

Ever since we moved to Boston, Patrick and I have taken at least one trip every autumn to visit our favorite places in Vermont and New Hampshire, and it's always one of my most-anticipated events of the year. This year, our whirlwind tour included a visit to Gould Hill Orchards for apple-picking, the Cabot cheese store in Quechee Village, the Lebanon Co-op (my favorite grocery store of all time), and as an extra-special treat, the King Arthur Flour headquarters for a personal guided tour.

Crisp, juicy, and refreshingly tart, apples may be my favorite fruit. And I have never, ever tasted apples as good as the Northern Spies at Gould Hill Orchards in Contoocook, New Hampshire. But with that said, this year was a pretty big disappointment. We went to Gould Hill the Friday after Columbus day, and by that time there were slim pickings. Red, plump fruits taunted us from the tops of the trees, but alas, they were unreachable even on the pick-your-own pygmy trees bred for family day trips. Moreover, even the apples which were within reach were largely mottled and grainy, although the golden delicious' were quite good. I'm not sure whether we went too late in the season, there was a blight, or it just wasn't a good year at the orchard.

But we haven't given up on Gould Hill yet. Although the PYO apples were not so impressive, this year we got a variety peck of the wide array of unique varieties offered at the orchard store. Although I enjoyed the Ozark Golds and Winter Bananas, the Blue Pearmans with their firm flesh and assertive tart flavor were my favorite of all of the specialty varieties.

Next, the Cabot Cheese store. The great thing about the store in Quechee Village is that not only does it offer the full array of Cabot products, but you can also taste most of their flavored cheeses and assorted other products, even local wine. One of my favorite products of all time is Cabot's cheddar shake, basically powdered sharp cheddar cheese. This is not your ordinary pale and sawdust-like popcorn cheese. It truly embodies the pure, complex flavor of Cabot's aged cheddar in dry form. And it has that delightful super-concentrated kick of good mac and cheese mixes (don't you ever lick the seasoning packet?). Cheddar shake is absolutely wonderful in salad, where regular cheese gets soggy, and it's very good in mashed potatoes, on popcorn, and homemade mac and cheese mix.

Of course, their regular products are great too. Although Cabot is not labeled organic, the company is a cooperative owned by dairy farmers that maintains very high quality standards. Their products are hormone-free, and they use antibiotics only to treat ill animals, a practice the farmers believe is best for the health of the animals and the quality of the dairy. I toured their factory two years ago (another fun trip!), and although I was impressed by the high-tech equipment and scientific testing methods, the real trick is that it ages its cheese much longer than traditional "factory" cheeses to bring out the complex and nuanced flavor of true cheddar. Their extra-sharp is aged for more than a year, and the best batches are hand-selected for their premium labels.

My favorite is the Hunter's Sharp, the sharpest of all of their regular line. At this point, I only buy Cabot butter and cheese because not only does it taste good, but I trust in Cabot's quality and well-treatment of animals. Another thing I have noticed is that Cabot cheese never goes bad. Often, while other cheeses start to go moldy after a week left in the fridge after opening, there have only been a small handful of times I have ever seen mold on Cabot cheddar. I'm almost sure it's not just because we eat it so quickly.

Next time, I'll tell you all about the rest of my trip to King Arthur and the Lebanon Co-op.

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