Boston is like a folded quilt with its well-known neighborhoods on top: The North End, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Charlestown, The South End, Fenway, East Boston, and South Boston. Unfold the quilt to discover Allston, Brighton, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. Many of these neighborhood were independent communities that became part of Boston proper in the late 19thcentury, an activity that also led to the expansion of other cities such as New York, which consolidated other cities into boroughs such as Brooklyn. Just as in Boston, smaller borough neighborhoods such as Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, still have maintain their own identity.
Recently, Rob attended a Sunday morning event at Doyle’s Cafe in the Jamaica Plain (JP to the locals) section of Boston. Founded in 1882, Doyle’s is not just a historic JP Irish bar and restaurant, but it’s also a tribute to Boston’s history. It’s worth a visit just to look at the walls covered with pictures, magazines, and newspapers that so eloquently echo Boston stories from a different time.
That Sunday morning event was Boston Media Makers (BMM), a regular gathering of people working with audio and video on the web: podcasters, videobloggers, filmmakers, artists, writers, PR and social media people. Our host was the indefatigable Steve Garfield, who’s rarely seen in Boston without a camera. While there, Rob met Roy Krantz, a publisher, web designer, and just a fascinating and passionate personality.
Roy explained that he and his wife Susan would be hosting a concert at their Jamaica Plain house featuring the Hi-Tone Ramblers. The band describes their style as a “melting pot of Anglo and African-rooted songs, rhythms, blues and old-time fiddle and banjo tunes.” Also at the BMM meeting was Tim Rowell, the Hi-Tone Ramblers talented banjo player. Both men extended a very warm invitation. How could two rather curious, sentimental people like us resist?
So… last night we headed down to JP. Not surprisingly, we stopped at Doyle’s for a quick bite and headed to Roy and Susan’s house nearby. We were surprised to find an unconventional house, a former printing shop that had creatively converted by Roy into an eclectic and charming home. Even better, its unique design and tall ceilings would shortly ensure great acoustics for both the band and the audience.
And the Hi-Tone Ramblers didn’t disappoint. With Cathy Mason on fiddle, Tim Rowell on banjo, Tim FitzPatrick on guitar, Bethany Weiman on cello, and Paul Strother on bass, they delivered two fantastic sets. Not a single foot was idle the entire evening. Complementing the music, the band members lightheartedly described the history and their philosophy of song selection. We’ve been to many concerts over the years, but we’re happy to say that listening to some creative string music in a converted print shop in Jamaica Plain proved to be one of the best musical experiences we’ve ever had.
We’re fond of Cape Ann, and especially Gloucester, the oldest active fishing port in the United States. This city, which dates back to 1623, has it all: history, tradition, ethnicity, restaurants, art, museums, shops and natural beauty. We never need an excuse to visit the area, but when we received an invitation to join some North Shore friends for dinner at the Alchemy Bistro in Gloucester, we gladly accepted – or at least one of us did. The other, unfortunately, was hosting an event further inland in central MA, but let’s stick with Gloucester and return to the coast.
Alchemy is defined as the act of turning ordinary metal into gold. The aim of Alchemy Bistro is to turn extraordinary ingredients into culinary gold. On this night, the alchemist (also known as Chef Jeff Cala) spun course after course of wonderful dishes, mining flavors from Asia, Italy, France, and America, many of which were sourced with local, New England ingredients.
The meal was well organized and delicately balanced a bit of formality with a lack of pretentiousness – not an easy task at a tasting dinner. The staff maintained a nice cadence, allowing us to maintain lively and continual conversation over the centerpiece of food. The chefs emerged at each course and explained the preparation of the dishes along with the sourcing of ingredients. Concurrently, Matt Rose (the general manager) would share his vast knowledge of wine, beer and mixology by offering pairing suggestions for each individual item within the course.
Logistically, the dinner, spread between two tables, blended individual courses separated by samplings of communal tapas. The tapas selections were tastefully presented on rustic serving boards made especially for this evening by the artisans at Walker Creek Furniture of nearby Essex, MA. We’re partial to New England ingredients, even if that means non-edible ingredients (such as serving boards) too.
The dinner selections, representing a sampling of the broader menu, were diverse and creative. Some of the standouts and liquid accompaniments for the evening included: wild boar and native shrimp chopstick roll; cheese sampler paired with an Estrella Damm Inedit witbier from Barcelona by FerranAdrià (a new favorite); black pepper pappardelle carbonara with a farm raised duck egg (that was picked up by Chef Cala somewhere along his drive) nicely matched with Corte Rugolin Monte Danieli Amarone Classico; and, finally, warm chocolate soufflé complemented by a stunning Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.
I applaud the team at Alchemy Bistro and their creative spin on New England cuisine. One doesn’t need to drive to a major city like Boston to have a wonderful dining experience. Alchemy proved that. The restaurant plans to host more of these events, which is good news for the New England palate.
Visitors, as well as locals, north of Boston should seek out the many wonderful things both culinary and non-culinary in the region. Take in some of the Gloucester sights and then head to Alchemy to reflect on them over a delicious dinner.
There’s something about a visit to the beautiful Green Mountain State of Vermont that always has us wanting to return before we’ve even left. Upon entering the state, we immediately sense a shift in the air and in the scenery, but surprisingly we also sense a shift within ourselves. Simply being among the pristine, New England beauty clears our minds. Bucolic open spaces dotted with quaint villages surrounded by magnificent mountains would put anyone at ease. And we always sleep better in Vermont, waking refreshed, recharged and rejuvenated.
Vermont isn’t just a special place; it’s a way of life. Vermonters clearly live what they love and love what they live. The visitor quickly discovers the striking connection between the green beauty that surrounds and the passion for all things green, which includes both philosophy and food. There is equanimity here.
In Vermont, wherever you turn, you drink up beauty like rich milk, and feel its wholesome strength seep into your sinews.
Threescore: The Autobiography of Sarah N. Cleghorn, 1936
Our attraction to things local seems endless throughout Vermont and includes farmers’ markets, restaurants, and country stores. Our recent trip was to the magnum opus of local, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. What a fête it was, hosted on the beautiful grounds of Shelburne Farms with Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks for its stunning backdrop. With a canvas like this, we knew we would be in for a treat.
The Vermont Cheesemakers Festival
We arrived as the event opened and discovered it immediately bustling with visitors. Though the festival was crowded, we still managed to catch up with fellow cheese aficionados from home – Richard Auffrey, Jennifer Ede, and Jane Ward. We also had the chance to meet and chat with the knowledgeable Nancy Gilman from Provisions International, a regional distributor that works with many Vermont producers.
The event consisted of a vast array of tables staffed by many Vermont cheese artisans and purveyors, along with a few “flatland” participants from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. There were so many wonderful and diverse cheeses to sample. Though some of the more familiar, widely available cheese producers were present (Blue Ledge Farm, Cabot Creamery, Jasper Hill Farm and Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery), we decided to focus our attention on lesser-known artisans, some of whose work we had experienced and others we had not.
Artisans & Purveyors
Aside from cheese, we also enjoyed meeting and speaking with many other passionate, hardworking, dedicated Vermonters who were proud to share their local provisions, some of which we’ve enjoyed before, some we’d heard about, and some we discovered for the first time. This included the many non-cheese artisans presenting breads, crackers, jams, syrups, brownies, candies, condiments, wines, beers, spirits, and meats.
What a rich and rewarding experience it was to listen to personal, hardscrabble stories of why, where and how these craftsmen do what they do. Such stories help connect us not only their products and Vermont, but also to New England. We look forward to following them closely as they continue to refine their crafts.
On the ride home we discussed the festival and other things that make Vermont an interesting destination. We reexamined weekend highlights, food favorites, and interesting people. Even after many, many trips to the Green Mountain State, we realized that there is still so much yet to explore not only from a food perspective, but a historical and recreational standpoint as well.
Fortunately, we always manage (figuratively) to bring a bit of Vermont home with us, and this weekend was no exception. Even better was that we did manage (literally) to bring home some excellent cheese, beer, and other foodstuffs.
OK, full disclosure (in case you haven’t read our story): The Two Palaverers was the name of a tavern in colonial Boston. Though The Two Palaverers is no longer with us, more than a few colonial taverns still dot the New England landscape. Many of the remaining ones are tastefully preserved, but their taps have run dry.
Fortunately, the contemporary New England brew scene is far from running dry. Recently, we had a chance to visit the American Craft Beer Fest at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Our intent was to taste every New England brew we could find. Though we’ve been hunting down craft beers for years, we had the pleasure of being chaperoned by our brother-in-law from Vermont, one of the most passionate craft beer guys we know. We used to think he came down to visit us because he enjoyed Massachusetts, but soon realized it was all a front as he was really just looking for an excuse to get to Andover Liquors, one of the better craft beer retailers in New England.
Here’s the summary: all six New England states are brewing – and brewing well. There is, fortunately, no uniform style. We found IPAs, porters, stouts, lagers, wheat beers, summer ales, etc. If you like your hops beyond the level of an IPA, you’ll have choices there, too. New England beer is like New England herself: historic, diverse, and never boring.
We’d also like to call-out and thank fellow New Englanders Jason and Todd Alström, founders of BeerAdvocate. These brothers, in our opinion, are doing great things not just for New England brewing but for beer in general. In addition to running an informative web site, BeerAdvocate hosted the American Craft Brew Fest. They also wrote one of the best pieces on New England beer that we’ve read. Thanks guys.
-The Two Palaverers
Here is a sampling of New England brewers at the Craft American Brew Fest:
We love oysters. Even better, we’re spoiled by some great offerings from five of our six New England states. (Sorry Vermont.) What’s so interesting is that even though most of our oysters share a common ancestry, they truly take on the characteristics of where they grow. Call it “bivalve terroir.” For us, it provides a different dining experience, as we taste offerings all the way from Damariscotta in Maine to Ned’s Island in Connecticut. We find that mignonette sauce, rather than cocktail sauce, amplifies these regional characteristics and brings the oyster experience to a new level.
Because we can reach the coast of all five New England oysters states in less than 90 minutes, getting fresh shellfish is never an issue. Having children who know how to shuck makes it even better because we can relax on the deck with a bottle of Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine or a local craft brew such as a Harpoon Brewery UFO Hefeweizen. Not surprisingly, our children love oysters too, so our “shuck tax” is about 50 percent. (Note: (1) we only buy from trusted sources and (2) our children were held off until they were older.)
This all sounds great, right? We can end our little oyster tale now on a positive note, but we’re not going to do that. Why? Because we also like going out for oysters. Here’s the rub: we are seeing escalating prices – $3.50 per oyster – at many venues that have raw bars. Let’s do some math. We pay $0.99 retail per oyster, which means wholesale price is likely around $0.50. Even with labor and reasonable discard, how can establishments justify a 600% markup? Restaurant wines don’t command this premium. We’ve been paying about $2.50 per oyster in New York City.
C’mon folks, why such a “raw” deal on one of our regional specialties? You’re doing those of us who love oysters a disservice. Thank goodness there are still plenty of places with raw bars that offer a fair price and give us some great New England oysters.