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September 10, 2013

Alice Eats: A Food Writer's Weekend

Back in 2010, I offered Alice Eats readers a glimpse into what a weekend in my life really looks like. Three years later, it seems like time to share another wild few days of eating and drinking around Vermont.

IMG_6227The whirlwind began after I finished reporting a food news piece about the food-themed exhibit opening next week at the Fleming Museum. I ran over to Hotel Vermont where I met with New England Culinary Institute executive chef Jean-Louis Gerin just after he picked up a very special guest at the Burlington Airport.

There on the comfy couches beneath Juniper's slate walls sat Ariane Daguin, owner and co-founder of D'Artagnan, Inc. Since starting that meat-selling business in 1984, the Gascony native has established herself as the goddess of American meat, bringing foie gras, charcuterie and game meats to the masses via a network of small farms.

Why was she in Vermont? "He twisted my arm," she said, smiling conspiratorially at Gerin. The twice-knighted Montpelier-based chef has some pull after 28 years at famed Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, Conn.

Starting Saturday morning, Daguin would be sharing her expertise in a duck-filled weekend that began with a seminar on making cassoulet and culminated in a D'Artagnan-heavy brunch.

Why spend so much time with NECI students? "The students are my clients of the future. And I guess I love convincing people what I think is right. It’s always an opportunity to think about good husbandry for farms," says Daugin.

Her passionate stance on raising meat right has won her lots of chef fans, including Anthony Bourdain, who named his daughter after Daguin. Gerin is part of the pack, too. In the '80s, when most pork was pallid, white, factory-farmed mush, he marveled at the pink, marbled pig flesh produced by Daguin's small farms in Missouri.

But at Hotel Vermont, it wasn't time for meat yet. While Daguin enjoyed a cocktail, Gerin and I took advantage of Scout's Honor, the Waitsfield ice cream company that had parked its cart in the hotel lobby, offering free scoops and ice pops. I tried the refreshing peach-basil ice pop, which hit my taste buds with an intense wash of fresh flavor. Gerin wasn't sold on his scoop of sweet-corn ice cream, which he pronounced too sweet. I told him to try the deep, dark chocolate next time he tastes my favorite ice cream brand.

* * *

Sticker-21From there, I had just enough time to check out the food trucks parked around Pine Street for the South End Art Hop before my shift began working at the Seven Days tent. I skipped the silkworms (yes, really) being grilled along with shrimp and beef skewers in front of ArtsRiot in favor of a little cart that smelled delicious.

Vermont Flatbread, an Alburgh-based company produces crisp breads that fall somewhere between naan, pita and croissant. Owner Jorse Barns was spreading the flaky bread with creamy beef curry that he dubbed "Alburgh curry" to prevent diners from confusing it with other styles. It tasted most like Japanese curry rice to me, with its slightly sweet, thick body dotted with chunks of beef and potato.

* * *

The next morning I headed to Barre, where I'd been invited to judge the 1st annual Oinkfest at Wilkins Harley-Davidson.

IMG_6217A mix of classic bikers and closet hog aficionados decorated tables to impress me and the other judges — WCAX's Molly Smith and Harley-Davidson financial representative Brian Fraize — with their porcine perspicacity.

Of the close to 20 entries, few disappointed, but the winner, Kurt King, wholeheartedly earned it.

His "Pig Candy" consisted of medjool dates stuffed with mozzarella and chorizo, then wrapped in bacon. More than any other dish, bacon was truly the star. The crisp hors d'oeuvres were irresistible.

But runner-up Teresa Beaudin's "Hog Heavenly Fish Chowder" made excellent use of the salty meat in a complex, creamy cod soup. Extra points for witty detail: She sautéed her onions in "Little Piggy Pink" wine from nearby Fresh Tracks Farm.

But Pierce Reid took home the prize for best presentation with a creation called "Bacon Turtles."

Each pair of burgers, stuffed with blue cheese, was surrounded in hot dogs made to look like a turtle's head and legs in a minor feat of engineering. Then, there was the woven bacon shell (below). Best presentation indeed.


* * *

IMG_6223That evening, it was back to Washington County to watch Daguin butcher a duck at NECI's Chef's Table. At least that's how it started, as she separated magrets (the breasts of a foie gras duck), legs and gizzards from the creature, before freeing its massive fatted liver. Daguin explained her belief that ducks naturally overfeed themselves before migration, so the force-feeding period in producing foie gras matches their pattern in nature.

IMG_6224From there, she and Gerin turned to plating a luscious four-course dinner that commenced with a duo of creamy foie gras terrine and tender sautéed fatty liver (above right). Sweet Artesano Traditional Mead played well with the sweet, fresh fig compôte.

My favorite course included a trio of meaty slices of magret. The rare duck was crisped at its edges with nary a hint of excess fat. The only white stuff visible on the plate was in the form of beans and corn in an accompanying succotash, all flavored with a rich duck demi-glace.

After a kale salad with confited leg and gizzards, the evening ended with a traditional pastis Gascon, a sophisticated apple tart flavored with Armagnac.

And the next day, I supped on salads.

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