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Dazzling Fare Heats Up Backwoods Vermont

January 15, 2009
Hen of the Wood, in a former grist mill in Waterbury, Vt.

Hen of the Wood, in a former grist mill in Waterbury, Vt.

IT’S one thing to find a group of restaurants that is not only acceptable but compelling — you actually want to go eat in them — within 20 miles or so of one another in what amounts to the middle of nowhere. It’s another when that middle of nowhere is north-centralVermont, more or less defined by I-89 and the northern ski country. And it’s even more amazing that these restaurants — all owned and run by their chefs and partners — make concerted attempts to define themselves by using as many local ingredients as they can, even in winter.

If this gives their food a sense of hip, contemporary, New England sameness, so be it; what we’re seeing here is the birth — or renaissance — of a genuine regional cuisine. It’s a cuisine that in summer can hold its own anywhere in the world. After all, for at least half of the year New England has a decent enough climate and soil, plenty of water and an abundance of seafood. (It’s less than 200 miles from Waterbury, Vt., a sort of geographic focus of this article, to both Boston and Portland, Me., and that counts as local for me.)

The pickings are slimmer in winter, of course, and will become sparser still as we move toward March and April, when the first slender greens of spring will begin to appear. Meanwhile, “imported” food will have to augment the abundant supply of root vegetables, meat, fish, cheese, bread, and preserved food that gives this cuisine its real identity. This is how regionalism is defined: local food is seasonal food, and not everyone can (or even wants to) live in California.

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