Originally published by the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce

In the Shires of Vermont, you’ll never be far from the farmer who grew your food. Boasting a wealth of quaint farms and charming restaurants, the Shires have become something of a culinary capital in the Northeast. Though seasonal and sustainable fare have long been a hallmark of the region, a growing emphasis on farm-to-table meals and agro-tourism has helped to drive an increasing number visitors to Southern Vermont in recent years.

“The farm-to-table movement is everywhere, but Vermont is especially rich in the seasonal products that attract people to New England cuisine,” explains Steven Bryant, who owns and operates 8 Church Street Hospitality — and their many establishments throughout southern
Vermont — alongside his wife Lauren. “People really love the idea that they can experience world class cuisine in this small, rural environment away from the city and away from the crowds. They travel for the food.”

The culinary shangri-la found in the Shires offers accessibility alongside quality, having long served as a haven for vacationers from major metropolitan areas including New York City and Boston. Now, a growing number of ‘foodies’ are beginning to seek out the bounty of the Green Mountains as well.

“This valley is just gorgeous, and there’s so many recreational, agricultural, and culinary opportunities for people to experience,” said Robb Terry, Executive Director of Merck Forest and Farmland Center. “At the same time we have this amazing proximity to so many cities; there are millions of people within just three hours.”

That proximity is just one benefit of the region’s rural landscape, which extends from the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to the skier (and shopper) paradise in the Northshire. With strong summer sun, ample water, and a growing season just long enough for juicy delicacies like
melons and heirloom tomatoes, it’s no surprise that agriculture has long been a pillar of the Bennington area’s community and economy. As farm-to-table dining continues to grow in popularity across the country, however, that landscape has begun to take on new life. With national trends emphasizing hyper-local cuisine, connection to food producers, and environmental sustainability — tenets honored by many local farms and establishments for decades — the Shires provide a glimpse of what the future of food may look like.

“A number of restaurants proudly feature food from local farms on their menus, and we hope to see that trend continue and grow,” noted Karen Trubitt of True Love Farm, who serves as Vice President for the Bennington Farmers Market’s Board of Directors. “It seems to be of increasing consumer interest; our customers frequently ask us which restaurants buy local.”

“I think that the number of amazing ‘mom and pop’ run restaurants creates a unique culinary scene and an inviting market,” said Nick Disorda of Pangaea, a North Bennington restaurant known for its atmospheric and crafted dining experience. “We work with many local producers to create not just an aesthetically beautiful culinary masterpiece, but one that is nutrient dense and robust in flavor. Although Pangaea alludes to the entire world, our restaurant captures the flavors of Vermont.”

And Pangaea is not alone in that pursuit, with most locally owned restaurants and Inn’s featuring at least some regionally sourced foods and products. That locavore dream isn’t only found at your favorite establishments, though — Disorda notes that special events can also be catered with locally sourced cuisine, thanks to regional collaborations like the one between Pangaea and Hildene: The Lincoln Family Home (one of many wedding hotspots in the Northshire).

Southern Vermont’s cuisine is dictated by the turbulent seasons of the Green Mountains, whose snowy slopes, brilliant foliage, syrup-filled springs, and sun-drenched summers draw visitors year-round. The intensity of that natural landscape fosters incredible flavor in both harvested and foraged produce, according to local chef Jon Gatewood, and the limited availability of many ingredients allows for unique yet alluring dishes.

“It’s spring in Vermont and fiddlehead ferns, ramps, and morels are in season — and there is a large percentage of our local populace that knows this and hopes to see them highlighted in our specials,” explained Gatewood, who works with Bryant at both the Dorset Inn and Barrow’s Houserestaurants. “When we get to tomato season we feature locally produced tomatoes, and so on as the seasons change.”

“The exciting element in the Shires is our seasonality, and the ever-changing availability of products throughout the course of the year,” added Bryant. “Our guests enjoy the seasonal menus created from all the local produce.”

Farms themselves are also beginning to attract visitors at increasing rates, as the national agro-tourism industry continues to expand. Many restaurants, like those run by Bryant, are actively working to make onsite experiences more accessible with events like tours, hikes, and meals held at local farms.

“We also provide our guests with a list of places to visit, including specific stops for those interested in the food and agricultural elements,” Bryant continued. “There are cheese makers, brewers and other unique food purveyors and restaurants, cafes and bakeries — a little bit of everything.”

“On-farm enterprises is a big topic at the moment because agro-tourism is on the rise,” explained Liz Ruffa, whose organization Northshire Grows works closely with many farms, restaurants, and markets in the region. “Not everyone wants to do it, but for a number of farms it’s a great way to engage with your customer base.”

Community organizations like Merck Forest and Farmland Center are also working to bring diners closer to the source of their food, working with establishments like the Kimpton Taconic Hotel (and the adjoining Copper Grouse) to plan events that include both the farmers and their products.

The Reluctant Panther recently offered a package to visitors where they could get organic maple syrup from Merck, and have the opportunity to come up for a private tour of our sugaring operation,” explained Terry, highlighting the growing popularity of such promotions in the regional hospitality industry. “There’s some creative innovators who recognize that the productive landscape is also of interest to people, alongside the natural landscape.”

Still, the simplest way to connect with local producers is through the wealth of markets to be found in the region, with one-of-a-kind farmer’s markets taking place both year-round and seasonally in Bennington, Dorset, Manchester, and Londonderry.

“These markets are really the best touchpoint, where you’ll be able to meet farmers and food producers and find out what they’re about,” Ruffa added. “What’s interesting is that it’s the personal connection that often makes the sale. It’s the opportunities for customers to have a one-on-one conversation with the person who grew their food.”

“The market forges a connection to place and time, in the sense that this is what the world has to offer you here and now,” said Trubitt. “In some ways it connects people to real life on earth, not some food marketers version of a glitzy food emporium. There’s an honesty and integrity to the market because of the producer-only vendor model, and the focus on seasonal and local fare.” Seeing more than 700 guests on most market days, Trubitt views the Bennington Farmers Market as both a wellness resource and listening post for visitors and locals alike. After being reconceived as a producer-only market more than 15 years ago, Trubitt says, the Bennington Farmers Market works to bring consumers closer to their food than ever before.

“Shopping directly from a local farmer or producer means that fruits and vegetables will be harvested and brought to you at the peak of freshness, local people are provided employment by the operation of farms, and that the money you spend on food stays in the community,” Trubitt explained. “And of course as less energy and resources have been used for the movement of goods, so it’s much better for the environment — the average piece of produce in a grocery store has traveled 1,500 miles.”

Family owned groceries like Spice n’ Nice Natural Foods in Bennington, and both New Morning Natural Foods and Nature’s Market in Manchester, also have shelves bursting with local goods. Even commercial chains, like Bennington’s Hannaford Supermarket, have begun to highlight the bounty of the Shires.

“Hannaford takes great pride in calling out our local items, and we do indeed work with many local growers and vendors,” said Store Manager Tim Cahill, noting that Hannaford features goods from Mighty Food FarmNorthshire BreweryThe Apple Barn, and more. “It reaches out to another type of customer that might not attend farmers markets or events that promote local products.”

Those food products themselves, augmented by the culinary artistry to be found in the region, undoubtedly assist in driving visitors to the Green Mountains. While meeting the farmer who grew your meal often proves fulfilling, the Shires take that concept one step further. With so many producers, distributors, and restaurants nestled into the small corridor that is the Shires, visitors have the opportunity to connect not just with a meal — but with a community.

“The quality and freshness of our products makes this region stand out, and that’s amplified by the fact that this is a small, tight-knit community,” said Shannon Barsotti of Longview Farm. “There are so many farms within 50 miles; there’s no lack of places to visit, meet the producers, and really become connected with your food.”

Considering the region’s vibrant and connected agricultural community, one is left to wonder exactly what’s next for the Shires’ culinary scene. According to those embedded in that landscape, there’s plenty of avenues available.

“I think there’s an opportunity, which I think a lot of local people are beginning to see, to really have that point of purchase experience,” Terry explained. “With food from local farmers, and selling that food in markets or as a culinary product, we’re starting to develop some really strong partnerships.”

“The more we can provide unique experiences, the more appealing we become as a culinary destination,” Bryant concluded. “The fact that each night can lead to a completely different experience really lures people to this area.”

As summer’s bounty rapidly approaches, there’s only one question left.

What’s on the menu?

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