The French Connection in Vermont
Montpelier. Calais. Orleans. Isle la Motte. You don’t have to be a French major to recognize the enduring legacy of the Gallic roots of Vermont. And nowhere is that influence—both historical and recent—more pervasive than in the culinary traditions and trends of what Samuel de Champlain first called “Verd Mont” in 1647.
Exhibit A in the new/old flavors of France in Vermont may well be Brasserie L’Oustau de Provence in Manchester. After a long career in the food and restaurant industry in cities around the world—including 30 years in New York, where he undertook a major food service project for the UN and oversaw the venerable Brasserie 8½—propriétaire Michel Boyer set his entrepreneurial sights on the Stratton Mountain area.
“A friend said, ‘Vermont needs you,’” recalls Michel, who emanates the kind of easy urbanity that seems to be a birthright of certain Frenchmen.
Together with his engaging wife and co-owner, Beth Whitaker, who in her former life was a Manhattan publishing professional, this hardworking couple folded their New York tent, packed up their young daughter (“our other big project,” quips Beth) and headed to the Green Mountains to create the first authentic brasserie in the state.
The result of this ambitious enterprise is nothing less than an astonishingly faithful recreation of the kind of casual yet highly polished eatery that is common in France, but rare in most cities in the States. Soaring ceilings, fresh sunflowers, subtle lighting, a stunning bar (all carved oak and mirrors) and classic servers’ dress—à la mode française, bien sûr—combine to create a transporting ambience. And the word is out: Brasserie L’Oustau was just listed number six on Travel + Leisure’s list of best French restaurants in the country.
“Hospitality is the premium,” declares Michel. “We are on the side of the customer.” This philosophy glows in the uncompromising kitchen of the brasserie, where chef Jason Corrigan turns out refined but unfussy French fare built with fresh local bounty.
For my money, there is no better way to pass a Vermont afternoon than relaxing on L’Oustau’s garden patio, tucking into the impeccably fresh salmon (grilled precisely to my wife Michele’s request and dressed with a vibrant beet jus) or tuna tartare (delicately spicy and refreshing), rounded out with a proper paper coneful of the best frites this side of Brussels, all washed down with a glass or two of Sancerre. While we did not get a chance to sample it, the brasserie’s assiette of artisanal cheeses defines the natural France-Vermont affinity with its embarrassment of transatlantic riches: hand-crafted Morbier and Roquefort from, well, Morbier and Roquefort, as well as delectable goat and cow offerings from the somewhat closer provincial villages of Salisbury and West Pawlet.
Another Franco-American union that has yielded delicious results for Vermonters is the business partnership (oh, and marriage!) of Bill and Christine Snell, owners of Tourterelle in New Haven. This young couple also retreated from the high-pressure, high-profile New York restaurant world to the high-pressure, low-profile life of Vermont restaurateurs and innkeepers.
When asked “Why here?” Bill exclaims, “Because it’s Vermont!” and gestures with a sweep of his arm toward the jaw-dropping mountain-valley view out the inn’s window. Hard to argue with that.
While Michele and I were disappointed to miss Christine, who had just departed to her native Brittany to collect the couple’s three kids from their annual summer there with Christine’s mother, Bill’s warm welcome—not to mention world-class food—served as soothing consolation.
“We never intended to open an inn,” claims Bill, whose modest, really-nice-guy demeanor disguises a chef’s intensity that I’ve glimpsed in every great kitchen master I’ve ever met; this guy takes his craft seriously. “I didn’t want to be distracted from our focus: the restaurant.”
The three empty bedrooms in their beautiful 1796 farmhouse seemed a waste, however, so with some serious renovation and Christine’s tasteful touch, including vintage photographs of Brittany . . . voila! a B&B was born. True to their mission, though, the Snells operate a restaurant-inn, not the other way ’round.
And what a restaurant! The homey-elegant bar and dining room, with its imposing granite fireplace, wide-plank floors, crisp linens and killer view could have been snatched straight from Christine’s Breton countryside. Tourterelle’s menu reads like a blueprint for a kitchen intent on marrying classic French recipes and techniques with the best products that local farmers have to offer. Bill gets his beef from his friend at Smith Family Farm, just up the road (the surlonge de boeuf, deftly seasoned and grilled, is a tender, rich treat that satisfies any primeval meat craving). His juicy, crisp chicken breast, bathed in a sherry-lemon reduction, is sourced from another neighbor, Misty Knoll Farm.
“I like to see the animals I buy,” says this exacting chef. And while he shops at other nearby family farms for a cornucopia of just-picked produce and artisan cheeses, I finally stump Bill when I ask about his escargots, which he sautés with diced garlic sausage and almonds, a dish I am still dreaming about: “Imported from France,” he concedes.
No surprise that, as Michele and I continue north from New Haven, we wade deeper into francophone Vermont. We stop briefly in the town of Vergennes (the oldest and smallest village in the state), where Bastille Day and French Heritage Days are a big deal, and sample some of the tasty pâtisseries offered by Julianne Jones and Didier Murat (yet another American-French couple) at their Vergennes Laundry bakery/café.
We are determined, however, that no pastries, no matter how addictive, will distract us from our quest: to sniff out “the best cheese in Vermont.” I had heard that superlative tossed around more than once from cheese-fiend acquaintances, who recounted legends of a wonderful, eccentric woman farming organically “off the grid” (almost exclusively solar and wind powered) in the Northeast Kingdom, conjuring amazing Tommes, Camemberts and Bries from her herd of 40 Alpine goats.
At the end of a long “paved” country lane in Westfield, we finally found Laini Fondiller, a delightfully quirky lady whose petite frame belies an enviable strength and energy. Laini was generous enough to spare us an hour out of her standard workday of 14-plus to chat about her cheese-making education in the Massif Central, Corsica and elsewhere in France and her 26 years at the ironically named Lazy Lady Farm.
Laini’s story, highlighted by her intrepid foray into the very guarded, very male—very, um, French—sanctum sanctorum of French dairy farms, is fodder for a novel. She recalls her adventure fondly, however: “Everyone was very kind. I’d still be there, if I could!” Suffice to say that this exceptional woman returned to the US determined to show that American dairy farmers—Vermont farmers!—could play in the big curd leagues.
And indeed, Laini’s products are that good. Lazy Lady’s Brie-style La Petite Tomme, eager to escape its packaging, is a funky, messy ooze of deliciousness waiting to be spread on—or better, scraped up with—a slice of baguette. Bonaparte, a Valençay-style beauty in the shape of a pyramid and dusted with ash, is the color of Ben and Jerry’s vanilla and nearly as smooth, fragrant of fresh pasture. And while Laini’s bloomy Panama Red might not provide the buzz associated with its namesake, its salty-sweet tang and lingering finish is intoxicating. The best in Vermont? Grab some of Laini’s masterworks and decide for yourself.