Thorncrest Farm’s Milk House Chocolates

Milk House Chocolates at Thorncrest Farm

A couple weeks before our chronicled trip to Europe, my wonderful in-laws took Evan and me to a dairy farm in Northwestern CT called Thorncrest Farm. As you probably know by now, visiting small sustainable farms near New York City is our favorite way to spend a weekend and to supplement whatever comes that week in our CSA. This farm in particular, was ambrosial. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry Kimberly the Chocolatierdairy farm might sell milk, but few will tell you which cow (by name) you are being fed from, provide cheese, butter, and yogurt-making classes, and have their very own chocolatier.

Kimberly, my new absolute favorite person on earth, is the self-taught mastermind behind the small chocolate operation in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere. (Picture winding back roads, copious forestation, and maybe a handful of suspicious looking deer.) Kimberly was kind enough to methodically walk me through her case full of chocolate, telling me stories about her progress and her cows as she did so. After some introductions, Kimberly explained to me that certain cows produce milk that is better suited for specific chocolate flavors, and making chocolates on the farm allows her to use that to her advantage.

Trust me when I say, this precision pays off.

Her chocolates – be they milk, dark, with mint or peanut butter (a combination that in no way resembles Reese’s), caramel, ginger, pumpkin, creamy vanilla, mango, or hazelnut coffee – are all exquisite. When you walk into her kitchen-barn and are greeted by the chatty Kimberly in her charming chef’s costume the scent of cocoa and milk wafting through the air is truly penetrating. And the artistry involved in her work is simply unreal.

Milk House Chocolates, Thorncrest Farm

Harper's Mango ChocolateKimberly told me about her deep unbridled affection for her cows, tearing up as she shared a story about having sold one of her favorites to another farm.  Apparently when the cow’s milk production dropped soon after being sold the farmers prepared to slaughter her, and Kimberly promptly cut her losses and bought her cow back. The cow lived out her happy life on Thorncrest Farm.

Below is a picture of a very recent Mama-Cow, looking pooped but proud.

One of Kimberly's CowsSurrounded by the scents of chocolate it was hard for me to resist dreaming about following around Kimberly for a summer and learning about life on her farm, not to mention witnessing the process of creating her elegant artisan treats. And I felt so enchanted with her world that I found myself too shy to admit to her that I tiptoe on the fence of being vegan. That I’m so frustrated by the meat and dairy industries and the scandalous treatment of animals in factory farms that I often have vegan weeks, and have weeded out foods that seem tarnished by the trade. In the quiet of my own home, where I’m blissfully not tormenting others, I have replaced dairy milk with almond milk, eat little to no cheese, and miss butter terribly. But places like Thorncrest give me hope for future dairy consumption. That day I had a delicious sip of Victoria the Cow’s milk, and succumbed to more than a few breathtaking pieces of chocolate.

Thorncrest Farm Milk

Thorncrest Milk

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I Left My Heart in Barcelona

IMG_5613The last leg of our trip was spent in the all-too-chic city of Barcelona.

I spent my first semester of college in Northern Spain, far from the trendy metropolis of Catalan. I didn’t get nearly enough time in Barcelona the first round, so back I went. And this time, with my dreamy boy.

Returning ten years later filled me with nostalgia and abrupt comical memories. Barcelona shines amongst its Spanish counterparts, and demands to be seen as distinctive. So in ways it felt like coming home, if home were on the Mediterranean and had fewer bull billboards in its backdrop.

Ahh the MediterraneanSpain is another meat-heavy country making it none-too-easy on veggies. When I lived there as a freshman my roommates and I lived on cheese and apples from the dorm for four and a half months and only mildly suffered from scurvy (our fault; not Spain’s). But when you get out and hunt, you can find some truly stunning meals with succulent spicy red wines and biting cheeses, and Barcelona especially appeals to foodies of all types. On our first night Evan wanted to try paella, and off we went in search of this classic.

Paella

I managed to find a vegetarian paella and was ecstatic, but I quickly found out that there’s a reason it’s not vegetarian by nature… (it was subpar). Saffron rice made with canned string beans and overcooked peas and carrots was kind of a bummer and apparently what really nails the taste of a paella is the unmistakable seafoody saltiness. I doused mine in salt and fresh pepper and some lemon stolen from Evan’s plate, but no matter what I did it didn’t come near to smelling like Evan’s beautiful dish.

Ev had the idea to cook the rice in ocean water sometime when we’re making paella on our own. That way it would have the fishy aroma but skip on the fish. Then we could dump whatever vegetables we want in there and see if it might come close. I don’t know though, that shellfish was awfully stunning.

It apparently didn’t compare, however, to our second night of dinner where Evan says he had hands down the freshest mussels of all time, at BETLEM: Miscellania Gastronomica, a brilliantly-Barcelona tapas bar where our delicious waiter accusatorially said to me – in perfect English – “How did you find this place? It is not the usual place for tourists…” (Yes!). He kindly pointed out a few vegetarian plates off a very meat-heavy menu, and offered to make me an omelet. For a country that puts pig and eggs in well, everything, this was not a mind-blowing offer. But I have to say that if forced to eat an omelet for dinner, this is the one I want:

Mushroom Omelet

Freshest Mussels

We also had a tasty cheese plate with macadamia nuts and tomato bread and cheese galore, but the stunner was this potato dish (no really, potatoes nailed the meal!) made with a spicy and nutty romesco sauce.

Potatoes with Romesco SauceWho knew?

Barcelona also is home to La Boqueria, an absolutely unreal food market that goes on indefinitely, each turn bringing a new host of things I pestered Evan to let me buy myself – and vice versa. One thing the Europeans have right that we don’t: they have no misgivings about what happens to animals when they are slaughtered. They show full skinned carcasses in their butcheries leaving nothing to the imagination. If our society chooses to eat meat, it seems only right we should confront that it is animal and life. It takes some getting used to, but I most certainly appreciate the brutal (so to speak) honesty.

Piggies

Shellfish

Amazing Juices!

Mushroom Land

Sgt. Pepper's Mind Would Be BlownThe fruit and vegetable stands were magnificent. They glowed with color and made for the perfect lunch to bring to the beach that day, along with some Spanish cheeses and olive oil.

Of course we saw some flamenco and had sangria. I mean, come on, we were in Spain:Sangria and Flamenco

Which meant that we – as if you’ve ever lived in Spain know – also had tortilla for breakfast with orange juice and café con leche.

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Barcelona Flags

And soon after that, exhausted, we headed home. And the weary travelers returned.

Weary Traveler

Ah, Venice

ImageAfter a particularly harrowing journey from Paris on RyanAir, we arrived in the amazing city of Venice. We checked in on the third day of torrential rain (thus the petrifying journey) and shopkeepers were still mucking out, knee-deep in floodwater. They seemed all too familiar with this, which gives a foreboding nature about the future of Venice.

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Venice itself was fantastical and entirely lived up to its hype. Neither of us had been there prior, and we were dazzled at every turn. As is the cliché, every corner you get lost in is another cute little alley leading to another little canal, and in that canal another cute Italian boater. It was serene and strange and misty and heavenly.

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By and large the food left something to be desired, though we did have a couple of great meals. It wasn’t easy avoiding the tourist traps, and we really had to weave through the town and find little crevices with no signage or people around, and finally some Italian-speakers to alert us to the fact that there might be authentic food near. (For a city in Italy, the amount of Italian spoken is comically lacking.)

One of these gems was a wine bar where we stopped for some tapas-style lunch, which in Italy are called “cicchetti”.IMG_5328

IMG_5322The barkeep was very considerate in preparing two plates for us. He fixed a vegetarian plate for me full of beautiful pieces of cheese, arancini, some peppery things, some unidentified spreads, and the most flavorful artichoke heart I’ve ever had. Ev got cured meats and little fishes and a mini-octopus.

We did some pastry experimenting, and found that Italian pastries really are vastly different from French pastries! The dough has a much tougher, flakier texture that explodes when you bite it. It’s chewier and sweeter. We had a beautiful cream puff, and an Italian sweet cream treat in a horn-like shell that we could smell being baked from several canals over.IMG_5259 2

IMG_5454Of course we experimented with the Italian classics: pizza, bruschetta, pastas. Not at all tricky to survive as a vegetarian in this town. We drank lots of wine and binged on gelato. All your standards.

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931235_10101506538341890_1346720821_n**I shouldn’t admit to this, and I’m clearly biased, but a New York slice of pizza really can compete.**

More than anything, just enjoying an espresso standing outside by the canals was the most agreeable away to spend a warm afternoon.IMG_5383

IMG_5386Venice was a dream. There were moments unreal that haunt me with joy and nostalgia.IMG_5494

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Venice, I beg you: please don’t sink.

Giverny

IMG_4926While in France, we took a jaunt to the beautiful Giverny for a day. Giverny is a tiny little hamlet about an hour north of Paris, population 502. It is best known for being the home of the acclaimed painter, Claude Monet.

Linnea in Monet's GardensAs an eight-year-old I had a freakish love affair with Monet’s work. I read Linnea in Monet’s Garden about ten times… like, a week. Piles of birthday gifts were dedicated to Monet posters, Monet books, Monet postcards, you know, Monet. While other kids were getting rollerblades, I was getting Monet’s Bridge magnets – and was happy about it. Next time I complain about how no one liked me as a kid, remind me about my Monet collection. It will promptly shut me up.

So given the chance to finally visit his home and see his extolled gardens, obviously the eight-year-old in me spoke up and Evan and I took the train (way to go, Europe!) upwards. There’s this lovely option of being able to rent bikes from the train station and bike the four miles to Monet’s home, but it was very chilly and rainy and we forewent the bike ride for the bus, which takes the same route.

Evan and I were oh, about 40 years junior the youngest of tourists on the bus, but we fit in well enough and were delighted to schmooze with our fellow travelers. A lovely group of cluckety women with short silver haircuts and fanny-packs cooed over us when they figured out we were from their home-country. They fawned over our youth and confessed apologetically with lovable Southern accents, “Well honey, we’re from Texas. But we don’t have Texas politics!” (We hadn’t asked.)

Monet’s home and gardens were, I admit, oppressively touristy. The bridge was clearly rebuilt (and.. plastic?) and his home has been redecorated and painted, if I may say so, hideously. But the acres of gardens were absolutely glorious. It smelled unearthly (and, you know, earthly) and was really satisfactorily organized by color feeding the OCD in me. It was quite enchanting indeed.IMG_4893

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Here’s Evan enjoying a light Frenchy snack in the middle of our stroll.

IMG_4941Oh, and for lunch – pure joy. We had crêpes, one with goat cheese and honey, and the other with apple and camembert, a salad with tomatoes and a mustardy dressing, and kirs, one black currant and one peach. All in the cozy backyard of Monet’s classic landscapes.

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Paris in the (rather chilly) Springtime

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Six months of French lessons in preparation for our trip did nothing for me.

Well, not exactly nothing: I learned how to order a meal. And thus, I ordered many.

The first and most important thing upon exiting the Chunnel, and at the start of each day thereafter, was to find pastry. We lingered outside (and inside) patisseries wasting hours of our trip, sniffing the air like German Shepherds at the airport. I confess that we have almost no pictures of pastries, because they were gone before the camera could make it out of the bag. But we ate ample amounts of: croissants, croissants aux amandes, beignets, éclairs, something called an etoil… pretty much anything made with butter and sugar.

Oh, and cheese.

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IMG_4993So much cheese.

My stomach has never had it so rough. And so happy.

There were some tricky scenarios à Paris. As I suggested in the London Called post, Evan gave up vegetarianism for our trip so he could get the full range of European cuisine. I was never one to believe that the French are rude – and I still don’t. But if anything incurs the wrath of a Francophone, it is most certainly asking – in broken French, no less – if there’s anything on the menu without meat, or if something can be served “Sans viande, s’il vous plaît?” It was humbling.

Evan enjoyed some stunning meals of pretty much any animal he could get his hands on. Take this steak tartare from Bistrot Victoires with absolutely the best french fries that have ever graced my mouth’s vicinity.

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I ate the closest I could come to a vegetarian meal at Bistrot Victoires: pasta “sans jambon.” This quickly became a recurring theme: pasta and salads. Finding authentically French food that is also vegetarian was not an easy feat. Mostly it was bread and cheese and pastry – not that I’m complaining, of course. But while restaurant fare is carne-copious, it was clear that vegetables are a consistent part of the French diet (as is moderation – oops).

While we mostly ate out, we did have access to a kitchen and were able to utilize the amazing street markets for a couple of home-cooked meals. Our trip overlapped pleasantly with asparagus season, and the scene below could be seen on almost every corner. (Check out the teenie-weenie ones!)

IMG_4994The local restaurants were really consistent in offering seasonal ingredients, and everywhere we went was offering asparagus in some form or another. Below is ricotta with asparagus and cherry tomatoes, and two surprise gazpachos (identities of which are still ambiguous).

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At-home eating in France, from what we could gather, is also predominantly seasonal vegetables, and meat and starches tended to be a side note. We, of course, ate mostly out so didn’t get too much exposure to the homebody. So as a vegetarian who avoids dairy in her daily life, it was as much of an adventure in cuisine for me as it was for Evan stuffing his face with raw cow.

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IMG_5000And I would be remiss if I neglected to mention desserts. Our favorite thing to do after a meal was to order the café gourmand, which is positively the best plan ever. Three to four mignardises (sample-size desserts) and an espresso. I mean, really? France, you are so much better than everyone.

IMG_5192Oh, and um profiteroles… obviously…

941787_10101506488461850_523330829_nParis, as always, you are magical and full of fantasy and romance. See you again soon.

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London Called.

IMG_4395In our previous post I mentioned that Evan and I recently took a pretty stupendous trip to Europe. We managed to get to England (London and Yorkshire), France (Paris and Giverny), Venice, and Barcelona. We blissfully promenaded each town, museumed, saw some theater, explored some music, visited loved ones, and more than anything… ate.  No really, we ate an implausible amount of food.

We started in England, where rumors have always deplored the atrocious quality of food, yet we were pleasantly surprised to find that a revolution has occurred. (Our dear friend Elaine, who hosted a dazzling dinner for us while we were there, has sworn as much for years, but still we remained dubious…) While we were there we found a huge surge in farm-to-table cuisine, farmers markets, and trendy variations on classic themes.

Take for example, Evan’s fish and chips. This baby was cooked in apple cider and tarragon batter:

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I have to admit that I even genuinely enjoyed mushy peas! But I should acknowledge that the peas we had were in no way frozen or from a can, but were decidedly fresh and sweet and springy. And quite mushy indeed.

We found a little pub near the Borough Market, a heavenly place for foodies to salivate and peruse… and if one has the checkbook, maybe even buy. The pub felt authentically British, and was located on top of the grain stores where the old brewers would have traded. They had some of England’s regional ale offerings on cask, which is officially the best way to get beer.

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While Evan was playing it fast and loose with vegetarianism (take the slab of lamb below he said was impressively and deliciously rare… without requesting it as such) I found England incredibly easy on the veggie-friendly. Every menu had several vegetarian options and we found some pretty stupendous animal-free restaurants. Food for Thought was one of those shocking hole-in-the-wall places that has a (completely justified) line out the door and down the block. Vanilla Black offered the heaviest vegetarian meal in Christendom, full of playfully presented plates, complete with amuse-bouches and tantalizing little garnishes. (Not to mention Whipped Jacket Potatoes and Crispy Shallots with Tomato Syrup and Wensleydale Cheese, which. was. GODLY.)

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And of course no trip to England is complete without enjoying a spot of tea with some loved ones. And so we did. Quite often. Here I am in Yorkshire enjoying the dreamiest of days in our wonderful friend Jane’s sunlit dining room, with her courtyard behind.

IMG_4477England was hard to leave, and we wrestle weekly the urge to pack up our bags and cats and move there permanently. Maybe someday.