Thursday, July 12, 2012

Not Just Any Farm

With a sculpted landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and buildings out of an English fairytale, Shelburne Farms is no ordinary farm. Situated on the shores of Lake Champlain, it’s stunningly beautiful; no wonder this spot was selected by Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb in the 1880s as the site for their model agricultural estate.

A continuous working farm since it was established, Shelburne Farms was once considered one of the foremost model agricultural estates in the country. Later generations, however, found the financial challenges of maintaining the farm to be insurmountable, so in 1972 they transformed the estate into a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation education. Thanks to their foresight and generosity, the grounds are now accessible to the public for walking, hiking, and cross country skiing. The organization also offers educational programs for children and adults to learn about stewardship and sustainability.

Shelburne Farms’ 1400 acres are home to a herd of grass-fed Brown Swiss cows, 


a flock of sheep, 

the most gorgeous chickens I’ve ever seen, 

and a collection of other animals who live at the Farm Barn.

The Farm Barn is surely the poshest barn in existence, with the animals in residence here freshly scrubbed and ready for petting by curious children.

Shelburne Farms is also home to a dairy and a cheesemaking facility, where award-winning cheddar is made from milk produced by the Brown Swiss cows. In case you want some bread to go with that cheese, O Bread Bakery, an artisan bakery, is just a couple doors down.

What was once the family’s country estate on the grounds is now an Inn featuring one of the best restaurant’s in the state. The building is spectacular and perched on a rise above Lake Champlain, offering some of the best sunsets in the state as well. In operation only during the summer months (there’s no heating system in the building), the restaurant serves high end cuisine created mostly from food produced on the farm. If it doesn’t come from the farm, then it comes from as close by as possible.

In my lifetime roster of Top 10 Places to Dine, the Inn at Shelburne Farms holds a secure position. A “special occasion” restaurant for my family, the Inn has been the setting for birthday celebrations, graduations, Mother’s Days, and on this particular occasion a few weeks ago, a fête to mark the end of an excellent school year for the girls. They both love to eat out in fine restaurants too, so this wasn’t just an excuse for me and Chris to enjoy a meal at the Inn. Isabel would soon be departing for a month in New York City, so this was a grand send-off meal as well.

Upon arrival, we debated between a table outside on the patio with a view of the lake, or in the Dining Room, which was the Webb family's original dining room. Since we were in the middle of an early summer heat wave, we opted for inside. With its red fabric walls, immense marble fireplaces, and ornate fixtures, this opulent room is a glimpse into how the industrialist “royals” lived during the Gilded Age. We’ve been bringing the girls here since they were babies, and when I slide into my seat I recall a few particular Mother’s Day brunches when I was relieved to make it through the meal with no glasses overturned or screaming tantrums erupted.

Because of the heat wave, a bottle of Côtes de Provence rosé was in order.

We nibbled on ciabatta from O Bread Bakery and sweet butter from the Farm’s dairy as we awaited our appetizer. Vichyssoise with thyme oil and fried garlic greens provided a cool, creamy start to the meal. All the food at the Inn is beautiful to behold, but not in an ostentatious way. This flower design on the surface of the soup showcases Chef David Hugo’s subtle artistry.

For my entrée, I chose the pan seared day boat scallops, which are always hard to resist when I find them on a menu. These were perfectly seared—caramelized on the outside, meltingly tender inside—and were served with fava beans (another summer favorite), snow peas, and oh so good warm lobster salad. A chickpea purée and bright chimichurri sauce added depth and brightness.

Chris has a hard time resisting pork, especially smoky pork, so he went with the slow-cooked smoked pork loin with rhubarb chutney, roasted root vegetables, and braised greens. He reluctantly gave me a taste of his succulent meat, which was mildly smoky and balanced nicely by the tart chutney.

Faye was happy with her slow-cooked roast beef with a green garlic demi-glace, accompanied by cheddar mashed potatoes and braised greens. The cheddar mashed potatoes were especially appreciated. And Isabel savored her roasted sea bass served over a puréed tomato sauce. It came with a spiced rice cake and fava and green beans. A send-off meal to remember.

For dessert, the four of us shared the caramel meringue tart, which satisfied both our eyes and our taste buds with its candied macadamia nuts, caramel pastry cream, and flourishes of honeyberry sauce.

We always end our meal with a stroll through the Inn’s formal gardens, currently in the process of being restored to their early glory. Edging the lake, a rose garden, rows of luscious peonies, a lily pool, antique statuary, and robust perennial beds grace a series of terraced green spaces. 

I once asked one of the gardeners what their secret was to such outsized flowers and was told it was simply kitchen compost. That and the garden’s temperate location above the lake, where a curving balustrade invites guests to linger over the sunset.

We had the privilege of attending a wedding here once and, not surprisingly, it was exquisite. Both girls have proclaimed that this is where they’d like to be married, but alas they’ll need to be engaged to a modern day “royal” in order for that to be a possibility. As for me, I’m perfectly content to have dinner at the Inn once or twice a season and then stroll the gardens taking in the view, and the riches of family.


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