Thursday, September 2, 2010

Terroir and at the Bar

With summer coming to a close just as Rowan Jacobsen comes to the Galaxy Bookshop next week to talk about his new book, American Terroir, we thought it was a good time to provide an update about our local terroir and what’s brewing at Claire’s. Take a look below at what we have “on the menu”, and come by before our after Rowan’s talk at the Galaxy to learn more and enjoy some specials at the bar.

Terroir is a French term, usually spoken in conjunction with wine production to define the particular qualities of a vineyard that shape the wine produced there, including microclimate, soil, sunlight, neighboring plants as well as human traditions and cultivation. More recently, it has been adapted to emphasize the unique nature of any growing community and the constellation of circumstances that provide opportunities for farmers and imbue food with distinct flavors. Terroir is another way of emphasizing the sense of place within the concept of local food.

For Claire’s, of course, our sense of place is about both flavor and community. We celebrate the ingenuity and capacity of our farming community, the dedication of those who work the soil, and the good fortune we have in our beautiful summers, our appreciation of the working landscape, and our ability to manage winter in sustainable ways. So we measure terroir on our menu in taste and place. Claire’s is a space for all of us to come together in our daily lives, and in doing so, we provide an opportunity to invest directly in the economic well-being of our neighbors in these difficult times.

That investment continues to be measured by our purchasing within 15 miles of the restaurant or just a bit farther in the NEK. In terms of our kitchen, Steven has crafted a menu that, from month to month and season to season, still puts 80 cents of every dollar we spend for the food we serve directly in the hands of the farmers, artisans, and businesses who are our closest neighbors. We don’t count the herbs and vegetables Steven produces in his kitchen garden, because Claire’s pays nothing for those. Beyond 15 miles, we purchase cooking wine from Shelburne Vineyards, fruit from Champlain Orchards, and, since the closing of the Vermont Milk Company in Hardwick, ice-cream from Strafford Creamery. Regional food-related purchases are upwards of 90 percent of our total spending, which now include Vermont sunflower oil and other cooking oils from Maine and Quebec. The seafood we serve from our coastal neighbors supports Stowe Seafood as well as New England’s fishing industry. Our spices and sugar are certified fair trade, providing confidence that when our dollars travel, we support communities with a deep tradition of producing and trading food staples.

Our impact, of course, is greater than our food purchases. We do business with the Village Laundry and other professional services, we employ more than 25 people cooking and serving your food, and we purchase more than just food. Overall, our contribution to the local economy – the farms, businesses and families that make up our terroir – has totaled 64% of every dollar we spend in the restaurant since we opened our doors in May 2008.

But we still have much more we can do. Bar and beverage service, for example, have been the most difficult to imagine differently. We face the regulatory limitations of the Vermont Department of Liquor Control, a variety of market forces that structure pricing, the still relative rarity of organic or sustainable commitments in spirits other than wine and beer, and relatively few distilled spirits in Vermont. As well, our small bar tucked into one corner of the restaurant provides operational limitations.

From opening day, though, our bar has striven to be different. We started by deciding to be a corn syrup free bar – one of the first in the country to do so – and found a variety of sodas, Vermont produced bitters, and other condiments. Our cocktail menu highlights Vermont produce, including pickled ramps, cucumber, berries, and now melon. And our wines are selected for a balance of quality and sustainability, emphasizing smaller producers and innovators, some of whom are certified organic, but in general, no matter where they come from, vineyard and vintners that provide sustenance to their communities. Increasingly, as they have become available, our wine list includes the best northern varietals our state has to offer, as well as our distinctive local meads. Of course, our draft beer is always redolent of the varieties of terroir in Vermont, especially with the introduction of Hill Farmstead this summer.

Overall, then, the share of purchases made in Vermont has varied by category of beverage. Highest on beer, increasing with wine, and lowest on distilled spirits. We’ve decided to improve on that. With quality and a range of price points in mind, we’ve decided to focus our bar service on that sense of place best defined in the term terroir – when available, our purchases will go first to Vermont distillers. So you might have noticed that already we offer three moderately priced and impressive vodkas produced in our state: Green Mountain Organic, Vermont White, and Vermont Gold. We also have a distinctive maple liqueur from Green Mountain Organic, served in a shot glass or mixed in a cocktail. When not available locally, we hope to source our spirits from small and artisan production as nearby as possible, but also around the world as necessary, looking to organic or fair trade certification, or for distillers who respect their ingredients as well as those who provide and shape the ingredients into the final product. Sometimes our goal is to identify the distinctive terroir in which a spirit is produced. Other times, we support smaller producers over those who dominate markets to promote more appropriate scale and a diversity of products within vibrant markets that can nurture artisan production.

With no local producer making a well vodka, for example, we searched far and wide before settling on Luksusowa, distilled since the end of World War II in Western Poland from local artesian well-water and potatoes grown only along that country’s Baltic coast. It has the added benefit of being a distilled spirit that people who are glucose intolerant can enjoy. Our rums come from two distilleries that have been family run for generations, we have an organic London Dry gin, and we now offer a selection of distinctive whiskeys from small batch American and Scottish producers. Our quality tequila is now 100 percent pure agave, and we have added unique liqueurs to enhance or cocktail menu or to enjoy by the glass, including one made from wild elderflowers harvested in Switzerland.

Though we have tripled our sales of Vermont produced spirits this year over last, we do have a ways to go. We’re talking with producers and innovative thinkers in the industry, assessing what additional steps are possible and how to monitor our goals. As we develop our menu driven cocktail service, we’ll be trying out new mixes and intriguing local ingredients. Right now, we regret that the DLC has not yet licensed a Vermont rye Whiskey or those produced in New York and Massachusetts, nor a potato vodka from Maine and a gin from New York. It is still difficult for us to access wines produced in the Fingers Lake region. But we are looking forward to the introduction of Caledonia Spirits produced in Hardwick. Even citrus has been a concern, as first the real estate bubble and then a series of frosts limited the production of fresh lemon and lime in Florida. At this point, our only source for citrus is from far away in California’s parched orchards, where an elaborate system of water distribution provides the weekly soaking required for citrus trees, but at the same time depletes fisheries in the northern part of the state and literally drains the Colorado River delta. But we have plans, which include growing our own lemon and limes in the restaurant and our homes.

Terroir is not just a concept; it gives us a lot to celebrate and appreciate. So come by before or after Rowan’s talk at the Galaxy Bookshop on Tuesday, September 7, to take note of “ terroir at the bar.” We’ll be offering specials on cocktails, spirits by the glass, as well as a flight of vodka or of whiskey. We hope you enjoy.

No comments: