• Editor's Note Fall 2015

    Editor's Note Fall 2015

    I’m writing this in early August, on the heels of Vermont Open Farm Week—seven days during which 75 farms, orchards, vineyards, distilleries, and nurseries opened their doors to the public for a concentrated week of public outreach.

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  • Aronia and Elderberry: Thy Medicine

    Aronia and Elderberry: Thy Medicine

    Aronia and elderberry are two fruits—native to Vermont and other places in the eastern United States—that are getting noticed by health-conscious consumers. The word on the street these days is “nutraceutical”—in this case, referring to berries that aren’t just nutritious but also have medicinal properties.

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  • Set the Table with Garlic

    Set the Table with Garlic

    If you search the word garlic online, you may end up believing it is the panacea for all that ails us. Garlic was given to soldiers and athletes in ancient Greece to promote vigor.

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  • An Early Abenaki Harvest: The Green Corn Celebration

    An Early Abenaki Harvest: The Green Corn Celebration

    Traditionally, summer was a time of constant and existential worry for Abenaki farmers. Vermont’s notoriously fickle weather inundates the fields in June and parches them in July.

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  • Frankly Speaking

    Frankly Speaking

    Hot dogs are the epitome of mass-produced, questionably sourced food product. They are the emulsified bits and scraps of mechanically separated cartilage, tendons, and other meat undesirables that don’t belong anywhere else.

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  • Royally Local

    Royally Local

    The Chelsea Royal Diner’s 1939 dining car has been in its present location on Route 9 just outside Brattleboro since 1987, but today it’s home to a successful demonstration of the modern resurgence in serving locally grown food. Todd Darrah, enjoying his 25th year owning and operating the diner, has found a way to combine low diner prices with the high principles of the local food movement.

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  • Sheep Dairies

    Sheep Dairies

    Vermont is famous for cow dairies, but as the market for artisanal cheese has boomed, goat and sheep milk cheeses have entered the mix. Over the past 20 years, a number of farmers have launched goat dairies for farmstead cheese and for fluid milk sales. Some are former cow operations that switched business models when cow milk prices plummeted. Others began with dairy goats from the start.

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  • Market Trends

    Market Trends

    Over the past 10 years farmers’ markets in Vermont have burst forth like a backyard garden in July. Currently there are 63 markets in the Vermont Farmers’ Market Association, and a dozen or so that aren’t members. But every now and then you hear people wonder whether farmers’ markets have peaked in popularity, or strayed from their original purpose by offering more crafts and prepared foods.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Indian Summer

    Farmers' Kitchen—Indian Summer

    We chose “Anjali”—a Sanskrit word meaning “offerings to the deities”—as the name of our farm to honor Lini’s Indian heritage. And since moving to our South Londonderry farm on the winter solstice of 2000, we have grown mixed vegetables, medicinal herbs, blueberries, raspberries, and hops in harmony with our ecosystem and the cosmos.

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  • What Is Fresh?

    What Is Fresh?

    Ask Vermont food enthusiasts what they love about local food and most of us say, “It’s fresh.” The link between fresh flavor and local food is so strong that the terms often appear as one: “Fresh local food!”

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What Is Fresh?

vine ripe tomatoes

Written on

August 25 , 2015

Ask Vermont food enthusiasts what they love about local food and most of us say, “It’s fresh.” The link between fresh flavor and local food is so strong that the terms often appear as one: “Fresh local food!”

Equating “local” with “fresh” seems obvious in summer and fall, when we’re inundated with the latest harvest. By the time we hit early April, however, food that meets a dictionary’s definition of “fresh” is in shorter supply. Farmers’ markets tend to be stocked with root cellar items, frozen foods, pickles, and jellies. Still, the fresh-local association remains. When I asked patrons browsing through a market this past spring to define “fresh,” they didn’t hesitate to mention the aged cheeses, pickled vegetables, and frozen meats surrounding them.

“Fresh wakes up your taste buds, ” one person said.

“It’s the joy of eating,” was another comment. “It’s joie de vivre.”
“You can feel when the flavor starts to die,” explained one man lingering near cheese samples.

The idea of flavors “starting to die” suggests a common element of “fresh”: time. And, specifically, speed.

“I’m a snob about sweet corn,” explains Chef Lyndon Virkler of the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, “It must be picked that day because the flavor difference, once the starches start to develop, is so profound.”

Chef Virkler catches the vibrancy of sweet corn by eating it immediately. However, he adds, we can also honor the flavor of a fresh food by capturing that peak vibrancy through freezing, canning, infusing vinegars, and other preservation strategies. Timing still matters, but it’s timing to preserve flavor, not to eat something immediately.

“Preserving fresh” can sound like a paradox, and in some ways it is. Federal regulators define fresh as raw, unprocessed food. Confusingly, these definitions both exclude something like a canned tomato, no matter how fresh when it went into the can, but allow for food that has lingered, unprocessed, upon the shelves for a stretch of time. For example, fresh fruit can be wax coated, a technique that preserves shelf life and often eliminates what we’d commonly understand as “fresh” flavor.

This isn’t to say that the federal fresh label isn’t helpful, though. For example, fresh poultry is birds that never get below 26-degrees Fahrenheit, “consistent with consumer expect-
ations …i.e. not hard to the touch or frozen solid.” Consumers can tell if a chicken on a shelf is frozen solid, but the fresh label assures us that it has never been frozen solid.

The issues around legal, common, agricultural, and culinary definitions of fresh get more complicated with eggs. Fresh eggs aren’t processed. They’re in their shells, and haven’t passed their use-by date. But what about “farm fresh” eggs? This label adds a new wrinkle by joining two broad words in a way that suggests a very particular origin. Consumer studies show that “farm fresh” prompts customers to imagine family farms of the red barn and verdant fields variety.

“It really sticks in my craw,” says Jesse LaFlamme, co-owner of Pete & Gerry’s Organic Eggs in New Hampshire. “I don’t think a lot of customers, if they saw those factories, would ever think of them as a ‘farm’.”

Here’s a case where consumers have reversed the original equation. Instead of seeking out food from a certain type of (local) farm to get fresh flavor, they interpret a claim of fresh flavor to suggest a certain type of farm. That leaves cage-free and pasture-based producers like Jesse looking for new ways to tell more complicated stories about what creates the flavor of their farm’s eggs.

Jeffrey Westman, executive director of Marin Organics in Marin County, California, is also familiar with the need for telling a more complicated local flavor story than simply “fresh”, but for different reasons. “We live in a place where we can always access something picked in the last 24 hours, no more than an hour’s drive away,” he explains. His reservation about fresh isn’t misuse of the term, it’s that when most available food is fresh, it becomes apparent that other factors give local farm products a unique flavor. For him, local flavor is about a product tasting different than what you would find anywhere else. “[Food] gets flavor from the air, water, soil, we share,” he says. “It has a little of our DNA.”

It sounds complicated and difficult to prove—would a Vermont radish really taste different than one grown in New Hampshire?—yet such complications highlight the issue at the heart of local flavor. It isn’t monolithic and it doesn’t fit neatly inside one label, fresh or otherwise. It’s hard to define, and maybe that’s what makes it so compelling.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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