In Vermont’s Upper Valley, new farm stays, general stores, and restaurants are putting a fresh spin on small-town life.
It was a Friday night in Hartland, Vermont, and I was out behind the barn at Fat Sheep Farm & Cabins (cabins from INR 16,121), sitting by a blazing firepit carved out of drifts of snow. A biting March wind whipped down the mountain while a tapestry of stars glittered overhead. I was drinking an IPA from River Roost Brewery and talking to Todd Heyman, who, together with his wife, Suzy Kaplan, runs what has become one of the state’s most popular farm stays.
Farm life in Vermont
Hosting guests is challenging enough, but try adding livestock to the mix. “We basically haven’t slept for the last two weeks,” Heyman told me. March is lambing season, and Fat Sheep had had a bumper crop. “We would come out every three or four hours during the night,” Heyman said; often he and Kaplan would hand-feed the animals if they didn’t seem strong enough. (The ewes, in keeping with the farm’s mission to keep things local, are fed spent grain from River Roost.) March in Vermont is also mud season, when the thaw begins to trickle onto dirt roads, challenging even the most stalwart Subaru.
A former lawyer, Heyman worked on various farms before buying the property that would become Fat Sheep. I found the place accidentally. Its five fully equipped private cabins, with their Scandinavia-meets-Vermont décor, felt like the perfect blend of hotel and house rental. There are fresh eggs and scones to greet you on your first morning, hiking trails on the grounds, and workshops on sourdough baking and cheese making. For a state rich in sheep, the farm is one of the few producers of sheep-milk cheese, and Kaplan proudly showed me the humidity- and temperature-controlled cave where chalky rounds of ageing Manchego were arranged on wooden shelves.
Places in Upper Valley
I’ve been going to Vermont’s Upper Valley, a varyingly defined area roughly bordered by Norwich to the north and greater Woodstock to the south, for several decades. The achingly quintessential town of Woodstock was my gateway drug, as it is for many people. I would inevitably visit the Yankee Bookshop, get a chocolate frappé at the White Cottage, or stroll from the living-history Billings Farm & Museum through town for a drink at the Woodstock Inn & Resort (doubles from INR 20,835). But in the past few years, I’ve looked beyond the established favourites and discovered a new group of entrepreneurs with a strong localist bent.
A short drive from Fat Sheep, Brownsville Butcher & Pantry hosts an occasional “supper club” night that has become a local institution. One morning, I dropped in on owners Peter Varkonyi and Lauren Stevens. Varkonyi, who had arrived at 5 am to start baking pastries, suggested I grab a maple-glazed cruller, as they usually sell out by mid-morning and a chair.
Before they opened the shop, Varkonyi told me, the space held a series of more typical convenience stores; when the last one closed down, the town felt the loss of both supplies and a gathering spot. A group of locals got together and raised funds to buy the building and establish a new business headed by people who would appreciate their community-building ideals. Those people were Varkonyi, who was a chef, and Stevens, who had been working in agriculture. “Our vision was of rural living with modern-day convenience, quality-mindedness, and the place, all merged into one,” Varkonyi said.
It seems to be working. The place struck me as the platonic ideal of a small-town store, where customers kibbitz over coffee and newspapers or buy locally raised meat and vegetables and provisions from small-batch producers.
Eateries in Vermont
I sensed a similar enthusiasm in Woodstock, where Matt Lombard, who once worked at the nearby Relais & Châteaux property Twin Farms (doubles from INR 2,14,969, all-inclusive), runs Santé (entrées INR 2,315–INR 2,976). The restaurant, like Lombard’s other projects, is centred around locally sourced ingredients. (On previous trips, I had eaten at Lombard’s first Woodstock restaurant, Mangalitsa, named for the famous breed of pig. It’s currently closed for renovations.)
The next day, we loaded up on speciality flours and sampled the superb scones and focaccia on offer at the sprawling brick-and-mortar home of the legendary, worker-owned King Arthur Baking, in Norwich. Then we stopped for lunch in White River Junction at Piecemeal Pies (pies INR 992–INR 1,240; piecemeal pies.com), where Justin Barrett, a former architecture student and alum of the Fat Radish, in New York City, serves British-inflected savoury pies like pork with parsnip and rabbit with bacon. White River Junction, a longtime train hub, spent much of the 20th century in slow decline but has lately been rebounding, with good food options like Trail Break Taps & Tacos (entrées INR 909–INR 1,405) and small shops like Gear Again, a very Vermont consignment store selling outdoor clothing and equipment. Back in 1937, the WPA guide to Vermont noted that the town’s hotel and restaurants were “frequently thronged with Dartmouth undergraduates” from across the river “wearing casually their tailored sports clothes.” The fashions may have changed, but the undergrads are still visible.
“In Vermont,” Varkonyi had told me, “you drive for quality.” So we did, crisscrossing the Upper Valley— hushed and still in winter, verdant and buzzing in summer, and drop-dead gorgeous in fall. There was always some other cherished food item to stop for: the stunning ice cream in the honor-system store at Kiss the Cow Farm, the hearty breakfast sandwich at the South Woodstock Country Store. To burn off some of the bounty, we spent our last afternoon enjoying the remaining gifts of winter, traversing the trails on cross-country skis at the Nordic Center of the Woodstock Inn. The snow was starting to squall but, knowing that the inn’s enveloping hygge and warm fire weren’t far away, we pressed on.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: SWISS and American Airlines operate regular connecting flights from New Delhi and Mumbai to Burlington International Airport in Vermont, from where Fat Sheep Farm & Cabins is a two-hour drive approximately.