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Frame: The Essex, Just 200 Miles From Boston

March 13, 2011

When you google “Things to do in Vermont,” the results you come up with look like this:

-Boston is just a few hours away!
-Try cheese-making at Shelburne Farms!
-A nice day trip from Vermont is Boston, Massachusetts.
-Maple Syrup Farms Abound!
-Boston: Only 200 miles from Vermont.
-Visit the Ben and Jerry’s Factory!
-Seriously, Have You Tried Boston?

our Supper Series table, set with recipes

During the sleet-y spring season in Vermont, where most entertainment – hiking, skiing, snowshoeing – depends on the weather, leisure activities are limited.  Which is why The Essex, Vermont’s Culinary Resort and Spa, is such a good find.  As you may gather from the name, the pet-friendly hotel comes with an excellent health club and spa – one could easily spend a day or two getting massages or treatments, working out in the small gym or pool, and relaxing in the outdoor Jacuzzi, sauna, or steam room.  The staff members are friendly and professional (one even wished us a “joyous day”), and the lounge areas are clean, elegant, and comfortable.

Even more exciting (to me), The Essex features a Cook Academy, described as a “low-pressure, hands-on culinary experience where you can learn new techniques or hone the skills you already have.” With two very well-appointed kitchen spaces, the Academy offers between 2-6 classes a day, ranging from topics like “Cooking with Guinness” to “Sushi and Dumplings.” You can sign up for Technique classes, learning skills like poaching an egg or making sauces, or Supper Series classes, where you’ll assist your instructor in making a three course meal. Or, you can sign up for “Chef’s Table,” where you will “relax with other diners from around the world and watch your chef prepare your meal.”

feeding just-made dough through the pasta maker

We chose a Supper Series class – “Warm Winter Wonderland” – during which we helped our instructor, Jane Kirby, prepare Warm Crab Dip, Roasted Chicken with Tarragon Cream Sauce and Egg Noodles, and Apple Crumble. 

our instructor, Jane Kirby

From the very beginning of class, Jane stressed the hands-on element, reminding us that we won’t learn how to cut an onion unless we actually cut an onion. I’m a kinesthetic learner anyway, so I really appreciated her attitude in the kitchen. Rather than make us feel that this was her kitchen that we were visiting, from the minute I stuck my hand in a pile of eggs and flour to make noodles, Jane made me feel right at home.

warm crab dip with toasted baguettes

Along with teaching us how to chop an onion, Jane peppered the class with useful tidbits about cooking, food, and the food world. A registered dietician, food editor and writer, farmer, teacher, and traveler (among many other things, I’m sure), Jane knows her stuff. Do you know how to pick the juiciest lemon? I didn’t- and I work in the food business. But according to Jane, you look for a lemon with smooth rind. I’ve already put this to the test, and she’s absolutely right.

chicken with tarragon cream and roasted squash

While we prepared our chicken, Jane shared her thoughts on pans (don’t use non-stick, never put anything else in your omelette pan), James Beard (the father of cooking), and local, sustainable food (a must). Her multi-tasking skills were impressive- I can barely get my protein and vegetables to be warm at the same time, much less teach three people to hand roll and cut pasta, pan-sear chicken, and make an appetizer and dessert – all while chatting pleasantly – in just two hours.

apple crumble

The class ended with all participants sitting down to eat the dinner we had prepared, and getting a bonus of house-made vanilla ice cream to go with our apple crumble.  I came away feeling like I’d definitely learned a few things, and wishing I could take classes like this more often.  And best of all, I got to make a big mess in the kitchen and I didn’t have to do any of the dishes. Voila.

Note: We got a mid-week package deal (advertised at the recent Travel Expo in Boston), that included one massage and one cooking class. If you can swing it, mid-week is the time to go – cooking classes and spa appointments book up fast on the weekend (remember, Vermont in March leaves you with two choices: Boston or The Essex). While our Supper Series class had only three (out of a 16 person max) participants on a Wednesday night, it is currently sold out on Saturdays for the next three weeks.

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