The best way to taste what the islands of Lake Champlain have to offer is by bicycle. Since I do not own a car, I travel to all my meals and picnics on two wheels, but I rarely travel out of town for farmland culinary excursions.This last Saturday, Vermont Farm Tours put together their second successful “Heart of the Islands” bike tour, a sort of roaming picnic route which led participants in a wide loop around South Hero, Grand Isle, and North Hero. Along the way, bikers were alerted to wine tastings, studio tours, and food opportunities by heart-shaped balloons and little Penny Farthing bicycle signs.
The ride began at the Snow Farm vineyard, where some riders chose to begin their day with a wine tasting. The height of summertime growth and sunlight made a perfect setting for a long and lazy ride, and I felt buzzed on the weather and views without having sampled any wine. Fields of young corn and Queen Anne’s Lace bordered the quiet route. Cows, sheep, and goats poked their heads through the fence, and one very hefty hog rubbed his hide on a stump as we rode past. The lake seemed to follow me around every bend, given that the route took us in a loop around the island. Some of the stops included the Blue Heron farm, a handful of small artist studios, and East Shore Vineyard. The artists offered cookies and lemonade, but I was thrilled to stop at the Champlain Islands Farmer’s Market for some more substantial snacks. One vendor spread her rhubarb jam samples on chunks of fresh pie crusts.
I wanted to know how such a genius event came about, so I spoke to the organizers. Chris Howell and Melissa Meece from the Vermont Farm Tours collaborated with the fourth annual Open Farm and Studio Weekend to create an extensive map of art, wine, and food related pitstops. Chris brings visitors to local farms for tastings, informative talks, tours, and three course lunch picnics. He wants people to be able to taste the stories of Vermont’s soil, history, and farm community. Many of the tours have special themes, like artisan cheese, wine, or ‘urban’ farms at the Intervale. Chris wants to add more bicycle events similar to the “Heart of the Islands” to his tours. Although Slow Food and agritourism are his main passions, cycling takes up much of his free time, and he would like to see these passions overlap. Most of the tours are either by foot or by car, but this particular pedal-powered tour was met with enthusiasm from over 200 Burlington bike enthusiasts. 10% of the proceeds went to Local Motion, a non-profit organization which promotes and supports people-powered transportation in Vermont.
The pace of the ride matched the concept of Vermont’s eco-gourmet attitude: a slow ride for slow food. Near the end of the long loop, after about 30 miles of biking and eating, I picked up a cider doughnut at Hackett’s orchard, and finished the ride with a maple creemee at the quaint Allenholm Farm store. While savoring my creemee, a very friendly donkey trotted up to me and rubbed his muddy belly against my shoulders as he made his way to the playground, where a trio of bizarre hens stood blinking in the shade. I wolfed the creemee down before I could really appreciate it, but I do remember enjoying that it was not over-sweetened. Back at base camp, the Snow Farm Vineyard, groups of cyclists strolled around the vineyard and lounged on the lawn munching on Cabot cheese. There were even free 10 minute massages and walking tours around the vineyards.
The ride was so delightfully slow and filling that I still had energy after the 40 mile loop, so I decided to bike back to Burlington instead of carpooling with Local Motion. Along the highway I spotted six ospreys and one very elegant Great Blue Heron. I underestimated the distance and ended up biking a total of 75 miles, which certainly made me hungry for more maple creemees and farm vegetables.