Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Our Tasty Carb-venture at the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Harpoon Brewery was a perfect host
On Sunday we took a drive up to central Vermont to check out the Vermont Farmstead Cheese VT Mac and Cheese Challenges. In its 3rd year, this event is held at Artisans’ Park at the Harpoon Brewery in Windsor, VT.

The 2016 Vermont Farmstead Cheese VT Mac and Cheese Challenge will take place Sunday, September 11th, 11:00am - 3:00pm. Click for full details.

As we never seem to get enough of lovely Vermont, we also swung through nearby Norwich to experience the King Arthur Flour Bakery, Café, Store, and Campus. After loading up on a bagful of goodies for fall baking, we resisted the gorgeous delights in the café knowing we had a full day of food waiting for us in nearby Windsor.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
The fire pit was up and running too!
By the time we arrived at Artisans’ Park, it was about 25 minutes after the start of the event. Our car was directed down a long driveway and across the property to park near a loading dock—the parking areas were full as far as the eye could see.  We’re not sure if we snagged one of the last parking spaces available but it certainly looked like it.

We happily enjoyed the walk towards the festivities on a truly stunning, blue-skied day. The beautifully landscaped property was buzzing with people of every age--many outside playing games or sitting by the fire pit, others lounging on the outdoor deck at the Harpoon café. There was a bandstand set up near the brewery with a window through which beer could be bought. We passed a small petting zoo propped near a badminton type area and small wooden playground. 

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Picnic tables, tall tables, wide lawn
Tall tables were set up across the lawn for people to stand and enjoy their beer, food and meet up with company. The magnetic pull of the event, of course, was toward the two large white tents where the action clearly was taking place.

The two tents each had a ticket purchase area ($20 at the door) and check-in station (for folks who purchase in advance -- $15). The line moved swiftly as the event was very well staffed and the staff came out to the line to quickly process the advance tickets—exchanging the ticket for a wrist band. There were plentiful staff-- easy to spot in their bright blue shirts—milling around to answer questions or lend a hand.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
The tent was elbow-to-elbow with
happy, hungry mac and cheese lovers
The tents each held station after station of tables manned by local VT and NH restaurateurs, small  inns, taverns, stores, and resorts. Twenty-one contestants in all competed for the title of the day—the winning dish to be voted on by the ticket-holders.

We were handed a voting sheet listing the name of each participant and a small area next to each name set aside for note taking. Armed with a mini pencil and a wooden fork, we embarked on our gooey carb-venture.    

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
The first thing we noticed is that there was no organized queue for the tastings. The contestants were arranged along the perimeter of each the tent and the tent center had a few tall tables for propping your beverage and leaning your elbows. Thoughtfully, there were also tables in the center with a fruit plate of watermelon and grapes and two platters of cheese cubes—the fruit was an extremely welcome option for cleansing the palate between tastings and we noticed that the fruit platter was remarkably popular.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Even though there was no particular order to going through the tastings, it was just short of a free for all. The hundreds of tasters were very polite and patient as we worked our way through each quasi line. 
We could see a few strategies starting to emerge. There were some that to the approach to divide and conquer—a trio of friends would each wait in line at a station, stock up on 3 samples and then convene in the center of the tent to taste and compare notes. Others would conga-line our way to each station trying a sample and writing notes along the way, stepping out of the line towards the tent center for a digestive break or to grab a handful of grapes.

There were signs reminding people to only take one sample to make sure there was enough for everyone and although you’d see people take a few samples, there was the honor system whereby it was understood the extra samples were for friends waiting outside the line. No one seemed to have an issue with this and as there really was plenty to eat—again, 20 different samples—we highly doubt people were taking seconds for themselves. 
VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Samples of Vermont Farmstead Cheese

Vermont Farmstead Cheese was the host of this incredible event and not only were there cheeses available to sample “neatly” but their cheese also figured prominently in every competitor’s recipe.
If we had to guess, the Vermont FarmsteadWindsor Dale” was the cheese most frequently employed in the recipes that day but their alehouse cheddar was certainly another popular ingredient. With so many samples to taste we worried we could never properly judge a front runner but as the wheat separates from the chaff (though there was no “chaff” here, everything was yummy) there certainly were a few memorable standouts.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
We took notes on the samples we really loved best—the ones that made our eyes roll up and flutter from the depth of flavor and creaminess working across our tongues. Remarkably, there were really no “misses” in the challenge—anything we didn’t care for was usually just a matter of preference, not cooking ability. We noticed that a few ingredients were featured prominently: ale and bacon (often maple-smoked because, well, its Vermont people!) were definitely common additions and welcome ones too yet after a bit it felt like everyone was working off the same delicious recipe…. Great for eating but harder to make yourself standout in a competition. 

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
A few folks took a different angle—one colorful recipe included sautéed kale which was delicious, another incorporated currants (!) for a sweeter taste and there was the requisite lobster-mac too which never disappoints.
In the end, we were impressed by the quality of everyone’s submissions to the challenge—each competitor brought their A game. Standouts for us were the Jackson House Inn samples (who took 3rd place with the Judges Award) and Big Fatty’s BBQ pulled pork recipe (who took 1st in the People’s Choice Award and tied for 2nd in the Judges Award).

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
This was a very memorable event and if you don’t live near Windsor VT, you should consider it a road trip worthy of your time. We were stuffed to the gills with mac-and-cheese by about sample number ten (with eleven samples left to go) so you should really plan to arrive with an empty stomach. 

Though the mac and cheese is clearly the star of this event, the atmosphere at the festival is certainly noteworthy. 

Not only was it a picture-perfect day in Vermont but the 2400 people who also attended were spread out across the lovely park.
The tall tables set outside on the lawn drew dozens of folks to stand around, sample the food and sip a beer. Vermont Farmstead did a terrific job anticipating how to use the lawn and property to their best advantage and created plentiful opportunities for people to enjoy themselves outside of the tent/food area. With such cooperative weather, it was easy for people to mingle and lounge outside or take a walk around the grounds and despite the crowds, there was a very relaxed feel—a perfect way to spend a Sunday.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
It was a very social event and plenty of kids were in attendance. The kids had a playground area and other games set up to interest them. Kids were certainly welcome at this event but the large crowds (particularly in the tent) appeared to make the event challenging for parents—too many people to navigate. Please read our family tips below for some suggestions on how to get the most from the experience if you’re making this a family outing.

We were very happy to have been able to see the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge first-hand. Windsor Vermont is very easy to reach from MA, NH, and CT and Harpoon Brewery is just off the highway. With the growing popularity of this event (attendance more than doubled between year 1 and this year—year two) please read our tips for getting the most from your visit there. A little planning can go a long way!

Tips for Attending the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Arrive early: Plan to arrive right as the event opens or, even better, a little before. This will help you get a parking space easily which was nearly full by the time we’d arrived (1/2 hour after the start).

Arrive hungry: If you think 20 samples of mac and cheese sounds like heaven to you, you should plan to be VERY hungry for this event.  Seriously, don’t even think about breakfast. In fact, don’t even think about dinner. This event has your hunger covered for a solid 36 hours.

Share: If you intend to sample everything, pace yourself because you will start to feel full by about the tenth sample. Consider taking one sample and splitting it with the person you came with. Trust us, you’ll thank us for this tip.

Divide and Conquer: We saw some groups who would split up to gather samples from two or three different tables and then reconnect at the tent center to taste the collection together at once. This is a good strategy for navigating the crowds and to be able to really talk through each tasting with your friend/partner. The alternative is standing in line for one sample while eating the sample from the previous table while you wait. This was what we did and it was probably a more chaotic, less relaxed strategy. (It’s hard to write notes while you are standing and eating.)

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Take it outside: Consider gathering 3 or 4 samples from different tables and then exiting the crowded tent to enjoy your sample in the sunshine. This is a more relaxed approach to the event and a good way to sip your beer and eat. You can bring your beer into the food tent but you’ll find yourself needing an extra hand to coordinate and hold everything.

Cleanse your palate: If you see the grape/fruit platter in the center of the tent, don’t pass it by. Those grapes will be your best friend and the key to helping you endure all the cheese gooey goodness.

Buy tickets in advance. Judging from the popularity of the event and the fact that attendance double from year one to year two, I could see this selling out. Plus you’ll save a few bucks for buying ahead.
Can’t emphasize this enough—come hungry.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery

Meetup Point. It’s a little easy to get caught up in the crowds once you’re in the tent—it’s handy if everyone you come with has their own cell on them to track each other down. Our cell coverage is notoriously spotty in Vermont so come up with a meet-up spot.

Grab two forks when you check in at the ticket booth. It’s easy to lose your fork juggling the voting paper, pencil, samples, etc. You will certainly drop your fork at some point and it’s a crowded trek to get back through the crowd to the entrance which is the only place to score an extra fork.

Be patient and don’t sweat the lack of organized lines. Nobody’s cutting in front of you—it’s just a carb-loving free-for-all. Nobody really knows the front/back/side of the line so just roll with it.
Be a friend--when you get to the front of a line, hand a few samples to the people behind you—it actually makes the crowd disperse faster and makes the job of the servers easier.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
Be kind. The servers are moving at breakneck speed so a few words of encouragement and compliment go a long way. Remember to inquire about what they are serving—they’re in a competition and they’re excited to share what makes their mac and cheese recipe special.

Take notes. Remember to jot down a few words about your favorite. It’s impossible to take notes on all of the samples (but we dare you to try). Definitely make a note of it when there is one that really stands out—it’ll be hard to remember the name or why 10 samples later but it will help guide your vote at the end.

Tips for Attending the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge with Kids

We’re going to be frank here--one of the best parts of the event is the total free-for-all mac-and-cheese loving aspect. The words free-for-all are not always going to inspire confidence when you’re looking at bringing your kids to an event. It CAN be done and with some planning, you can make it a really fun time but  don’t even think about showing up with the kids without a good strategy.

The mac and cheese is gourmet—this is a food competition and the chefs are going all out for your attention.  Kids do generally love mac and cheese but their palate may very likely not be attuned to the things that make a gourmet mac and cheese great and memorable. Suffice it to say that if your child loves Annies or Kraft, the samples at this challenge may be too robust in flavor for them. You should have a back-up plan for lunch for your kids in the very possible scenario that they don’t care for the tasty, high-flavor samples.

VT Mac and Cheese Challenge_New England Fall Events_Harpoon Brewery
We can’t emphasize enough that you should really come up with a strategy that involves two adults—one adult outside the tent with the kids, one inside in the tent gathering samples to bring outside. Yes, it will extend your day with the back and forth from the tent but the food tents are really too crowded with taller bodies to make most parents with kids feel comfortable keeping track of where your little guys are at all times. Most parents I saw had a barely masked face of panic trying to navigate the tent crowds, keep track of the kids, wait in line, gather samples, etc.

Picture this—Inside the tent: crowds, joyous festive noise, lines, aromas, no organization, everybody standing elbow to elbow. Outside the tent: spacious lawns, sunshine, elbow room, play area, easy to see where everyone is.  As a parent, what brings you peace of mind? Let this guide how you plan your time.

There are other goodies like ice cream, cheese, and maples syrup are sold inside the farm store as a treat but there are lines in there too so this will require a little patience. Again, the divide and conquer strategy could work well here too. 

No strollers are permitted in the food tent (baby-wearing is permitted). There just isn’t enough elbow room to fit strollers and you will find it tricky to maneuver the crowds. We really recommend our two-adult divide and conquer strategy (above). 

Although this is held at a brewery, kids are invited to the park and there are designated play areas and activities—petting zoo, playground. Maybe bring a picnic blanket for a family “home base”.

Depending on when you arrive, you may have to walk 5-10 minutes from where you park your car to the festivities. Arrive 20 minutes before the event opens for a closer spot and find an area to lay down your picnic blanket.

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