Friday, August 28, 2015

New Hampshire's all about baskets and blueberries!

I can sense it in the air.  The slight change and shift in feel and mood.  Mornings are just a bit nippier when my toes reach out from the duvet to touch the bare wood in those early hours. Evenings are filled with the rhythmic shrill pierce of cricket chirps as they observe the same slight changes.  Occasionally, a faint scent of burning woods floats into the house as the evenings cool and nearby farm families enjoy a crackling fire while wrapped in blankets after a long fun-filled summer's day.  Pine needles are raining down leaving a soft downy quilt on the edge of the roads.  

We've had a full summer indeed and have soaked up so many moments of beauty that New Hampshire gifted us with from spring well into high summer.  Discovering the "History Weekend" tours organized by The Hancock Inn in neighboring Hancock made discovering more about our lovely state so much easier...and more fun!

For July...Marcia, the innkeeper, and her staff organized a group outing to the nearby historic town of Stoddard, NH.  Rising above the midst of Andorra Forest, we were all going to gather together at the very top of Pitcher Mountain.   Not only were we anticipating the discovery of  bushes and bushes bursting with wild blueberries but we were going meet the family that has worked tirelessly for generations to insure that their lands can keep these beloved traditions continuing into the future.

Rosemary and Charles Faulkner, as well as their extended family, have been preserving for generations these 11,000 acres of land from development so people like me can sigh with pleasure at the spectacularly sweet views of surrounding mountains and lush green panoramic vistas...all while filling containers with delicious wild blueberries.

The adorable and quaint village of Stoddard, NH

Growing up in the deep south of Louisiana, I rarely saw mountain views.  As a pre-teen, I used to read a mystery series called Trixie Belden Mysteries.  Trixie, and her band of best friends, were always getting caught up in one mysterious circumstance or another.   Many of their adventures took place in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  

Wild Blueberries picked from the bushes at the top of Pitcher Mountain, NH

I often imagined what it would be like seeing these mountains...or any mountains!  I would hang on Trixie's every description of their forays into the Catskills.  There were bobcats in the mountains.  I had no clue what a bobcat looked like as a child.  I imagined some sort of screeching cat sound piercing the night air.  Often, Trixie and her band had adventures in the fall when the leaves were bursting with oranges and reds. Seasonal changes were another tempting vision that I worked hard to imagine as a child.   Or, their mysterious journeys took place in the winter when they had to bundle up and dash in between the snow flakes.  I could recall seeing snow as a child once...and it was less than an inch!

These childhood stories made a dent to fulfill my wanderlust desires. Through the pages of the many stories told by Trixie and her friends, I could escape up into the Northeast and visualize the scenes being described through their many escapades.

As a grown woman, it amazes me the affect that reading these stories so many years ago can have on my adult perspectives.  This summer, as silly as it sounds, I feel like I am now a part of the world of Trixie Belden and her friends.  Each time I climb one of the mountains here and observe the treats each season has to offer, I gain tremendous satisfaction that I have the freedom to live  and enjoy such a beautiful place.

Patrick was away on business, so it was just me on this month's journey up Pitcher Mountain in the morning followed by a cozy evening stay at The Hancock Inn.  That morning, I rolled the windows down, breathed in the fresh summer air, and let the New Hampshire scenes flow past the car windows.

Farm stands are around every bend.  Often these farm stands have a metal lockbox.  One simply has to drop in a few dollars and proceed to pick which vegetables and fruits to carry away.  I think this arrangement says so much about trust and honesty of the people around here.

ooooohh,  a blueberry picking basket attached to a time

Now that I see how many zucchinis one plant can produce in my garden, I chuckled when I saw the over abundance of crates of zucchinis at these farm stands.  I, too, have been offering, eating, admiring, and pondering what to do with all of the zucchinis that I now possess.  They certainly outnumber every other vegetable growing in the garden.  One zucchini plant is dominating an entire planter.  I need to rethink that one next year.

So with my childhood imagination in full bloom, I slowly wove my car up and up and up the densely forested and windy dirt road along Pitcher Mountain to eventually reach the parking area at the top.  The road is dirt packed and I happily bumped along while keeping my eyes out for any signs of bobcats, turkeys, deer...or perhaps bears!

The views from the top of Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard, New Hampshire

After nothing more than a few sightings of chipmunks and a squirrel or two, I un-adventurously pulled up to the top of the mountain, grabbed my blueberry-picking bucket, and wondered how exactly to proceed picking blueberries.

A sugar shack...tucked in the woods waiting for next winter's maple syrup boiling

Truth be told, I had only seen blueberries in the wild once before.  That was years ago when the kids were young and we lived in upstate New York  (yes, upstate New York...the terrain of Trixie and friends!).   There was a family farm that cultivated neat little rows of blueberries at their farm up the road from our house.  This was great fun then to see blueberries for the first time, but high up on this mountain.  No cultivated little rows of blueberries up on the mountain.  The bushes were scattered all over the terrain and mixed in with other types of berry bushes as well.

I had arrived an hour before the group was to gather so that I could pick loads of blueberries to take home for baking (and eating).  So I started to wander through the dirt paths to see if I could locate blueberries.  After unwisely sampling a bitter dark black berry as well as a lip -puckering eye-squinting red berry, I eventually identified the edible and sweet blueberry and got to work.

I took all of an hour just to fill up my recycled soup container, now blueberry bucket.  It was slow picking because these little jewels are so tiny.  When the group gathered together to meet the Faulkner family, I noticed that blueberry pickers in-the-know have really special baskets and cans that become traditional blueberry picking receptacles.  Attaching cute baskets to a belt buckle allows for two-handed blueberry picking.  My one hour of pain-staking plucking the teensy tiny blueberries might have been cut in half with the two handed plucking arrangement.  Note to self:  search for one of the adorable woven baskets in order to be a in-the-know-New time.

The group all gathered in the middle of the swaths of blueberry bushes to listen to Rosemary and Charles Faulkner talk about their life's work to preserve this land for the public to enjoy. What originally was a simple outing to enjoy picking berries turned into a broader and fuller understanding of just how much work it takes to protect these lands so this simple pleasure can continue another generation.  The Faulkner's are in their 70's now and are working with their next generation of family members to help them carry this preservation work forward.

The sun of this mid-summer day high up on the mountain glowed down on us.  After the group disbanded, I decided to climb higher to the very tip top of Pitcher Mountain in order to take in the 360˚views from the top.  It was breath-taking.  I climbed all alone after the group had scattered at the end of the gathering.  Rarely have I hiked through the woods and up a mountain top by myself.  Even though I'm a grown woman, I felt like I was on quite the adventure.  It took a few minutes of hiking for me to find my rhythm, enjoy my aloneness, and savor the moments spent in the woods and at the top of Pitcher Mountain.  

So many changes happened this year and so many changes are about to happen.  My son, my baby, is going to college.  Processing the realization that my active mothering years have come to a close has hit hard.  I'm having moments of elation about the prospects ahead.  I'm having moments of identity crisis asking myself, "Who am I?".  I'm questioning whether the job as a mother was good enough, "Was I patient enough? Did I listen enough?"

By the time I finally wandered slowly down the mountainside and made my way to the village of Hancock to check into The Hancock Inn, I was famished.  I spent so much time carefully and painstakingly filling my blueberry container that I didn't dare eat too many of my precious pickings.  Also, I knew a gourmet dinner was to be served that evening and I wanted to savor every bite.

Roger Swain of The Victory Garden on PBS

These "History Weekends" begin with a morning field trip, often with a historical theme, and end up in the evening with a gourmet dinner hosted by a speaker that continues a discussion of that particular theme.  

Wonderfully, we were to be treated to a dinner discussion with Roger Swain.  Roger is known as "the man with the red suspenders" is most famous for hosting the television show, The Victory Garden on PBS.  The Victory Garden is a television program about gardening and other outdoor activities.  It is the oldest gardening program produced for television in the United States, premiering April 16, 1975.

While I dined on Chilled Beet Soup with Yogurt and Dill, Herbed Ricotta Polenta with Grilled Summer Vegetables, garden Herbs and toasted Pine Nuts...we listened to Roger tell us about the history and tradition of blueberry growing and picking in New Hampshire.  

What a wonderful day that started at dawn and ended at dusk.  I was sleepy but I relished each delicious bite of Lemon Pound Cake topped with lavender Mousse and blueberry Crumble.  It is on evenings like this one that I really feel like New Hampshire was the right choice for us and these weekends of discovery and fellowship leave me so grateful that we uprooted ourselves this past year in order to chase after a dream destination in order to plant future roots for our family.

To overuse the proverbial phrase, I slept like a log in the cozy inn that night in my room upstairs with its walls dressed in sweet vintage blue wallpaper.  If I could recollect my dreams , I would imagine my name had changed to Trixie and I, and my fellow teen mystery sleuths, were galloping on horses named Henry and Theodore, through the woods trying to track down some elusive clues...all while cleverly evading the prowling bobcats of the mountains.

Morning breakfast was delicious as usual.  Marcia laughed when she realized that my furrowed brow meant that I was trying to break my routine of ordering the English Muffin Egg and Sausage "Stack" in favor of the blueberry pancakes with New Hampshire Maple syrup and locally sourced bacon.  Oh, it was worth it!  Why didn't I venture towards the pancakes sooner?  The blueberry pancakes were sweet, moist, buttery, and delicious.  How I love, love, love breakfast!

After breakfast, I wandered around the newly planted flower and herb garden at the inn.  I had no time constraints nor expectations to meet so I took my time.  I forced myself to move slowly and not feel like I had to rush off to the next beckoning task in my life.  The house rennovations could wait.  The dirt and debris would be waiting for me no matter when I arrived home.  Perhaps next time at the inn, I'll play a game of croquet in the back field or just leisurely hang my legs off the hammocks tucked under the trees.  

Or, I may choose another mountain in the lovely state to climb with a picnic basket in hand this time.  I'll anticipate the views of the soft purple-hued mountains gracefully overlapping one another as far as the eyes can see.

That quart of wild blueberries made it home safely with me.  Wild blueberries are tiny and have a wonderfully floral earthy taste.  We were going to a birthday party the next day and I wanted to use these precious hand-picked treasures in something for a dessert to bring.  Still being without a fully functioning kitchen, I decided to throw together an easy blueberry clafoutis.  

This is a simple french dessert that is popular in the Brittany area of France but has now been adopted all over the world.  Often it is made with cherries but I thought I would use the blueberries I had just gathered.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wandering into the White Mountains...only to get lost in lupine loveliness

Lupines in the fields of Sugar Hill, New Hampshire

Patrick and I have been having some wonderful getaways this summer as we continue to slowly peel back the lovely enticing layers of our new home state.  The more we explore New Hampshire, not only do we want to savor these early discoveries but the list of places to explore and visit grows longer and longer.

Polly's Pancake Parlor  in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire

Several weekend options lured us up into the gorgeous breath-taking White Mountains of New Hampshire recently.  In my early research about New Hampshire, I came across an article in an issue of Yankee Magazine that elicited "oohs" and "aahs" as I read through the words and soaked in the sweet images of fields of lupine flowers flowing up the base of the mountains along the Presidential Range.

In Texas, I was captivated by country drives during springtime to soak in the fields of Texan bluebell flowers.  I love that each state seems to have its signature flower that is indigenous to that area of the country.  

We decided to retrace the steps of the Yankee Magazine article, in reality instead of virtually, since we are now bonafide residents of New Hampshire and are within an hour's reach of this beautiful spectacle.

In the heart of lupine country, one sweet inn caught my attention so we booked a weekend stay at The Inn at Sunset Hill in the lovely historic town of Sugar Hill, NH.

Heading towards the White Mountains in New Hampshire

I couldn't help but be equally lured up into the White Mountains in order to have an excuse to stop at the much adored breakfast pancake spot...Polly's Pancake Parlor.  Being that our kitty's name is Polly, it was practically an obligation to make a pilgrimage to her namesake to see if their pancakes are as special as our sweet pet...right?!

Scenes around Sugar Hill, New Hampshire

For 75 years, Polly's has been flipping pancakes and using all natural maple syrup from the region.  Gingerbread pancakes, Oatmeal Buttermilk pancakes, and Buckwheat pancakes are a sampling of the  list of batters that are stirred up in the kitchen.  The pancakes can be mixed and matched in order to sample a variety.  And, then there are the add-ins such as blueberries and walnuts...

The scenery driving up into the White Mountains became more and more beautiful and impressive as we crossed over the mountains on the drive to Polly's Pancake Parlor.  We ignored all of the exits leading to the inviting Lake Winnipesaukee, perfectly situated at the base of the mountains.  So many locals here in New Hampshire tell misty-eyed childhood stories of spending summer after summer swimming, picking blueberries, and catching fireflies on Lake Winnipesaukee.  We're tempted, but it'll have to wait to be discovered after we've feasted on flapjacks as well as  fields of purple, pink, and white lupines.

The view across from Polly's Pancake Parlor

My choice was the buckwheat pancakes.  They came stacked high with a pitcher of maple syrup and generous scoops of butter.  We had saved our appetites all day to enjoy this treat and it did not disappoint.  

The view across the street was of the towering White Mountains splayed out before us.  The winds were breezy as they scooted the marshmallow clouds along the tips of the mountain tops. Patrick had the blueberry pancakes as well as the oatmeal buttermilk.  We feasted our tummies and well as eyes on the food and the views.

The Inn at Sunset Hill, New Hampshire

We had driven up and over the White Mountains. The view behind us was gorgeous.  Not too far down the road from the famed flapjack house, we drove along the country road, appropriately named Sugar Hill Road, to find our weekend spot at The Inn at Sunset Hill.

We turned left onto an even smaller charming country lane marked only by the adorable St. Matthew's Chapel. With its pale yellow doors and glimmering stained glass windows, I expected to see horse drawn wagons like in Little House on the Prairie rolling up to the doors.   

The Inn at Sunset Hill, New Hampshire

At this point, swaths of lupines could be seen up the hillsides of the mountain, in fields behind country houses, and all along the roadsides of the picturesque drive.  I literally clasped my hands in delight as this storybook scene unfolded before us.

We rolled up to the lovely Victorian inspired inn.  Dick Green, along with his wife Sally, are both from the UK.  They fell in love with New Hampshire after vacationing here long ago and it was their dream to settle in the heart of New Hampshire. The owners of this sweet B&B were such a delight to meet.  When we arrived, Dick was out front playing with their lovable and sweet dog, English Sheepdog.  We quite easily fell in love with Dudley and now have English Sheepdogs on our list of future pets...

All I say is...the views!  The views!  As the sun began began to slip down the sky, the colors changed from oranges to blues to purples.  On either side of the cozily nestled inn there are mountains ranges spreading across the horizon.  At one point, the soft rays of the sun spilled muted pastels over the White Mountains to the east and a soft barely-there fingernail moon slipped into view as we gazed over the manicured golf course to the Green Mountains of Vermont to the West.

We enjoyed the touches of English culture that Dick and Sally bring to the Inn at Sunset Hill. Patrick enjoyed a generous pour of beer from the little pub.  We settled ourselves into our moodily lit and rather romantic room but to be honest, we couldn't help but be lured outside because the views were too enticing.

Polly's Pancakes were becoming a much earlier memory and the clinking of dinner preparation and kitchen aromas could be heard and smelled when we took a peek into the dining room.  Again, the views of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains stretched all the way across the dining rooms.  We kept saying, "Can you imagine these views with the beauty of painted oranges and corals in the fall?  What about the mountains and sky streaked with pristine whites and greys during the long cozy dark days of winter?"

The Inn at Sunset Hill, New Hampshire

As the air outside became crisp, we settled ourselves in the dining room to watch the dazzling colors wash across the sky while we enjoyed a slow and absorbing dinner.  I enjoyed a delicious bowl of clam chowder.  I am still new to clam chowder so I am taste testing this seafood soup whenever possible before I embark on various recipes at home, that is, if we ever finish renovation work on our farmhouse kitchen.

Instead of worrying when sunset will occur, Sally and Dick have set up a sweet-sounding bell, called the sunset bell,  that rings shortly before the sun slips over the horizon.  It was fun to be a part of the hotel guests as we all joined each other outside to share in this evening ritual.

Patrick could NOT resist the fish and chips.  With owners of the inn hailing from England, he knew he would be in for a certain treat.  They did look and taste delicious.  The slight beer flavor added to the batter was a nice touch.

The Guava Double-Glazed Pork Chop caught and held my attention.  It was a moist pan seared chop glazed in a guava purée, accompanied by sautéed spinach and topped with crispy leeks...all sitting on a nice pilaf of rice.

New Hampshire

With the sun setting over the western mountain range, I couldn't help glancing over to the eastern mountains to anticipate the morning sunrise over the fields dotted with hundreds of lupines.  We slept comfortably in our room that night, leaving a window open to let in soft breezes that billowed the curtains across the floor giving us glimpses of the moonlit horizon that was steeped in deep hues of purple and black etched against an indigo painted sky.  

I set my alarm for 45 minutes before sunrise the next morning.  Leaving Patrick to sleep heavily under a bundle of bedding, I gathered my camera equipment, layered on several pullovers, pulled on a warm hat, and slipped into some tall boots.

There was no way I was going to miss seeing the vast fields of lupines become softly lit one after the other by the morning's sun rays.

Breakfast at The Inn at Sunset Hill, New Hampshire

Many of my most special memories of travel are made during these early sunrise hours.  I love the solitude of slipping outdoors, tromping through fields of wet dewy grass, and seeing my own breath float behind my wandering trail.

I hiked down the country road from the inn carrying my tripod over my shoulder.  I crunched through the tall grasses that grew in the fields until I found a spot to set up my camera.  Fields of lupines overlapped each other and volleyed for space as each one reached to feel the first soft rays from the sky.  

I was quietly joined by 3 other photographers who settled into various parts of the huge open lupine fields.  We each whispered a soft hello to one another but didn't dare break the morning reverie with chitchat.  We didn't want to break the beautiful reverent mood of the early morning hours.  We are each wrapped up against in the brisk chill of morning air. There were a few clicks and sounds of adjustment as each of us readied our tripods and camera gear.

As the sun rose up over the mountain line, and the lupines lit up one by one across the fields, the only sound that could be heard was the clicking of photographs capturing forever the beauty that lay before us.  We didn't speak...we just enjoyed each moment for what it brought.  Eventually the clicking stopped, and we each nestled into the tall grasses and just enjoyed the scenery as it woke up to a new day.  What an experience...certainly as special and memorable as the photos captured.

A stop off the highway at Flume Gorge in Franconia, New Hampshire

Breakfast at inns are always a fun and lively affair.  I can chat with just about anyone...anywhere.  That being said, Patrick and I ended up practically joining the couple at the table next to us.  Quite surprisingly, the delightful couple were from New England, but currently on an assignment in, OF ALL PLACES...Louisiana (my birth state).  They kept us laughing in stitches as they recounted their experiences of culture shock in the deep south...having grown up in New England.  They were at the inn escaping the sultry humid southern weather but happily anticipating their return to the south, their continued enjoyment of southern cuisine, and their embrace of all events having to do with Mardi Gras.

Breakfast is my most favorite meal of the day.  Breakfast for dinner is a typical and welcome occurrence in our house.  I'm always looking for breakfast options and love when guests visit to try out something new.  Our daughter, Madeleine, was home for the summer on a brief break in between internships.  

I thought I would try making a delicious breakfast that I enjoyed a few summers back at a B&B way up north on Prince Edward Island.  I stayed at a precious B&B called Shady Lane.  The couple that own the B&B, Ian and Pam, were busy putting together a cookbook and they ended up using many of the photos that I took for them while there for their new cookbook.

They made a delicious French Toast Casserole that I enjoyed on one of my mornings at the inn.  I thought I would try it out for Madeleine as a treat on her brief respite from the working world.

It was very easy to pull together the evening before.  The cream cheese cooked into the eggy mixture was delicious as well as the generous dose of maple syrup.  I used some maple syrup that we brought back from our journey into lupine country from a famous little shop up the road from the inn called Harmon's Cheese and Country Store.

We're racing each weekend to keep up with all of the summer offerings in New Hampshire. We're trying to not let the home renovations keep us tied down.  There is so much to do and see.  Farm stands have popped everywhere, blueberry fields beckon us to pick containers full, art fairs are so tempting to stroll, and just a teensy yearning for the experience of fall up here in New England is beginning to be felt...just a teensy bit as we soak up every day of this beautiful first summer.