Last week I undertook the brutal, grueling task of pairing local hard ciders with creamy, unctuous local cheeses. Just when I thought my stomach had recovered, I was invited to a cider pairing dinner at the North Hero House Inn & Restaurant on the Champlain Islands. It sounded too unique to pass up.
If last week's exercise taught me how well cider plays with cheese, last night's dinner schooled me in two more things: The hard, and even the sweet, stuff works equally well with savory dishes, and there's a seriously talented chef lurking inside the North Hero House. Last April, chef Tim McQuinn — who cut his teeth at Boston's Craigie On Main — joined the team here. (Even longer ago, McQuinn was a Paul Smith's College alum; one of his mentors, former NECI vice president and current consultant Paul Sorgule, was at last night's dinner.)
Eden Ice Cider's Eleanor Leger was also on hand to explain the ins and outs of Vermont's cider revival and the surprising ways it can pair with all kinds of food. After musing that this might be the first cider pairing dinner in the state of Vermont, she fretted aloud about how each pairing might go, and asked us for unbridled honesty.
McQuinn had it covered. For the next two hours, his kitchen delivered a parade of nuanced, elegant dishes that were both texturally rich and plated so gorgeously that they engaged all of the senses at once. With local pork belly — cooked overnight, sous-vide — he paired a brandy-like Sweet Six ice cider from Hall Home Place in Isle La Motte. Its tarter notes jangled against silky seared scallops and the pork's velvety fats, and harmonized with the dish's apple-cider glaze.
McQuinn followed this up with a quieter but no less beautiful dish: tender halibut in a coat of crushed, nutty pumpkin seeds, which played against the cider-sweetened pumpkin-apple puree for a profile McQuinn joked was akin to PB&J. The dish's flavors were focused by the gentle, almost floral Orchard Queen cider, made by Jason and Lauren MacArthur at Whetstone Ciderworks near Marlboro.
Eden Ice Cider's Heirloom Blend was the long-lost soulmate to a triangle of perfectly seared, Hudson Valley foie gras dotted with pomegranate seeds and smeared quince. Sauternes and foie are a classic pairing, noted Leger, but if the Heirloom blend had been around for the past few decades, it might have also been a given. And though Leger thought a glass of spicy red wine would have matched the rich, moody, venison osso bucco and sliced venison tenderloin that came next, her barrel-aged Northern Spy had the muscle to accent the meat.
By the time those plates disappeared, the room was full of groans from too-full people. Those claims of 'no more, please' dissipated in the face of a poised, succulent poached pear that came atop a smear of calvados-infused marscapone, the effervescence from Champlain Orchards Sparkling Ice Cider simmering through each decadent bite.
Most of the people at last night's dinner are sure to seek out more cider, and I bet many will also return for McQuinn's food. North Hero House is on the brink of closing for a two-week stick-season break, but they'll be back on November 15. And you should too.