- The Farm Cart
William Seward Webb and Lila Vanderbilt Webb founded their grand private estate on Lake Champlain in Shelburne in the 1880s. Their home and farmland came to encompass 3,800 acres. Prominent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was hired to conceive the landscaping and gardens. Architect Robert H. Robertson designed a collection of spectacular buildings. What we now know as Shelburne Farms — a public nonprofit devoted to sustainable agriculture and environmental education — has a rich history, indeed.
It also boasts a killer grilled-cheese sandwich — for five bucks.
The sandwich beckons at the end of a 15-minute walk (or shorter tractor-powered wagon ride) from the Welcome Center to the Farm Barn, a glorious structure that houses a school, a woodworking shop, offices, animals, a bakery and more. In the grassy courtyard, hens grub and kids play. At one end of the green stands a food cart that's open daily for farm-fresh lunch.
A feature of the Farm Barn since 2007, the Farm Cart offers sandwiches, salads and soups made mostly from ingredients produced at the farm. (A chalkboard list of items that help farmers grow the food includes earthworms, cow compost and rain.) As you eat your grilled-cheese sandwich, you can almost see the cheesemakers and bread bakers at work.
- Shelburne Farms' Brown Swiss herd
The sandwich is exquisite in its simplicity: cheddar cheese on sesame-wheat bread, grilled with butter. The cheese is produced from the raw milk of Brown Swiss cows that graze on the farm. The bread is made at nearby O Bread Bakery, which this year marks 40 years of making handcrafted organic bread in a former blacksmith shop.
For the grilled cheese, the bread is a toasty golden brown, crispy but with a slight softness from the hot butter. The cheese is melted but not oozy, staying within the confines of the sandwich. That's easy to do, given the size of the bread slices — more than seven inches across at their widest. Cut in half, each piece of the sandwich is not much smaller than a regular-size grilled cheese. In other words, for $5 you get almost two sandwiches.
Along with our sandwiches, we ordered a garden salad ($6) from the specials board on a May afternoon. The ingredients — greens, beets, radishes, turnips, spring onions, asparagus — were harvested hours earlier from the farm's Market Garden. Arrayed in shades of green and red and dressed with tangy vinaigrette, the salad tasted like spring.
For 10 years, farmer Josh Carter has grown and harvested food in a garden at Shelburne Farms that was first cultivated in about 1890. The plot has expanded over the years and now occupies seven acres: three planted in vegetables, one in perennial fruit and a few in rotation. The brick foundation of a 19th-century greenhouse stands near the garden, a relic of a once-substantial operation. (The greenhouses, totaling almost 25,000 square feet of space, were steam-heated and grew roses and violets as well as melons, grapes and asparagus, according to the farm's curator.)
The garden's placement is "in perfect proximity to the lake," Carter said, and represents "a very conscious decision" by its planners. The soil is relatively loamy, he said, and the plot is in a microclimate of the 1,400-acre property.
"It's close enough to the lake so the temperature is a little moderated during the growing season, and far enough away not to get any wind off the lake," Carter explained. "It's got good soil and very good sun."
Carter delivers food from the Market Garden to the Inn at Shelburne Farms at least three times a week. Food for the Farm Cart is prepped at the inn kitchen, where asparagus is roasted and onions are pickled. The ingredients are transported to the Farm Cart for outdoor dining in one of the loveliest settings in Vermont.
Carter has eaten many grilled-cheese sandwiches at the Farm Cart. But, as a hungry farmer, he usually opts for another item on the menu.
"The burger is a little more enticing to me," he conceded. "I can whip up a grilled cheese, but they'll cook up a better burger than I can."