Unpaved Cloudland Road in North Pomfret is full of steep climbs and sudden drops. Driving it can feel like riding the log flume ride at Disney World. The comparison is surprisingly apt since the wild ride ends at Cloudland Farm, which could be described as something of a beef theme park.
As you coast down into the valley lined with farm buildings, you see black Angus cattle dotting the surrounding hills. At the bottom, a friendly Australian cattle dog named Roo greets visitors as they reach a pristine new building that fits in seamlessly with the assemblage of variously aged structures on the property. Inside is a restaurant that serves the hill-dwelling cattle, as well as chickens, turkeys and Berkshire pigs, all of which guests can meet while strolling the land before their meal. It’s not exactly like a pick-your-own-lobster tank, but Cloudland Farm does bring diners face to face with their future dinner.
And that’s exactly the point. In 2006, farmer Bill Emmons and his wife, Cathy, were awarded a $12,000 Value-Added Agricultural Product Market Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Gov. Douglas presented us with one of those foam checks. We still have it somewhere,” says Bill Emmons. He jokes that he should display the check in the restaurant — the couple’s ultimate value-added project.
Cloudland, which abuts the Long Trail and is a popular stop for hikers, was already selling beef sausages in flavors including juicy “garlic lover’s” and beer-flavored bratwursts. Crafted at Green Mountain Smokehouse in Windsor, both the beef sausages and bratwursts have a taste that falls somewhere between pork sausages and hamburgers.
A restaurant was the next logical step, says Emmons. It became a reality with an additional Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program grant in 2009. That was when construction began on the building that now houses the restaurant and the Cloudland Farm Country Market. The goal was to give visitors a dining experience harking back to when Bill Emmons’ family first arrived in Vermont from Boston.
When Emmons’ grandfather and great-grandfather bought this land in 1908, a blacksmith shop resided where Cloudland Farm restaurant now stands. A photograph of the farmhouse and its surrounding buildings was made into a Whitman Guild puzzle in the mid-20th century. The layout of the buildings has changed since then, owing in part to a series of fires on the property. “What’s here now is more like when my grandfather came in 1908,” explains the farmer, who grew up on the farm and recalls when it stopped dairy production in 1956.
Like the buildings that rose at the farm when it was first established, before the Revolutionary War, Cloudland Farm’s restaurant, with its high-beamed ceilings and butternut mantle over the fireplace, is built primarily from the farm’s own timber. “Cathy oversaw the whole thing,” says Emmons, pointing out the symmetry of each nail in the kitchen’s door frames. “She’s a very particular, detail-oriented gal. If you put her in charge of building a space shuttle, there would be nothing wrong with it.”
The still-new feeling of the building extends to the extra-large kitchen, where Nick Mahood prepares dinners every Thursday and Saturday. The light schedule is designed to allow the Emmons family to work at the restaurant and still have time to farm their land. Thursday-night meals are served family-style, while the more elegant Saturday dinner is a plated, three-course affair that tops out at $42 a head.
Whether diners are seated on the porch cooling off with a bottle of wine purchased at Gillingham & Sons General Store in Woodstock or awaiting a basket of whole wheat and rye sourdough bread made from a century-old starter, they’re bound to make eye contact with the Anguses that are busy landscaping the property.
The cattle are on Mahood’s mind, too, as he conceives his menus each week. With a master’s degree in physiology and four years of PhD work in nutritional biochemistry, Mahood knows a thing or two about anatomy. That’s lucky, because his job calls on him to use nearly every part of the cow, which returns to its birthplace after slaughter and two weeks of dry aging at PT Farm in St. Johnsbury. Since the restaurant opened last September, practically everything from standing rib roasts to beef shanks has graced the menu.
On June 25, the entrée was bavette steaks, the cut the French favor for steak frites. Cooked rare, the extraordinarily flavorful steak is tender. But it’s more commonly known to Americans in the form of longer-cooked flank steak, which is considered tough and undesirable and sends queasy shivers through many a barbecue-goer when it becomes London broil.
Mahood’s dish may have changed a few minds. With a black sear and a glowingly pink center, the steak lay in a pool of tangy red-wine reduction, bathed in rich, beefy marrow butter. The butter mixed with the cream in which braised new potatoes from Mount Pleasant Farm in Tunbridge were served. Parts of the spinach salad also wilted into the sauce. The rest was dressed in a sweet, summery vinaigrette and covered in Cloudland’s own chopped eggs — and thick, smoky bacon from the pigs.
This was preceded by an appetizer that showed the precision and artistic flair that Mahood cultivated as a baker at Alléchante in Woodstock and at the Woodstock Farmers Market. A terrine of asparagus (from Hurricane Flats in South Royalton) and Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery chèvre was wrapped, sushi-like, in paper-thin slices of zucchini and accompanied by a salad of pickled carrots, radishes and broccoli. The plate was dressed with visually arresting smears of red beet sauce, foamy carrot emulsion and a sprinkling of purple chive blossoms.
The later-in-life baker, now a newly minted chef at 37, was lucky enough to spend a week working at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s eponymous New York restaurant while visiting the city. “I was able to walk in there and hold my own, and that gives you a lot of confidence,” says the chef. As dessert arrived at the table, it was clear his confidence was well earned.
The plate’s centerpiece was a flat-topped dome of strawberry panna cotta. The wobbly dessert bloomed with the taste of fresh, sun-baked strawberries mixed with cream. On the side, streusel and more strawberries from Westminster’s Harlow Farm, baked in balsamic reduction, surrounded a miniature scoop of buttermilk ice cream. A few small drizzles of basil coulis added an herbaceous X factor to the dish.
Tasting such a delicacy, it’s hard to believe the chef constructed it to fit not his whims, but the produce immediately available to him. So it was in the days Emmons longs for, when farmers in the area ate only their own foods or ones grown nearby. Mahood already believed in that farm-to-table ethos when he arrived, having learned a thing or two about self-sufficiency while trailing a pastry chef at the famous farm and restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. “It has been a challenge, compared to my other jobs, to keep the local running through the menu,” he admits. “A lot of things I’ve done in the past wouldn’t fit.”
As a pastry chef, Mahood had nuts as a major tool in his toolbox. Now, “I don’t use those very much at all. We don’t have many or any in Vermont,” he says. Don’t expect to see lemon-curd tarts on the menu, either. Citrus fruit is another ingredient Mahood uses only as a last resort on the darkest winter days, more as a seasoning than a central element, he says, in the realm of salt and black pepper.
Entering July, Cloudland Farm is just shaking off the last vestiges of this year’s seemingly never-ending chill. Mahood says that, in the coming weeks, the farm will supply 40 or 50 percent of the food that goes into the dinners. He admits, though, that its own small gardens can accomplish that only in “a pretty narrow window.”
To sustain the restaurant throughout the year, Mahood has had to establish close relationships with the region’s farmers. Indeed, he makes some other locavore chefs look like slackers. “A lot of chefs just pick up the phone, and whatever produce they need just shows up on the Black River [Produce] truck,” he says. “I usually go to the farms to pick up the products. It’s been great to see where everything’s coming from and to meet them. Sometimes I go to the field and harvest myself what I’m going to use. I think that’s a really special part of the job.”
Though the restaurant is still less than a year old, Bill Emmons and Mahood already have plans to keep their offerings even closer to home. Poultry is currently processed on the farm, but beef is not. Mahood considers it a goal to age the carcasses and cut them himself. He hopes that someday the freezers will be filled with oxtail, short ribs and strip steaks that left the farm only for slaughter.
Mahood is also preparing to spend a little less time running the market — where he sells the aforementioned cuts of meat, ready-to-eat chorizo, and other farm-fresh treats to hikers, locals and tourists — and more in the kitchen. The restaurant has become a popular place for business meetings, hosting several meals for King Arthur Flour and other Upper Valley companies. The farm’s first wedding banquet will take place in September.
For the general public, Mahood is kicking off a celebration of the farm’s ground beef with a series of Friday burger nights. July 29 is the first, and he promises the fare will be prepared with the same from-scratch care diners can expect at the more formal Cloudland Farm restaurant dinners. At any meal, the last thing diners need to ask at Cloudland is “Where’s the beef?”