Archive for January 2013


January 26th, 2013 — 12:49pm

The scene: a dim, warm, red-toned little shop, usually redolent of exotic forms of chocolate, expanded for the evening into a booze-and-bacon bar. The salty, smoky aroma hits you right in the salivary glands as you walk in, pulling the door tight behind you to keep the cold at bay. Three salt-and-pepper-haired guys in cowboy hats are rocking the joint with Texas swing tunes. Welcome to Bacon Thursday at Nutty Steph’s Granola and Chocolate Shop, in Montpelier’s suburban sprawl of Middlesex, population 1,729, refuge-of-choice from a sub-freezing night in Central Vermont. Oh, and make that minus six degrees, and dropping fast.

Jaquelyn, a.k.a. Nutty Steph

Nutty Steph is the nom d’affaires of Jaquelyn Rieke, a thirty-something Midwestern transplant who started a homemade granola business in Montpelier about ten years ago now. (You can mail-order it, and you should; I’ve bought no other since discovering it).

Tall, bright-eyed, cleft-chinned, she’s presiding over the proceedings like a true cowgirl, in a Western shirt and bolo tie secured with a heart-shaped chunk of turquoise.

In honor of the band, Big Hat, No Cattle, we’ve been encouraged to come in Western wear. It gets you a dollar off your drink, so the place is full of people in Stetsons and tooled cowboy boots. Behind the counter is doe-eyed, smiling co-owner Josie Green, her hair in pigtails beneath a battered straw Stetson. She’s sporting a gingham shirt knotted at the midriff and, below the gap of bare skin, what look like a pair of  leather undies peeking out from a set of—chaps. Suede chaps. The crowd around the chocolate case seems disproportionately male.

I’m here with my fiddler friend Susan, who’s often in another band with Mike Ricciarelli, Big Hat’s guitarist/fiddler. She’s brought her fiddle since they’ve asked her to sit in. I plop the red felt Stetson I bought two decades ago in Park City, Utah on her head so she can qualify for cheap drinks. When she goes up to fiddle with the band, she fits right in along with leader Kevin Brown, standing bassist David Blythe, and her bandmate Mike, string player extraordinaire and expert repairer of musical instruments.

Kevin, David and Mike in mid-swing

Susan and Kevin are my two favorite examples of the “Renaissance Woodchuck,” a term coined by Susan herself. Besides being a songwriter, composer, landscape painter, trail runner, photographer, singer, teacher, and player of every string instrument known to man including the dobro and slide guitar, Kevin’s working on his fourth Vermont-based “mystorical” novel featuring sleuth Liam Dutra. You have to be a generalist in a small place like Vermont, but Kevin’s taken it to a high art form. And he’s good at all of it.

Susan’s a fiddler across all the genres (Celtic, Cajun, Western, and…Swedish?), a chef and caterer who used to run an international gourmet takeout place, a knitter of uncommonly beautiful lacy shawls, and organizer of a local concert series that brings in folkie and indie talent from as far away as the Scottish Highlands.

Besides hanging out for an evening listening to the alternately joyful and melancholy, mellowing music, we’re getting to pig out on Nutty Steph’s bacon sampler of the evening. Stripped from the usual breakfast eggs-and-toast context, bacon becomes a gourmet experience, though truth to tell I couldn’t tell the wood-smoked variety from the maple-cured kind in a blind tasting.

They’re all good, especially dipped in a little dollop of Fat Toad Farm caramel. This being Vermont, that sweet richness comes from the goat farm of Susan’s brother Stephen about twenty miles down the road. The wine is a blended red in the French style from Shelburne Vineyards, over by Lake Champlain. Vermont reds are nearly ready for prime time. If we could only grow coffee and cacao beans, we could be self-sufficient.

There are salt cravers and there are sweet tooths. Some of us are both. The counter case beckons with chocolate-robed shortbread, truffles, sea-salted caramel, orange peel, and dried pineapple as well as an array of fruit and nut barks encased in white, milk, and dark chocolate.

Truffles in mind

There are even pink chocolate elephants, which you might worry about finding on your kitchen counter after a night on the tiles. I play against type and go for the white-chocolate-dipped pineapple with toasted coconut.

Susan and I outlast the band. After they’ve gone, Jaquelyn steps out with her banjo-playing bacon chef and the two go into a couple of seriously bawdy numbers they’ve written themselves. Sort of a salted-caramel-habanero finish on the evening. We spill out with the warm gold light into the night, where the snow crunches like styrofoam under our feet and the thermometer’s heading for 20 below.

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