Despite Bethlehem being a Mediterranean town, we somehow associate Christmas with snow. With fir trees and fireplaces, rather than camels and date palms. We dream of Christmas in Vermont.
And so the inns of Vermont -- there were 200 to 300 at last count -- are stocking up miles of velvet ribbon, carloads of potpourri, attic-fuls of Victorian ornaments. It is their season.
At The Governor's Inn on the quiet end of Main Street in Ludlow, Vt., the scent is of blueberry potpourri. The velvet ribbon is powder blue. And the ornaments on the Christmas tree -- which scrapes the ceiling -- represent the family history of Charlie and Deedy Marble, who run the inn. Greenery weaves up the bannisters and across the door jambs. Whatever is not festooned with pine needles or holly is studded with velvet bows and lace. And everything, but everything, shows the colors of the season.
The champagne on Christmas eve is sparked with cranberry liqueur. Even the hot crab dip, served with spiced cider for cocktail hour, is flecked with red pimiento.
Christmas morning begins with Charlie Marble in a Santa suit delivering tiny wrapped gifts to the guests in the dining room and wishing them a happy holiday in his deep Boston accent. Then he serves his traditional holiday breakfast of fruit-nut bread, Vermont maple-flavored oatmeal with real maple syrup, Governor's Puff -- a cherry-sauced, oven-baked pancake -- with sausage, juice and coffee. Enough to hold you until 3 p.m. tea, 6 p.m. drinks-and-dip hour, and 7 p.m. six-course dinner prepared by Deedy Marble.
Somehow the jolly scene seems like a school play. Maybe that's because the waitresses wear waistcoats and ruffled bloomers at breakfast, mob caps and and pinafores at tea and dinner, and each course is introduced as if it were the next act and served as self-consciously as if it were in rehearsal. More likely it is because Charlie spent 15 years managing a Boston construction firm and Deedy was executive director of the Greater Boston chapter of the American Dental Association before they opened the inn three years ago. They still talk as if they are on recess from the real world.
Deedy prepares the entire dinner herself, starting at 10 a.m. and stopping only in the midafternoon to put her feet up and have a glass of wine and a snack. The kitchen has become practically the Marbles' entire home; it is where they watch television and where Allison, the one of their two daughters who lives at home, does her homework. And it looks like a home kitchen, with recipes tacked onto the refrigerator by magnets and food magazines on the tables and newspaper photos of Paul Newman (who has visited the inn) on the walls. There are no stacks of goods, crates of things. "We've never bought a case of anything," said Deedy, explaining that with only eight guest rooms and never repeating a single course within 11 days, they can't use enough of any one thing to buy in quantity. But life is easier now because, as Deedy said, "We have found a local produce company that will sell us one lemon, and they'll deliver it." She tries to use local products -- cheddar, veal, maple syrup and such -- as much as possible, but was disappointed not to find better cream than the ultrapasteurized sort.
Not only does Charlie make breakfast (he likes a relaxed afternoon) and Deedy do dinner (she likes to sleep late), but they have learned to divide up other tasks. "The first week it was awful," recalled Deedy. "We wanted to work together, but we'd both been bosses." They devised a very specific list of jobs. Charlie can't stand dirty windows, so he'll wash them. "I like to sit and read cookbooks and he considers it part of my job, so he'll go downtown and do an errand," she added. She does all the correspondence and the marketing of the inn, he does all the bookkeeping. Deedy sends all the guests hand-written postcards and letters before they arrive; she figures that since the postcards and stationery depict the inn, it will already be familiar when they come.
Charlie works from 6:30 a.m. to 11, relaxes a few hours, and starts helping again at 5. Deedy works through from 10 a.m. with only her one-hour break, then socializes with guests after dinner. They close for three weeks in November and one month in April. "It's not a great career for a marriage that needs tending," mused Deedy.
Besides the recipes on the refrigerator door there are lessons for the staff -- phrases for them to practice: "May I help you?" "Are you finished?" "May I take your wine order?" "Of course, certainly; I'll ask for you." The staffers are young -- 14 to 18 years old -- and local, and some of them have never seen an escalator or a shopping mall, said Deedy. The Marbles take them to dinner at other inns on occasion to show them what it is like being on the other side of the table. As for choosing staff, Deedy has two unusual requirements: They must fit into the uniforms that are available, and they must have "nice, clean teeth," since she used to work for the American Dental Association.
"When we first wanted to have an inn it was like the guests' fantasies," said Charlie. But they had to modify their dreams a bit, and learn, as Charlie put it, "an inn is a business." He would like to have a nice view in the front yard, but that didn't go with the building. And the guest rooms are quite small.
"First you choose the state, then you choose the style of building," he explained. They wanted a village rather than mountains, and a good school system for Allison. They preferred a wood Victorian house, and needed a kitchen they could handle -- capable of serving about 24 people.
Eventually they realized that to break even they would have to open to the public for dinner. "What that meant was we had to provide more than pot roast and glazed carrots," said Deedy. They also began to sell souvenirs -- their secret-formula Governor's Sauce, Harbor Sweets chocolates molded for them, Deedy's own cookbook -- and found it necessary to charge for the before-dinner spiced cider and drinks.
They also had to learn to learn names. "The real inngoer goes to all the different inns," discovered Charlie -- sometimes acts imperious to the innkeepers. Deedy's way of handling that was "to sort of disarm the 'fast track' " by greeting them at the door and calling them by name while looking them straight in the eye, she said. They warn people ahead that they accept no small children, the guest rooms have no television, and some of the baths are shared.
Deedy's idea of dinner has a dose of theater to it. She is inclined to surprise guests by serving soup in brandy snifters or in the icers designed for shrimp cocktail. And she is fond of serving things under tiny glass bells, which required some doing, since she found that they come 100 to a case with a minimum order of 100 cases. After presenting her problem to the manufacturers, both Anchor Hocking and Corning glass companies sent her two dozen little glass bells, free. "Now I sit around all day long and think of fun things to serve under glass," said Deedy.
She was merely an amateur cook before undertaking the inn; she had taken a three-day course from Madeleine Kamman, she said, and found herself giving bigger and bigger parties in Boston before they made the switch to Vermont. "Charlie didn't even scramble eggs," before they started the inn, said Deedy; now he makes all the breads, and his rum-raisin french toast (made with rum-raisin ice cream -- only a noncook would dream up such a fancy) has a strong following. Counters Charlie, "I didn't build a building before I went to construction, either."
Away from the city, Deedy's inspirations now come from cookbooks and video tapes by Kamman and Julia Child. Typically she takes recipes from books and adapts them; "We aren't reinventing the wheel," she volunteered. And she does not hesitate to try new recipes on guests. She boasts that her greatest culinary renown is the result of a mistake. The Governor's Sauce, the inn's signature concoction, served at each dinner over cream cheese to spread on crackers, was invented by reaching for the wrong ingredient. Now the guests play guessing games over this secret recipe (six ingredients, two hints I discovered: pineapple and horseradish). More intentionally, she tries to perk up the flavor of leathery winter green beans with chartreuse "because it smells so good." And after she realized that salad greens were going to be a problem in Vermont winters, she started serving sherbets splashed with wine as a between-course refresher instead of salads. Deedy also learned that, being the only person in the kitchen, she would have to rely on cold dishes -- fruit soups, vegetables such as a layered "gateau" of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli seasoned with bourbon and sherry -- to make serving dinner less hectic. And she attempts no last-minute sauces.
As a result there are enough sweetened dishes that one might think of her dinners as southern -- The Governor's sauce, fruit soups, sweetened quick breads, sherbets, fruit sauces on main dishes, sometimes sweetened vegetables and of course desserts. There are always at least six courses.
The soups in winter might be cold and creamy cherry or a remarkably easy and mysteriously delicious hot wine soup made Christmas red and tangy with bloody mary mix, garnished with green lime. Next is a hot appetizer -- herbed gouge re with hot pepper jelly, mushroom strudel, or artichoke hearts and mushrooms under glass perhaps. Then comes the sherbet, the likes of orange with champagne or cranberry muscadet with champagne; and homemade quick breads such as poppy seed, applesauce tea loaf or corn muffins.
On Christmas eve the main course is chateaubriand with mushroom wine sauce; on Christmas day it is cornish hens stuffed with fruit, in a Grand Marnier sauce. Vegetables might be the cold gateau and peppered, herbed potato rosettes, or marinated carrot slices with cumin. And the desserts -- lighter than those Deedy served the first years -- are such little-known old fashioned ones as Edwardian Cream -- a brandied, buttery, raisin-studded thick cream that tastes a cross between buttercream and hard sauce, served with a raspberry melba sauce. Or even better, Apricot Victorian, another bit of simple magic, just apricot sherbet scooped into a stemmed dish, with heavy cream poured over it so that the cream freezes into a crackly coating.
The collection of antique china cups comes out, to be filled with the coffee of the evening -- mocha almond, Jamaican rum or the like. Every evening guests move from the dining room with its glass oil lamps, blue flowered cloths, tiny baskets that hold the napkins, to the living room, where the fireplace is throwing shadows on the family portraits. They might play board games from the inn's collection, or on Christmas eve they watch for Santa while they sip champagne with cranberry liqueur and nibble meatballs from a chafing dish, and listen to Deedy tell the inn's history or retell family tales. Then they climb to their rooms to find that Santa or somebody has left Harbor Sweets chocolates on each pillow, and a tiny bottle of Chambord liqueur.
Over these three years the Marbles have found that The Governor's Inn has become a part of its guests' lives as the guests have become part of theirs. People send them gifts -- often an antique bone china cup to add to the collection that the Marbles use to serve coffee. Several weddings have been held at the inn, and one guest called to report that her sister had died. Deedy keeps up a stream of postcards, all handwritten in that quiet time on Sunday afternoon after the old guests have checked out and before the new ones have checked in. GOVERNOR'S INN WINE BROTH (6 servings)
1 apple, peeled and cored
1 carrot, peeled
1 onion, peeled
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups dry white wine 1 cup bloody mary mix
Lime slices for garnish
Pure'e apple, carrot and onion in blender with enough wine to liquefy it. Pour into large pot with remaining wine and simmer for 20 minutes. Add bloody mary mix, strain through cheesecloth and refrigerate until serving time. Reheat and serve as a soup course in brandy snifters, garnished with lime slices. THE GOVERNOR'S INN MUSHROOM STRUDEL (Makes 16 slices)
The Governor's Inn receives more requests for this recipe than any other.
6 cups minced mushrooms, tops and stems
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon curry powder
6 tablespoons sherry
4 tablespoons chopped shallots
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) sweet butter
1 cup commercial sour cream plus extra for serving
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
8 ounces frozen phyllo dough, thawed
Chopped parsley for serving
Saute' mushrooms with seasonings, sherry, and shallots in 1/4 cup butter until mushrooms are wilted and liquid is gone. This will take about 20 minutes over medium-low flame. Allow to cool. Add sour cream and 3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs. Refrigerate overnight. Melt 1/2 cup butter. Unwrap the phyllo Dough carefully. Place a sheet of dough on a large breadboard. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with bread crumbs, repeating until you have 4 layers. Spoon half the mushroom mixture onto the narrow end of the dough. Turn long sides of dough in about 1 inch to seal filling, then roll dough up jelly roll fashion. Brush completed roll with butter and sprinkle with a few more crumbs. Place on a cookie sheet that has been lightly greased. Mark with a sharp knife 8 equal slices. Repeat the above process using remaining mushroom filling. Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes. Garnish with a small dollop of sour cream and chopped parsley. Serve hot. FROZEN CRANBERRY MUSCADET WITH CHAMPAGNE (6 to 7 servings)
This lovely frozen salad is not only beautiful, it is a delight between courses.
1 pound cranberries, frozen
1 cup muscadet wine
6 1/2 ounces frozen orange juice concentrate
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup light cream
6 to 7 small chicory leaves
2 cups champagne
Pure'e the cranberries and muscadet wine in a blender. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the chicory and champagne and blend until smooth. Strain the pure'e into an 8-inch square metal pan and place in freezer for 2 hours. Remove and whip until smooth. Cover with clear plastic wrap and return to freezer for at least 2 hours. To serve: Place a piece of curly chicory in a wide-mouth champagne glass. Top it with a small scoop of the frozen Cranberry Muscadet, and splash it liberally with champagne. BOURBON SQUASH SOUFFLE (8 servings)
This dish is especially good with lamb, according to the staff at the Governor's Inn.
2 teaspoons plus 1/4 cup sweet butter
2 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and seeded
6 tablespoons bourbon
1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 egg yolk
3 egg whites, at room temperature
Pinch of cream of tartar
Butter a 6-cup souffle' dish with 2 teaspoons butter. Cook squash until tender, drain it well, and pure'e it in a food processor. Flavor it with bourbon, salt, pepper, nutmeg, 1/4 cup butter, and maple syrup. Cool this pure'e to room temperature. Beat egg yolk until thick, and whisk into pure'e. Set aside. Beat egg whites until foamy. Sprinkle in the cream of tartar and continue to beat until stiff. Fold whites rapidly into pure'e. Spoon souffle' mixture into prepared souffle' dish with collar. Bake 50 minutes in a 325-degree oven. DEEDY'S GRANDMOTHER NEWELL'S APPLESAUCE TEA LOAF (Makes a 9-by-5-inch loaf)
Baking this tea loaf fills the kitchen with a wonderful aroma, and fond childhood memories for anyone whose grandmother's kitchen was a special place.
2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup unsweetened, warm applesauce
1 cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
Sift together the first 6 ingredients; set aside. Cream butter, and add sugar, beating until fluffy. Alternately add the dry ingredients and the warm applesauce to the creamed mixture, mixing well until blended after each addition. Stir in the raisins and nuts. Turn batter into well greased (bottom only) large loaf pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 to 60 minutes, or until tester inserted in the loaf's middle comes out clean. Cool on rack before slicing or wrapping to store. Slice the applesauce loaf when cold and spread with softened cream cheese to serve at breakfast, tea, brunch, or to tuck into a picnic hamper as dessert. APRICOT VICTORIAN (8 servings)
1 quart apricot sherbet*
1 cup whipping cream
Scoop sherbet into individual dishes. Spoon cream over sherbet, about 2 tablespoons per serving. Serve immediately. Cream will freeze into a hard coating over the sherbet.
*Apricot sherbet can be easily made by pure'eing and freezing canned, drained apricots, then whipping the frozen mixture and refreezing it. It will take about 3 pounds canned apricots to make 1 quart sherbet. RUM RAISIN FRENCH TOAST (3 to 4 servings)
3/4 cup rum raisin ice cream, melted
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon dark rum
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons finely ground walnuts
6 or more slices raisin bread
6 tablespoons sweet butter
Scoops of rum raisin ice cream
Combine melted ice cream, eggs, rum, cinnamon and nuts in a bowl. Beat with a wire whisk until well mixed. Dip raisin bread into egg mixture, coating well on both sides. Saute' in butter over medium low heat until "toasted." Serve with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream napped with maple syrup. 1985, Washington Post Writers Group