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From Federal Hill to a family dairy in Vermont, tracing food traditions

By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / March 13, 2011

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HINESBURG, Vt. — The sun streamed into the barn, silhouetting Lindsay Harris as she introduced her cows. “Jemima is a bit of a showoff,’’ she said, scratching under the chin of the sand-colored Jersey. “And that’s Pasha, and Dora is in the corner.’’ Harris is a dairy farmer in rural Vermont and one of the passionate people on Chris Howell’s Vermont Farm Tours.

On another day, visitors to the Federal Hill section of Providence watch women roll, cut, and fill ravioli squares by hand at Venda Ravioli. The tiny kitchen, tucked behind a bank, is a stop on chef Cindy Salvato’s “Savoring Federal Hill’’ tour.

Serious travelers know that food is intrinsically tied to place. It’s a window into a region’s culture, history, and personality. Here in New England, a dozen or so tours tap into the food traditions of distinctive places.

Howell, an avowed locavore, started Vermont Farm Tours three years ago. He offers half- and full-day tours to farms, vineyards, and cheesemakers. His goal, he says, is “to connect my guests with place through food and the people growing that food’’ while helping small farms and entrepreneurs and running a business that supports him “financially and spiritually.’’ Tours average four to eight people, whom Howell transports in a car or van past the corn and hay fields of rural Vermont.

At Champlain Valley Creamery in Vergennes, we tasted Carleton Yoder’s organic cream cheese and triple crème round, while the cheese maker walked us through the production process. The cream cheese was surprisingly soft, lacking the stabilizers that make the store-bought variety stiff. The triple crème was rich, earthy, and smooth. Yoder’s milk all comes from a single herd of cows at nearby Journey’s Hope Farm.

Ken and Gail Albert have been making wine in Vermont for 13 years, but just opened their Shelburne Vineyard winery three years ago, where they offer tastings and tours. The success of Vermont wines, Ken Albert said, is largely due to the perfection of hybrid cold-weather grapes at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s. With some 10 acres under cultivation, the Alberts grow about half the grapes used in their wines and import the rest from within a 300-mile radius.

While cold climates generally favor white wines, the Alberts have high hopes for the 2010 vintage of Marquette, a red wine grown entirely from estate grapes that already produces a rich, smooth finish despite the fact that it is still maturing.

At Family Cow Farmstand, Harris sells raw milk from her grass-fed herd to a small customer base, most of whom pick up the milk in glass mason jars, leaving payment in a basket in the shop. After introducing the cows, Harris describes the philosophy of Family Cow, shows visitors the bottling process, and pours everyone a glass of the creamy beverage. As a biologist, she’s an articulate advocate for the benefits of raw milk and very proud of her operation’s reputation for cleanliness and quality. “Our test results shock dairymen,’’ she said.

Howell’s full-day tours include lunch, which might be at a vineyard or a farm and will definitely include locally made products. While pundits have declared, “You are what you eat,’’ Howell firmly believes, “You are where you eat.’’

Salvato turned her love of Italian cooking into a three-hour walking and eating tour of historic Federal Hill, the center of business and culture for Providence’s Italian population since the turn of the last century. We started at Antonelli’s Poultry where chicken is just the beginning: The shop also sells partridge, geese, duck, and quail. We finished at Zooma’s, where chef Jeff Burgess whipped up spicy pan-fried calamari, soft gnocchi, and fresh margarita pizza, a perfect buffet lunch. In between we watched ravioli being filled by hand at Venda Ravioli, discovered a balsamic vinegar sweet enough for dessert at Tony’s Colonial Food Store, and learned about regional Italian wines at Gasbarro’s Wines.

After the tour, Melody Gamba said she was surprised by how much she learned about Federal Hill even though she grew up in the area. “I had only scratched the surface,’’ she said. “There’s so much more here than I imagined.’’

When Salvato was planning her Federal Hill tour, she said, she sought advice from Michele Topor. The founder of Boston’s North End Market Tour, Topor has been running tours of the city’s Italian neighborhood for more than 15 years and recently added a Chinatown tour.

Topor’s tours focus on ingredients, introducing participants to the small markets where a culture’s key foods are made and sold. “To create good food, you don’t have to be a TV cook,’’ she says, “but you have to be a really good shopper.’’ In the North End, stops include pasticcerias that make biscotti, cannoli, and other confections; a salumeria that stocks high-quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar, cheese, prosciutto, and pasta; and a coffee, spice, and candy store. In Chinatown participants visit a bakery, barbecue shop, and herbal pharmacy; tour a market with produce, seafood, and spices; and finish with a dim sum luncheon.

Jewish and Russian cuisines are the focus of Ahla Brookline Food Tours (“ahla’’ is Hebrew slang for “great’’ or “awesome’’), which are offered in English, Hebrew, and Russian. “Our tours are not 100 percent culinary,’’ notes Yuri Dagaev, who leads the Russian cuisine tours. “We also offer information about local Russian and Jewish communities and traditions.’’ For much of Russia’s history, for example, there was no middle class, he said. Consequently food traditions were sharply divided. At one stop participants might taste a variety of potato dishes and at the next, sample caviar and vodka.

The two-hour tours include six stops, with tastings, at ethnic restaurants and grocers. Dagaev hopes participants “will leave with a better understanding of what we’re like and what we’re not like.’’

When she worked in academic publishing, part of Pamela Laskey’s job was to scope out the best restaurants to impress clients and seal deals. She discovered she loved food, so when she was ready to make a career change she launched Maine Foodie Tours. Her Culinary Walking Tour of Portland’s Old Port, she says, “is entirely focused on showing visitors and locals what it means to be from Maine.’’ Tours stop at markets, bakeries, breweries, public marketplaces, and a few restaurants. Participants not only sample lobster, but also hear about the lobster industry in Maine. They discover how potatoes have been turned into vodka and truffles. And while savoring blueberry scones, they learn that Maine accounts for 25 percent of cultivated blueberries grown in North America and 97 percent of wild blueberries grown in the United States. A trolley tour accommodates those with limited mobility and ranges beyond the Old Port area.

Sometimes the point of a food tour is simply to highlight the diversity of cultures and cuisines in a single city. Food consultant and columnist Stephen Fries runs Worth Tasting, a three-hour culinary walking tour of downtown New Haven. Ann and Michael Martini’s Newport Gourmet Tours celebrate the culinary history and talent of Newport, R.I., leading participants through restaurants, gourmet shops, and kitchens.

Many food tours are offered year round, while others, particularly in northern New England, run from spring through fall. But Howell notes that you don’t have to take a tour to experience a place through food. “You can join a local community-supported agriculture program or visit a farmers’ market,’’ he said. “You can make connections through food wherever you are.’’

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ellen.albanese@gmail.com.

If You Go

Vermont Farm Tours
Burlington
802-922-7346
www.vermontfarmtours.com
Half-day $45-$65 per person, full day with lunch $100-$125.
Savoring Federal Hill
Providence
401-934-2149
www.savoringrhodeisland.com
$50 per person, $85 VIP tour.
Newport Gourmet Tours
Newport, R.I.
401-787-4058
www.newportgourmet tours.com
$45 per person
Boston North End Market Tour
Boston Chinatown Market Tour
617-523-6032
www.foodtoursofboston.com
North End $50 per person, Chinatown $65 per person including dim sum.
Ahla Brookline Food Tours
617-347-9423
www.brooklinetour.com
$44 per person.
Maine Foodie Tours
Portland
207-233-7485
www.mainefoodietours.com
$39 per person.
Worth Tasting
New Haven
203-777-8550
www.stephenfries.com
$59 per person.