Now Playing on My Kindle: “Big Little Lies”

August 19th, 2014 by

big little lies

I really enjoyed Australian author Liane Moriarty’s last blockbuster, The Husband’s Secret, so I ordered her new one right away and wasn’t disappointed. She has a quirky yet accessible style that makes for good storytelling with lots of plot (I like lots of plot) along with well-drawn characters and a healthy dose of both suspense and humor – the perfect combo.

The characters in the new novel are parents of young children attending the same school – helicopter parents to the max. (Apparently, they have them in Australia too.) They all have baggage and that baggage gets transferred to their kids, who act out in often surprising ways. We begin the story knowing something terrible has happened but it isn’t until the last couple of chapters that we learn what – and at whose hand. We meet the mother whose ex has a new wife and child, everyone living in seeming harmony despite their simmering resentments. We meet the beautiful, wealthy couple with the perfect life and the perfect twins and find out that their “perfection” is anything but. We meet the single mom who has very little money and struggles to fit in with the other mothers, especially after her son is accused of bullying one of their daughters and is ostracized. We meet the mean girl mothers with big careers who look down at the stay-at-homes. It’s all here and I lapped it up, even though I’m not a parent and don’t have firsthand knowledge of PTA politics. Moriarty spins a good yarn, period, and she had me glued to the story until the final wrap up. The perfect escapist entertainment.

Next up on my Kindle: Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us. I’m a quarter of the way into it and loving it already.

 

 

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Movie Day: “Get On Up”

August 10th, 2014 by

get_on_up_xlg

The rave reviews for this movie, along with the pedigree of the filmmakers and my own interest in James Brown’s life and music, propelled me to see this one. All I can say is Chadwick Boseman, who played the controlled, affable Jackie Robinson in “42,” is phenomenal as Brown, another legend who broke boundaries in his own way. He doesn’t just mimic the singer. He inhabits him. He’s got the speaking voice down, the walk, the dance moves, the simmering anger and, most importantly, the soul. What would the Godfather of Soul be without the soul?

Directed by Tate Taylor, who did the honors on the much-nominated “The Help,” and produced by Brian Grazer as well as Mick Jagger, “Get On Up” was made with the cooperation of Brown’s family, which meant getting permission to use his music – a huge deal. However, it also meant compromising a bit on portraying Brown warts and all. Which is not to say there aren’t warts – from the physical abuse to the gun violence to the paranoid, egotistical way he treated his band members. But the movie treads lightly on those incidents and focuses more on the music and how it came to be so raw and unique. We see Brown’s impoverished childhood in Georgia, his abandonment by his parents (Viola Davis is very moving as his mother), his upbringing in a brothel, his exposure to gospel church music, his time in prison, his experiences with racial prejudice. The film plays with time and moves back and forth between the past and present. Mostly, we see Brown performing at different stages of his life and Boseman gets the act so perfectly you have to blink to make sure you’re not witnessing Brown back from the dead.

My problems with “Get On Up” were that it’s too long – scenes needed cutting badly – and there’s too much repetition. And the ending? The movie could have ended much earlier and been just as satisfying. So yeah, it dragged and, sadly, by the time the lights came on in the theater I was glad to leave. But that performance by Boseman was worth the price of admission. Oscar nomination, please.

 

 

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Movie Night: “Boyhood”

August 8th, 2014 by

Boyhood-poster-I-

I missed our Cinema Society screening of this while I was away in Connecticut, as well as the Q&A and reception with writer-director Richard Linklater and star Patricia Arquette, so I was eager to make time (and it does take a leisurely three hours to see this film) for it when I got home. Last night was that time. The verdict? I agree with the 99% of the critics who loved the movie. (The guy from the LA Times seems to be the lone dissenter, along with Husband Michael, though I’m sure there are others.)

The conceit of the film – or “gimmick” to the dissenters – is that Linklater shot the same core of actors over a 12 year period, so when we see them age we literally see them age. No fat suits. No add-on wrinkles. Just the real thing. And the effect is to make it feel as if you’re watching family members at different stages of their lives – pages of a scrapbook.

The kid, who becomes a college freshman by the end of “Boyhood,” is terrific – as natural an actor as I’ve seen in a long time. When we first meet him as Mason Junior, his mom, Arquette, is trying to get her life together after splitting with her ex, Ethan Hawke, a Linklater regular from the “Midnight” trilogy with Julie Delpy. Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, also slips easily into her demanding role. The kids are forced to roll with Mom’s poor choices in men (next comes the raging alcoholic, then the strict ex-military man) and their own growing pains. Not a lot happens in terms of the plot, but it’s life, full of friendships and breakups and rites of passage like graduations and birthdays, and it all feels so…so…authentic.

For Michael, “Boyhood” was just too long and talky. He didn’t like the “Midnight” films either where Delpy and Hawke rattled on in an improvisational way about the meaning of life and love. There’s some of that here, though only from a teenage boy’s point of view. I guess you either like that stuff or you don’t. I did and I do. I’d recommend “Boyhood” as a truly unique and thoroughly satisfying experience. Loved the soundtrack too.

 

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Movie Day: “Calvary”

August 2nd, 2014 by

Calvary poster

Now that I’m back in CA, it’s Cinema Society time again and if today’s screening was any indication we’re off to a very exciting Oscar season. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose first feature was the highly praised “The Guard,”  this one tackles the Roman Catholic Church, sexual abuse, adultery, suicide and alcoholism, among other sins, and yet it’s darkly funny as only Irish humor can be.

The brilliant Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good, decent priest and widower who sincerely wants to help the members of his small parish. But from the film’s first scene, we learn that not everyone is happy with him. As the story moves along, we discover that he’s facing obstacles from many sides – obstacles that could result in his murder. Through it all, he continues to comfort his flock as well as his fragile daughter (an excellent Kelly Reilly) even as begins to wonder if he’ll have the courage to face his own personal demons.

“Calvary” is that rare movie that isn’t shy about dealing with big moral issues but treats them with such a delicate touch that it makes for riveting entertainment in the form of a mystery. If Gleeson doesn’t get an Oscar nom (I know, it’s early), I’ll be surprised. Chris O’Dowd is always terrific whether he’s doing comedy or drama and his work here is no exception. Nobody in the theater left before the Q&A and I felt privileged to chat with Gleeson at the reception for him and the director afterwards. He said the role took him a long time to recover from but that now he’s enjoying the glowing reviews. And why not. He earned them.

P.S. I watched “Chef” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” on the plane coming home yesterday and liked them both. Well, let me qualify. I liked “Chef.” It’s a sweet movie about food with a feel-good ending, so what’s not to like? I adored “Grand Budapest.” I was a big fan of Wes Anderson’s last one, “Moonrise Kingdom,” but the new one is even more ambitious and inventive. It’s on my Best list for sure.

 

 

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 7

August 2nd, 2014 by
Photo: CT Magazine

Photo: CT Magazine

In Part 2 of my farm-to-table food journey for research, I wrote about Arethusa Dairy Farm in Litchfield County and how ridiculously delicious the milk, cheese and butter that come from Arethusa’s prized cows are. It only made sense for Arethusa’s owners, the brains behind Manolo Blahnik stilettos, to launch a restaurant adjacent to the dairy and to recruit a chef who would best utilize their products. Arethusa al tavolo opened last summer and was an immediate hit – a fine dining eatery that offered the freshest, highest quality ingredients in innovate menu items but without the pretentiousness and stuffiness of “fancy” places. I became a fan from my first bite of the lobster and avocado appetizer.

Photo: Wendy Carlson/ New York Times

Photo: Wendy Carlson/ New York Times

Michael and I went back a few more times last summer, and al tavolo never disappointed. When we were in Connecticut this time around and I was determined to learn about chefs at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement, I had a perfectly good excuse to revisit the restaurant. The only catch was getting Chef Dan Magill, who makes magic in the kitchen, to sit down and talk to me. Luckily, Chef Dan was a prince among men, generous with information and recipes and philosophies of cooking. He was the opposite of the diva type you read about or see on television food competition shows but rather down-to-earth, funny and, most importantly, earnest about his craft. He doesn’t come out front to shake hands and take bows. He works the line with the other cooks, turning out perfection night after night, as does his pastry chef, April Massey. He started in the business at age 14 as a dishwasher and after putting himself through culinary school took jobs that allowed him to observe the best chefs in the food world. (He did a stint with Daniel Boulud, for example). Now, he’s come into his own at al tavolo and, despite the accolades, his head is still on straight.

Having grown up on the North Fork of Long Island and fished as a kid, he’s partial to cooking the freshest seafood around – “sea to table,” he calls what he does in the kitchen. But he’s also known for his duck and Michael raves about his lamb and beef. And he’s all about Arethusa’s dairy products, of course, and there’s not a single appetizer, entree or dessert on the menu that isn’t swoon-worthy because of those products. I mean who wouldn’t want to dive into this? We’re talking ice cream straight from the cows, people.

ice cream

I’m back in Santa Barbara now and not exactly stuck in a culinary wasteland, but the challenge will be to put together all the info I gathered in Connecticut and create an entertaining story for my novel’s characters.

Oh, did I mention that the novel will be a spin-off of Princess Charming?

final.princess charming

Yup, I’m bringing back Elaine, Jackie and Pat for another vacation together. They’re going to be “agri-tourists” in Connecticut, staying at a fictional resort on a fictional farm and getting into all sorts of trouble as they milk cows, take cooking classes, interact with the chefs and other guests and – you guessed it – solve another mystery. Who will be marked for murder in this one? Stay tuned.

 

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 6

July 29th, 2014 by

me and Bill 2

For this installment of my grand research adventure in Connecticut, I donned a green apron for a cooking class at the famed Silo Cooking School in New Milford. I was a volunteer during a corporate team building class of seven executives from an IT company in Manhattan. Our leader was chef Bill Cosgrove whose Upper Crust Cucina Italiana restaurant is practically a local landmark. (In the photo above, Bill is teaching me how to make balsamic syrup.)

The menu for the corporate group’s feast was an ambitious one, but Chef Bill made it all look easy and by the end of the day I not only believed I could cook the various courses at home but sampled dishes I’d never tried before.

Like for instance, our appetizer…

appetizers finished

It was called a sformato, a savory custard made with pureed asparagus, eggs, Parmesan cheese and a bechamel sauce, poured into ramekins and baked, then unmolded and served on top of arugula with a bit of crispy bacon on top with a drizzle of my balsamic syrup. It was beyond delicious – light and fluffy and out of this world.

The pasta course – in Italian cooking there’s always a pasta course – the group made tortellini in beef brodo (brodo is Italian for a rich beef broth).

tortellini presentation
Chef Bill demonstrated how to make pasta and it was eye opening.

Bill pasta machine 2

But it was the main course that was truly the show stopper: butterflied pork tenderloin stuffed with a pesto of basil, pistachios and Parmesan cheese, reconstituted figs and layers of proscuitto and arugula. Behold.

finished pork with jus

Bill showed everybody how to make it happen – from stuffing the pork…

Bill stuffing pork with arugula

to searing it on the stove…

Bill searing pork 2

to slicing it once it’s out of the oven.

cutting finished pork

It was past my usual lunch time at this point and I was dying to pop the entire tenderloin in my mouth, but I restrained myself. Actually, while the corporate group ate each course in the Silo’s dining area…

dining pre-guests

Michael and I, along with the Silo’s executive director Liba Fuhrman and assistant director Nancy Stuart, sampled everything back in the kitchen. Yummmmmm.

But a meal like we were lucky enough to enjoy had to be finished off with a superb sweet treat, and ours was a cherry and almond clafoutis, a rustic tart-like dessert made by baking cherries in a custard-type batter.

dessert closeup

It was topped with homemade vanilla gelato.

finished desserts with gelato

Want to see how homemade that gelato was? I watched Chef Bill pouring the ingredients into the machine.

Bill ice cream maker

I’m full just thinking about all of this, but I had a good time and learned a lot. Best of all, I took lots of notes and got great material for my novel.

 

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 5

July 22nd, 2014 by

me sampling leaf

Next up on my east coast research itinerary (see blog posts Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4) was the mother of all farm-to-table experiences: a day and night at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY. What was once the estate and dairy farm of the Rockefellers is now a breathtaking 80-acre compound of pastures, animals, greenhouses, fields of crops and Dan Barber’s famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, along with a busy farm market, cafe, gift shop, classroom and visitor’s center, set in meticulously restored buildings from the original Rockefeller farm. Some view Stone Barns as the “Disneyland” of the all things local and sustainable, but I totally drank the Kool-Aid and found the place satisfying on every level, if a bit over the top. The mission of the non-profit Stone Barns is to “increase public awareness of healthy, seasonal and sustainable food, train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques and educate children about the sources of their food and prepare them to steward the land that provides it.” It does accomplish all those things from what I could see.

The photo above is of me sampling a tasty morsel (I think it was purslane or maybe an amaranth leaf?) we happened upon during our first activity of the day, which was called “Foraged: A Wild Edibles Walk and Taste.” It was a tour through the often dense woods (I was glad I wore long pants, socks and covered shoes fearing poison ivy, not to mention deer ticks) given by Laura Perkins, the gardener at Stone Barns. The point of all this foraging was to learn about the plants we often dismiss as weeds or exotics, how to spot them where we’d least expect them and how to use them in the kitchen for delicious foods. I feared we’d be eating poison mushrooms (along with the poison ivy), but instead we discovered all sorts of treasures.

Laura leads foraging w me 2

Here, for example, are wild blueberries.

blueberries closeup 2

We foraged for almost two hours, discovering a long list of wild edibles. (Lamb’s shoulders anyone? Or milkweed? Or perhaps elderberries?) At the end of the tour, Laura took us into the classroom where we were served a delicious soup made from amaranth leaves.

amaranth soup closeup

Ok, so it doesn’t look all that great from the photo, but trust me. It was like the best spinach or kale soup, flavored by chicken broth, eggs and sauteed onions.

But there were no second helpings for us because we were on to the second tour of the day: the “Insiders Tour,” during which our knowledgeable tour guide, Barbara, provided us with an up-close-and-personal, two-hour hike through the pastures, fields, barns and everything else that makes the place work.

For example, we learned about the history of the 1930s-era buildings.

buildings tight 2

Here’s another look.

fields w buildings

We met up with a group of very lively (they were pecking at us) laying hens.

hens 2

We hung out with the meat chickens.

me with red chicken

The baby chicks were so cute I didn’t even want to think about having them for dinner when they were older. *shudder*

baby chicks

The turkeys had no idea how many Thanksgivings they’d be attending.

turkeys

And there were the snoozing pigs. Pork tenderloin? Bacon?

pig snoozing 2

No farm would be complete without sheep and these were happily grazing.

sheep grazing

As the skies darkened with rain threatening, we all headed inside where it was time for Michael and me to change into our fancy clothes to dine at Blue Hill. I’d been reading all the raves about Chef Dan Barber’s restaurant both at Stone Barns and at his original Greenwich Village location, along with the reviews of his new book.

Food Dan Barber

So I was primed for a unique experience at dinner. What I didn’t expect was just how unique it was. (No pics coming of the meal, because they frown on it and with good reason.)

We were seated and given little booklets by our waiter, who explained that the booklets contained a month by month journal of the seasonal foods that were being harvested and that our meal, which was to be served in multiple courses, some to be eaten without utensils, would arrive together and separately – a “tasting menu called Grazing, Rooting and Pecking,” he said and added, “It will give you a full look at the season showing you everything the chefs are working on. We’re going to bring multiple dishes together at the same time and sometimes we’ll ask you to use your hands to eat them. It’s a little unconventional in some ways but it’s fun and interesting. So use your hands to start and we’ll bring silverware in a bit.”

All righty then. We strapped ourselves in and prepared for the ride.

What came next was a parade of treats for the eyes and the palate. First was what I think of as salad ingredients on vertical skewers – single items (a cherry tomato, a white radish, a bibb lettuce leaf, etc.) each dressed with some light, citrus-y vinaigrette and served on a piece of hollowed out tree bark. Gimmicky, you say? Maybe so, but every bite was an explosion of flavor from veggies that didn’t taste like anything you’d buy in a store.

I can’t remember every course, but there was a cucumber gazpacho in a martini glass, a milkweed “soda” amuse-bouche in a shot glass, tiny pea burgers, quinoa coated Vichyssoise (our favorite by far, as unlikely as it sounds), elderberries in a tempora batter, egg “carbonara,” sous-vide prepared chicken, sliced goat tenderloin and lots of sweets for dessert. Oh, and I forgot the beyond-delicious bread that came with the beyond-delicious farmer’s cheese and butter. We were stuffed, obviously.

The best part of the meal for me was when the waiter said, mid-way through, “Would you both come with me for a few minutes.” Michael and I had no idea what was going on, but we put our napkins on the table, got up and followed him – into the kitchen, it turned out. We were guided to a small butcher block table for two in the corner of the busy hub where we sat, were served another course, and got to watch the 30+ chefs doing their thing. Fascinating! It was like being on the set of an episode of “Iron Chef” only without the competition. I don’t know if every guest of the restaurant is granted a peek inside the kitchen or if it was because I went through the PR director to make my reservation, citing research for my novel, but I was grateful for it.

The point of the dinner was to experience the creative ways to incorporate what we saw on the farm into food that can soar if in the right hands. Dan Farber’s hands are the right hands. Wow. Just wow.

 

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 4

July 21st, 2014 by

Michael, Jane, Kim

Yup, I’m the one in the middle and I’m wearing a chef’s hat and apron, as is Michael along with Kimberly Thorn, the co-owner with her husband Clint of Thorncrest Farm in Goshen, CT.

Thorncrest barn ext

Thorncrest was the next stop on my research adventure (see blog posts Parts 1, 2 and 3) to put myself into the farm-to-table “agri-tourism” world my characters will encounter. Our agenda for the bright and sunny morning was to begin in the barn with Clint and learn about his dairy cows.

Clint milking by pump smile

Unlike Arethusa Dairy with its state-of-the-art facility, Thorncrest is a two-person operation (plus Clint and Kim’s two sons) and no less engaging in its own way. Clint and Kim are all about the milk, of which they’re justifiably proud, but also about the cheese and chocolates Kim makes like a true artisan. Everything tasted pure and fresh and like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It all comes from the cows and, Clint was emphatic in noting, the fact that they’re cared for in a stress-free environment because stress affects the quality of the milk. Check out these Jerseys cows. Don’t they look relaxed?

Jerseys relaxing

After Clint gave us all a little history of the farm, we got down to business: I milked my first cow! It was fun! And I was thrilled when milk actually came out!

me milking closeup

After we all had our chance to milk, Clint took over and pumped out the necessary quota for the day. The milk was then transferred into the dairy area where Kim met us and gave us the hats and aprons to put on. Then into her kitchen we went and it was time to learn how to make cheese. She gave us step-by-step instructions in making both ricotta and mozzarella. Here she is taking the temperature of the hot milk I was stirring.

me w kim checking my milk

It was exciting when it reached the proper temperature and the curds were very much in evidence.

milk with curds and thermometer

My ricotta came out great and we took home several containers. Yum.

Next came the mozzarella, which involved stretching it to get the lumps out.

me stretching email

Once it’s shiny and smooth, it goes back into a ball and is ready to sample. Yum again. We took home several containers of it too, along with the samples of the chocolates Kim had just made.

chocolates tray

Seriously, maybe I’ll forget about writing novels and just research them. Could there be anything more fun?

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 3

July 18th, 2014 by

me mixing pesto zucchini

Continuing in my series of blog posts about my research (see Part 1 and Part 2), the above photo is of me mixing homemade pesto with just grilled zucchini that came right off the farm for what turned out to be a fun and informative cooking class at Jones Family Farm in Shelton, CT.

barn w logo

Jones Farm was on my “agritourism” itinerary this month because this picturesque farm, which has been in the Jones family for generations, not only provides the community with bountiful crops in the summer, pumpkins in the fall and Christmas trees in the winter but also offers weekly cooking classes and wine tastings. Check it out here.

We showed up on what promised to be a stormy Wednesday night for our cooking class but the skies stayed lightning and rain free until it was time to leave. Whew. Our first task was to get out into the pasture and see what looked dinner worthy.

me on field tour

(Yes, I’m the one who’s dressed all in black on a hot summer’s night. Crazy, but I’m always cold, what can I say.)

We came back inside the kitchen and, lead by Jean Jones, a member of the farm family and registered dietician, and Sherry Swanson, a chef in and around CT, we were split off into groups, each assigned a different preparation of the meal, which consisted of roasted herbed chicken for the main course and a blueberry and strawberry cobbler for dessert, plus a glass of Jones’ own wine. For the side dishes, we made…

…a bulgur wheat cabbage salad with blueberries

bulgar cabbage salad

…a kale salad with goat cheese, tomatoes and a strawberry vinaigrette.

kale salad

… and grilled zucchini with the pesto I mixed.

zucchini grill 2

When it was all done, the 12 of us sat down and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. It was fun getting to know the other guests who’d signed up for the class as well as the instructors and learning more about life on a working farm. Just as we were tasting our last bites of food, the thunder came and we took that as our cue to run for our car. The drive back to our rental house was precarious in the heavy rain (we got lost a couple of times), but it was worth it. A good time was had by us and I took copious notes for my novel, which was, after all, the point.

 

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When Research Is a Pleasure, Part 2

July 9th, 2014 by

me with cow 2

In a previous post, I wrote about how my research for a new novel took me to the wonderful markets of Santa Barbara and into the kitchen of a talented chef to learn how to cook the foods we purchased. On Monday, during what was the first in a series of visits I’ll be making to local farms and chef’s kitchens here in Connecticut where I’m spending the month of July, I got the grand tour of Arethusa Dairy Farm, the premier maker in the area of milk, yogurt, cheese and, most scrumptious of all, ice cream.

The “dairy built on stiletto heels,” as the New York Times dubbed Arethusa, it’s the brainchild of George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, who gave the world Manolo Blahnik shoes. Set in the Litchfield hills, it’s as picture perfect as its dairy products are the best you’ll ever taste.

Arethusa-tighter-1024x768

My tour guide was Matt Senecal, the farm manager. Matt escorted me into the building’s reception area where there’s a bar, a conference table and a bazillion trophies and banners won at prestigious shows by Arethusa’s cows.

Award ribbons

Next we went into the main barn where the cows were feeding between milkings. There are Holsteins, Jerseys and Brown Swiss breeds, with the black-and-white Holsteins being the predominant breed. I tried to strike up a conversation with a few, but they were more interested in eating lunch and who could blame them?

me with cow

Get a look at this Holstein’s udder and teats.

Holstein

What’s striking about these cows as well as the facility itself was how spotless it is. The cows are not only shampooed daily but conditioned with Pantene (seriously), and their tails are hosed down frequently to prevent manure from coming anywhere near the udder. Hence, the purity of the milk products. There’s even a guy who comes to give the cows a pedicure. Well, he cuts their toenails.

Pedicure

The show cows get their very own barn so they’re kept separately from the others; apparently, their special barn is closer to the exercise area where they’re encouraged to stay fit. (No, they don’t do Pilates.) And the pregnant ladies have their own space so they can spread out in comfort until they deliver.

Pregnant cow

After asking all my questions about the cows and the milking process – questions I should have asked our science teacher in junior high – Matt sent us on to the Arethusa creamery where the milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream are processed with state-of-the-art machines that nonetheless produce old fashioned flavor.

Dairy processing

I interviewed Chris Casiello, the manager, about how the milk gets processed and distributed and how he accomplishes the feat of making such intensely satisfying products. The cheese and ice cream are so rich and creamy they defy description. And yes, I sampled some products. Their “crybaby” cheese, for example, was a Swiss variety with a touch of sweetness – heaven.

I loved spending part of the day at Arethusa and conjuring up ways to use what I learned in the plot of my novel. But what I’ll love the best is dining at their restaurant Al Tavolo, which is adjacent to the creamery and serves up truly great dinners.

 

Al Tavolo

We have a reservation for next week and I’m already fantasizing about their salmon.

Photo: Julie Bidwell/Connecticut Magazine

Photo: Julie Bidwell/Connecticut Magazine

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