Meating the Demand
Popularity of Barbecue Rising Like Sweet Smoke in the Upper Valley
Tim Schloss, pitmaster at the Route 4 Country Store in Quechee, checks a batch of pork loins, pork shoulder, pork sirloin and pastrami. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Kam McIntyre, of Singleton’s Market in Quechee, fills the kettle in the smokehouse with corn cobs to smoke cheese and Canadian bacon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
At the Route 4 Country Store in Quechee, owner Margie Battaglia weighs baby back ribs with Steve Schulz, who is a consultant at the store and does the seasonings for the barbecue. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Ham from Singleton’s Market in Quechee. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Quechee — A New England tradition that died out around 1800 has come back in Upper Valley as some area businesses tap into the popularity of slow cooked and smoked meats that has been making a resurgence across the country during the last decade.
Ten years ago, there were few places in either Vermont or New Hampshire that produced high-quality smoked meats. Locating a restaurant — or even a shack — selling a pulled pork sandwich that didn’t come out of a can required a long road trip.
Now, this part of the Twin States has at least four retail smoke houses, four restaurants and a couple of stands selling barbecue prepared after long hours of slow cooking over low, smoky hardwood fires.
And the demand is growing, business owners say.
In the last few months, the rich mingled smells of wood smoke and slow melting fat have become familiar lures for customers passing two businesses only a few miles apart on U.S. Route 4 in Quechee. And because popularity of its barbecue, a restaurant in Fairlee is making its national award-winning ribs, brisket and pulled pork, which had only been served once a month, regular weekly items on the menu.
“It’s definitely a big part of our business,” said Margie Battaglia, the owner of Route 4 Country Store in Quechee, who added a large barbecue cooker that sits prominently in front of the store, wafting maple smoke and the aroma of slow-cooking pork and beef into the air.
“It was my husband Tony’s dream,” she said. Tony Battaglia died at the end of February after suffering a stroke.
“We put quite a lot of money into replacing the smaller cooker we had,” said Margie Battaglia, adding that sales of pulled pork, brisket and ribs have been very strong, thanks to the help of pitmaster Tim Schloss and other volunteering friends. “We’re keeping Tony’s dream alive.”
Schloss, who worked as cook during his 30 years in the South and gained an understanding of barbecue, uses Tony’s recipes to cook the pork and beef over a slow maple wood fire. “It takes 10 or 12 hours, and it smells great,” he said.
Down the road a couple of miles, Tom Singleton recently opened a northern branch of his family’s market that has been an institution in Proctorsville, Vt., for more than 40 years. The store features bacon, ham, poultry, sausage and other meats prepared in the new smokehouse built out by the front parking lot.
“My father started smoking meats in 1946 in Reading, and then when he opened the store in Proctorsville, he just kept on doing it,” Tom Singleton said.
“It’s a large part of our business. We probably smoke and sell 500 pounds of bacon a week, and a lot of pepperoni, ham and pork chops,” he said.
The wooden siding of the smokehouse is decorated with deer antlers, given by customers, making it look like a rustic Vermont sugar shack, particularly when the smoke comes through the vents on the top. “We didn’t shoot all those deer. People just drop them off, and we put them up,” Singleton said last week during a tour of the building.
To smoke the meat, cheese and salmon that the store sells takes a couple of days. “You have to make sure that it’s not too hot. You don’t want it to cook, but just be hot enough to start rendering the fat and get the smoke flavor. We have to keep an eye on it,” he said. “People really seem to like it, and nobody else is doing (cold smoking) anywhere close to here along Route 4.”
In Fairlee, demand has been so great for the monthly barbecue prepared by the national award-winning Bare Bones BBQ team that the Whistlestop Cafe is going to serve the beef brisket, pork, ribs and smoked duck every Saturday, co-owner Crystal Johnson said last week.
“We don’t offer it until after 2 p.m. when we do it once a month, and I know every time that I’m going to be sold out by 3 p.m. The demand has really (grown). It’s not like it used to be. It’s fantastic now,” she said.
The weekly schedule also will be good for the Bare Bones team as it prepares to compete in a few weeks at one of the top national barbecue competitions in Memphis in May, Johnson said. “It’ll be good for us to get that extra practice.”
The owners of Big Fatty’s BBQ, with restaurants in Hartford and Burlington and Maple Street Catering in Wilder, are looking at possibilities for expanding because of the high demand, said General Manager Brandon Fox.
“Our sales have been constantly expanding, and catering is a big part of it. There a lot more places (in Vermont and the Upper Valley) now serving barbecue, but it really hasn’t affected our growth,” he said. Big Fatty’s was one of the first area restaurants to tap into the growing popularity of barbecue.
The word barbecue, which comes from the Taino people of the Caribbean, began showing up in New England diaries and journals as early as 1733, when a writer talked about going to a barbecue, said Robert F. Moss, a Mount Pleasant, S.C., resident and author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.
“There was really a long tradition with colonial Yankee barbecue. New England had more of a barbecue tradition then than the South. There are a lot of references to barbecue and going to a barbecue. There was even a newspaper ad in 1769 for a restaurant offering barbecue — turtle and pig. It was definitely popular through the American Revolution. I’m not sure how long it lasted, but around 1800, it seems to disappear.
“I think there were a couple of places in Boston, but really from 1800 to some time in the 1990s, there wasn’t much barbecue in New England,” Moss said, during a telephone interview last week.
In the South, barbecue remained strong and little shacks and restaurants were common throughout the region. However, barbecue, like blues music, died out nationwide during the 1970s with the rise of fast food places siphoning off the customer base. “They just couldn’t compete,” Moss said.
Since about 1990, the slow-cooked fare has made a resurgence in the South and during the last 10 years or so, barbecue and smoked meats have been rapidly gaining popularity in places not traditionally known for the food like the Upper Midwest, New England and Canada, spurred on by the growth of barbecue cooking contests and shows on the Food Network, he said.
There is a growing demand for high-quality, specialty cured meats in Vermont that could be expanded to markets in the rest of country, according to a recent study conducted for The Vermont Farm Viability Program, which is part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
“There’s definitely a lot of farmers and others in the state experimenting and producing cured meats for regional and national markets. The study showed with the right, high-quality products there is a demand,” said Liz Gibson of the Farm Viability Program.
The study confirmed what Green Mountain Smokehouse in Windsor and North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, both U.S. Department of Agriculture certified facilities, have been finding out over the past few years. Both have seen a large increases in sales.
“We’ve put on additions to our building every year for the last six years to keep up with the sales,” said North Country owner Mike Satzow, noting that he has a customer base of chefs throughout the country who buy the company’s specialty products and cottage-cut smoked bacon.
“We have 30 employees, and we’re hiring now. Our business has been very strong,” he said.
At the Route 4 Country Store in Quechee, the business struggled along with the rest of the country during the last few years of the economic downturn, Margie Battaglia said.
“My husband believed this new barbecue cooker would turn things around and save the business. And it’s really bringing the people in. It’s definitely helping. It’s a big part of our income,” she said.
Warren Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3216.