A Lakes Region Food Tour
Eat and drink your way through Meredith, Tamworth, Sandwich, Center Harbor and Moultonborough.
There’s no doubt about it — our Lakes Region is just about perfect, with its crystal-clear waters plied by wooden boats, all framed with hazy mountain backdrops and pretty, gem-like historic towns. If you live here (lucky you) or are just passing through, welcome to this side of paradise.
Meredith is celebrating its 250th anniversary this August and looking back, as with most New Hampshire towns, the boom began with mills. John Bond Swasey built an underground canal to power his linen mill and the waterfall. In the spirit of preservation, it remains as part of Mill Falls at the Lake, a retail and hospitality center.
The real historic main street in Meredith is not Route 25, but Main Street just up the hill, running parallel to the thoroughfare. One of the gems on the street is Hermit Woods Winery. Bob Manley, Chuck Lawrence and master winemaker Ken Hardcastle moved operations from a backwoods Sanbornton location to this remodeled facility about four years ago. Last year, they added a spacious deck in front for the perfect place to sample wine. Their offerings are not made from grapes, but the fruits of the state, fermented with wine yeasts and designed to be enjoyed with food.
Most fruit wines tend to be sweet — often sweetened with sugar to make them palatable, but often so sweet they can only be enjoyed as sips at the end of a meal. Here, Hardcastle has designed most of his offerings with a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness, and often with a full measure of flavors dancing from the first passage to the finish. One of my favorites is the strawberry rhubarb, not a spoonful from a jar of jam, but a lovely blend of strawberries, low-bush blueberries and rhubarb with just the right amount of tang, perfect with salad and lighter fare.
Enjoy the tasting with appetizers from their new deli on the left side of the room, where wines can be purchased and enjoyed on the deck or taken out for a picnic on the lakeshore. There are plenty of retail therapy opportunities in addition to bottles of wine, including wine accessories and crafty items supplied by the nearby Oglethorpe Fine Arts & Crafts gallery.
Heading back down to Route 25, a stop at Moulton Farm is mandatory. It’s an iconic farm doing what farms have to do these days to survive — offer added value. Sure, you can buy fresh corn, tomatoes and garden produce, but there is so much more. Baker Tricia Lutcas brings the goodness of American bakeshop offerings with fresh-from-the-oven pies, whoopie pies, cinnamon breads and more. Their onsite chef, Jonathan Diola, prepares meals to go, and local resident and fishmonger Sal Bramante offers seafood fresh from the Boston seafood market. I purchased really nice day boat scallops and Scottish salmon, both of which can be difficult to find in the state. Bramante supplies many restaurants from the border to the Lakes Region with his fish runs.
With all this great food at hand, Chef Diola is pleased to offer a really, truly local farm-to-table brunch from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on the picnic tables every Sunday morning. The menu features egg dishes, pastries, salads and fruit ($16.99). Special farm-to-table dinners will be offered August 21 and September 11, again featuring the produce of the season ($48).
But wait, there’s more. No trip to Moulton Farm is complete without one (or a bagful) of Cider Bellies donuts. The freshly fried cake donuts are a family recipe of owner Jessica Stephens and are offered in a classic sugar/cinnamon dusting or drizzled with everything from chocolate to pineapple icings. In case you were wondering, yes, they’re worth the calories. Last year they were invited to the White House to represent New Hampshire in a Made in America showcase. That’s big.
On to the center of Center Harbor, where the lovely historic Coe House holds court as an enduring centerpiece. Recently, the restaurant inside changed ownership and now features Italian-inspired cuisine as Osteria Poggio. The head chef is Kaylon Sweet, former sous chef at Chef Keith Halligan’s well-loved Local Eatery in Laconia. Halligan was one of the first New Hampshire chefs to go big time with local sourcing and Sweet is keeping the beat. Here, there is fine dining with handmade pastas as a centerpiece along with authentic Italian cuisine. If you just want artisan pizza, there is that too, along with plenty of camaraderie at two friendly bars, one on each floor. For a special occasion, reserve the very private space in the cupola and enjoy the views of the “Great Pond,” as the original settlers called Winnipesaukee.
Also in Center Harbor, get a quick BBQ fix at Chef Scott Ouellette’s Rubbin’ Butts BBQ, offering racks of ribs, pulled pork, brisket, smoked pastrami and kielbasa. Also find their legendary mac and cheese paired plain or with a selection of BBQ meats. Sides go beyond the mandatory coleslaw with broccoli, tortellini or potato salad offerings.
Nearby, Dewey’s Ice Cream Parlor and Café scoops Richardson’s ice cream and offers a bit of old-fashioned charm for a sweet treat or sandwich.
Heading out to Castle in the Clouds for lunch, I managed a quick stop at the new location of Cup & Crumb at Berry Pond Corner. What looks like new construction is just that, but once inside, it becomes the roomy space of an old barn. Indeed, the entire roof was salvaged from the previous structure and cleverly fit on top to expose hand-hewn mortise and tendon rafters. The space is now a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a cuppa and one of their very delightful scones or other tempting treats.
It’s a long and winding road up to the Carriage House of the Castle in the Clouds. They do not take reservations for lunch, so it can be a long wait too. But the patio, with vast views of the lakes, is the place to be on a fair day. On a not-so-fair day, the tables inside are nestled in the original horse stalls.
I wasn’t expecting much of a lunch menu, but the Carriage House offers more than sandwiches, including escargot, fresh scallops and a lobster roll. If there is time to really relax, a nice list of cocktails features Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile spirits. Dinner is a more formal affair with a full menu, and reservations are required when there are musical performances. Please note there is a separate road entrance for the Carriage House. A nonprofit association maintains the castle itself, which was recently restored, and the tour is well worth your time. Sated, I packed the other half of my turkey sandwich and headed out for Tamworth.
Pressing on to Tamworth Distilling & Mercantile, I managed to polish off the rest of the sandwich with one hand on the wheel. It must have been good. Heading off the thoroughfare into Tamworth Village is always a moment of Zen delight. Things are just different here. Ahead was the visage of Mt. Chocorua, to the left was a woman selling strawberries, and beyond was the quaint village.
I couldn’t help but reflect on a past visit that included a stay at the Tamworth Inn, a contra dance at the town hall next door and a play at the Barnstormers Theatre across the street. There’s so much goodness in such a short curve of a quiet street. As I recall, I ended that story with the word Shangri-La. Now, Tamworth Distilling has replaced most of the Tamworth Inn with a new building featuring state-of-the-art equipment and a beautiful tasting room stocked with gleaming bottles of unique gins, whiskeys and liqueurs. Owner Steven Grasse conceived of using this outpost as a testing lab for creating spirits made with local ingredients. He felt the world already had enough faux bubble gum-flavored vodkas.
The distillery is now well known for their gins, which feature various flavor excursions via spruce tips or herbs or hops or pine rosin. Their Barrel Reserve Flora gin is barrel-aged using whiskey barrels for a golden hue and mellow touch. Cordials with chicory or whiskey with turmeric are all players in the lab and beautifully bottled and on the shelf. Tamworth Distilling recently went viral with Eau du Musc bourbon compounded with the castoreum of a beaver — just a touch, I was assured. It’s not musky as one might think, but just a bit spicy and a conversation starter. As Grasse points out, each offering should be a good liquid in a nice bottle with a great story.
It is really hard to leave the tasting room without a purchase, everything is so beautifully displayed. Along with the spirits there are cocktail recipe books, accessories and ingredients, including bitters and several flavors of Fever Tree tonic water. Once home, I made the best-ever gin and tonic with the Spruce Tips Gin, Elderflower Fever Tree tonic and the juice of two small limes.
Heading out, I peeked into the remaining old Tamworth Inn building. Although the exterior has been painted in hues to match the distillery and barrel storage building, the mansard-roofed building isn’t ready for guests anytime soon. Talk is, it may be a restaurant at some point.
There were growing pains when Grasse came to town with his ideas, but Tamworth Village remains a magical place — it’s just a little more spirited now. From the Town Hall I could hear youthful voices beginning a rehearsal. Nice.
I wound back to Moultonborough via the hills of Sandwich, a picture-perfect ride that made me yearn for my old Mini Cooper. A quick stop at the Sandwich Creamery via dirt roads gives credence to the term “hidden gem.” Find local ice cream and cheeses plus a pleasant yard with lawn games and seating to enjoy a pint. Bring cash.
The Corner House Inn in Sandwich is another dining gem filled with Colonial ambiance. There’s cozy dining in every corner and a bar upstairs that replaced the former lodging rooms.
My last stop was the New Woodshed Restaurant. The old Woodshed burned to the ground several years ago and was greatly missed by the locals. It was a prime rib spot set in an old barn that exuded rustic New Hampshire ambiance. New ownership found an old barn and had it resurrected onsite, while a “farmhouse” addition added to the overall space. Now, dining is in the new, old barn and the bar is in the farmhouse extension. In addition to prime rib, they offer a selection of aged steaks and fresh seafood, including an array of oysters for a perfect fine dining experience. Old traditions do not die, and the bread baked in a flower pot remains as a signature along with the “Skip and Go Naked” cocktail. That drink comes with a button with the same words for those looking to raise a few eyebrows. Apparently, over the years there were many. I was told by the bartender that on opening day loads of people came in wearing a field of buttons on their jackets. That was a warm embrace from the community indeed.
It’s the full bloom of summer. The Lakes Region beckons. Come for the parade and stay for the cider donuts, blueberry wine, fresh gnocchi, local gin, tender scones and, of course, the gorgeous views.
Happy birthday, Meredith! You get better-tasting every year.