Ben & Jerry land

The rolling hills of Vermont are home to an ice-cream company that is as famous for its commitment to the environment as it is for its exotic flavours. But the Green Mountain State also produces cheddar cheese and maple syrup. Eat your heart out.
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The Independent Travel

In May 1978, two idealistic hippies called Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield invested in a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making. (They had wanted to go into the bagel business, but found the start-up costs were too high.) They experimented with different flavours, and set up an ice-cream parlour in a converted petrol station in Burlington, Vermont. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The company now has two factories in Vermont, at Waterbury and Windsor, and despite having been taken over by Unilever still maintains its environmental mission statements. It doesn't use milk from cows treated with Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and the ice-cream cartons for the American market are now made from unbleached paper. It tastes rather good, too.

Are you kidding? The Ben & Jerry tour is one of the main attractions in northern Vermont. It takes place at the Waterbury factory, about a mile north of junction 10 on Interstate 89. At the junction, take Route 100 North for Stowe, and Ben & Jerry's is on the left. A percentage of the tour proceeds goes to Kaboom, a charitable organisation which builds children's playgrounds. The tour includes a film show which gives you an idea of the history of the company and its current projects. Owing to hygiene regulations you can't actually go into the factory, but you are encouraged to wave to the staff as you watch them at work from a glass corridor above the factory floor. Tours last 30 minutes and run at least every half-hour from 10am to 6pm (opening hours are longer in summer and during the peak autumn colour season in September/October). The price is $2 (£1.40) per person, $1.75 for seniors, and children under 12 go free. For more information, go to www.benjerry.com

You get a free sample, although you can't choose the flavours – it all depends what's on the production line that day. And no, unfortunately, you can't eat as much as you like.

Ben & Jerry's is a good starting point on a visit to Vermont, as the company's ethos could be said to symbolise the attitude of the state both to food and to life in general. Vermonters are naturally independent, environmentally aware and resistant to being pushed around by big business. Ben & Jerry's recycling message extends beyond unbleached cartons: I saw an old Ben & Jerry freezer customised by a maple-syrup producer to store maple sap.

You'll see sugarhouses, or sugar shacks, in which they produce maple syrup all over Vermont which produces 25 per cent of the US total. You can identify a sugarhouse by the little tower on the top, rather like a flattened steeple or belltower. The Bragg Farm Sugarhouse, on Route 14 North, about seven miles east of Montpelier, is a typical example: a family-run farm which has a gift shop, an educational video presentation and 30 acres of maple trees to hike through if you're feeling energetic. For information about tours go to www.central-vt.com/web/bragg/

Not unless you're there in early spring when the sap's starting to rise (and the snow is often still on the ground). Sugaring has quite a short production season and involves frantic activity and a lot of hard, physical work. When it's first tapped, the sap looks like water, but the sugaring process boils off the excess fluid to leave a wonderfully sweet, tasty, amber syrup. Originally, of course, the syrup was further processed to produce sugar, but this became uneconomic with the advent of the beet variety. But if you are in Vermont in early spring, you must go to a sugarhouse and eat sugar on snow, a traditional local favourite which involves trickling gooey syrup on to a plate of clean snow and watching it crystallise. Then you eat it.

Pure maple syrup is graded according to strict federal regulations, and is based on both colour and flavour. The grades are: US Grade A Light Amber, US Grade A Medium Amber, US Grade A Dark Amber, and US Grade B. Some states use a slightly different terminology: in Vermont, Grade A Light Amber syrup is usually called Fancy Grade. Fancy Grade is made early in the season while Grade B, a really gutsy syrup which tastes a bit like molasses, is made at the end of the season. But the maple syrup producer has no real control over which grade they produce. It all depends on the weather. Which grade you prefer is a matter of personal taste.

Time to taste some cheddar cheese, and for that we'll head south, to Grafton. I-89 will take us to White River Junction, then I-91, then Route 121 West. But if you're not in a hurry, plot a cross-country route and take in the scenery. You'll see quite a few dirt roads marked on a map of Vermont, and don't be scared to use them as a short-cut. I didn't find one that I couldn't negotiate with an ordinary car.

Grafton is a typically pretty Vermont village with clapboard houses, an Old Tavern and a country store. It's a real country store too, the sort that has a noticeboard outside and sells Lifesavers (America's version of Polo mints) and potato chips, rather than quilts and mug mats for the tourists. Make sure you support the local country stores if you're exploring Vermont. Not only are they vital to the local community, but they are usually a good place to get directions or pick up a snack. You may find you have to wait, as we did in Waitsfield, for the previous customer to go home, get her purse and come back again. But you'll find plenty to keep you happy, even if you only read the noticeboard.

Oh, yes. Grafton is the home of the Grafton Village Cheese Company, which is, quite simply, one of the prettiest cheese factories you will ever see. It was set up in 1890, using milk from the local dairy farmers. Grafton at one time had been a thriving town, supporting a huge wool industry and benefiting from its position on the Boston to Albany post road. But the cheese factory burned down, and it was not until 1962, when a charitable organisation, the Windham Foundation, rebuilt the factory as part of a major restoration project, that cheese-making returned to Grafton and the town was put back on the map.

As at Ben & Jerry's, the actual factory floor is a no-go area. But you can watch a good video about the cheddar-making process from a glass corridor, then sample the cheese in the factory shop. My favourite was the garlic flavour, but if you like very strong cheddar, try the Four Star: it's really sharp. Grafton cheddar is packaged in wax, with different colours for each flavour or variety, and you can buy variety packs with three small cheeses or a bigger chunk of your favourite. The wax seems to make it keep particularly well and it will certainly survive the journey home to the UK without any adverse effects.

Let's stretch our legs first. Right beside the cheese factory, a trail will take you up past a field of Jersey cows to a couple of ponds, where you can sit and eat your cheese and muse on the fact that the Vermonters regard cheddar cheese with apple pie as a particular delicacy, in the same way that Yorkshire people serve apple pie with a crumbly wedge of Wensleydale. If you're feeling more energetic, take a left out of the car park and take Route 35 South to Townshend and the Townshend State Park, where you can have a proper picnic at the foot of Bald Mountain.

No, because there isn't one. Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, prides itself on having refused the Big M entry. Vermont also prides itself on its fresh produce. There's even an organisation called the Vermont Fresh Network which acts as a partnership between farmers and chefs, helping not only to promote local produce but also to make sure it actually gets to the table. Look at the list of producers on the network's website (www.vermontfresh.net) and you will see apples, venison, pheasants, pork, beef, lamb, herbs and honey as well as cheese and maple syrup. You will also see the word organic. A lot.

Let's head south, on Route 30, from Townshend to Newfane, another photogenic New England town, where the Congregationalist church is lit with (electric) candles in the windows at night. This is the sort of town where the church is on Church Street, the main street is called Main Street and the sheriff's office is on Jail Street. There is a tourist country store, a pretty good one, and a real country store, but there is also the Four Columns Inn, run by Pam and Gorty Baldwin, where I had one of the best meals I have ever had in America.

Forget all your Old World prejudices. Food throughout Vermont is of an extremely high standard. Even the Simon Pearce glass factory at Quechee, near Woodstock, is almost as famous for its restaurant as it is for its glass. But at the Four Columns, the food is of a positively transcendental nature, thanks to chef Greg Parks, who has been there for 27 years.

I had hubbard squash soup with fresh prawns, followed by pheasant with wild rice and cranberries. Pudding was fresh raspberries. My companion had smoked salmon to start, then venison in a port wine sauce. The venison was so tender, you could have cut it with a spoon.

The Four Columns (Newfane, VT 05345, 001 800 787 6633, www.fourcolumnsinn.com) is not only a restaurant, it's also a proper inn, with gorgeous chintzy rooms, a roaring log fire in the restaurant and a hiking trail that leads you out of the back garden, over a little wooden bridge and up into the woods before you can say "I don't feel like going for a walk". Pam and Gorty used to live in New York, but gave up the rat race years ago to run the Four Columns. Not that I would imagine it's much of a holiday running a place like this: the attention to detail alone would dismay your average executive. But then your average executive probably isn't buoyed up by this standard of food.

How do we get there – Air ben & JERRY?

Sadly not, though if you fly from Heathrow to Boston on Virgin you'll get a free ice-cream in flight. This is the closest US airport with flights from the UK (also on American Airlines, British Airways and United). But Burlington and the rest of northern Vermont is closer to Montreal, which has flights on Air Canada and British Airways. Detailed information about holidays in Vermont can also be found on www.vermont-uk.com, a dedicated website for visitors from the UK and Ireland.

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