By Melissa Pasanen
Photographed by Daria Bishop
About an hour before a special event, the Mad River Taste Place team was busy preparing to welcome a crowd of area businesspeople eager to see and taste what was going on in the renovated bank building in Waitsfield’s Mad River Green Shopping Center. Mary Tuthill, retail manager and head cheesemonger, gave a final tweak to a case filled with dozens of offerings from more than 40 Vermont cheesemakers. Erika Lynch of Babette’s Table, maker of Vermont-sourced, European-style cured meats, sliced a variety of her hams for platters. Vermont-made spirits, hard ciders, beers, and wines were ready for tasting, along with locally crafted chocolates and naturally leavened breads.
The new tasting center and retail store is the brainchild of Robin Morris, also president of the Mad River Food Hub incubator and processing facility located just a few hundred yards away. Over his years working to support the production, storage, and distribution needs of the area’s burgeoning food and beverage sector, Morris concluded that “the marketing of the makers is the missing link.” His vision for the Taste Place is to provide a high-profile, centralized tasting, education, and shopping opportunity to help build demand for both Mad River Valley and Vermont food and drink.
While some might pigeonhole the Mad River Valley as a winter sports destination, economic vitality studies revealed that “food was one of the leverage points, one of our major assets,” explained Josh Schwartz, executive director of the local planning district. This was no surprise to those on the front line like Kim Donahue, co-owner of The Inn at Round Barn Farm. “I love this space, and I love what it is going to do for the Valley,” Donahue said, gesturing around the wood-raftered, light-filled room where shelves and coolers overflow with local jams and pickles, freshly roasted coffee and granolas, maple candies and sought-after craft brews. “It gives us traction, the ability to really anchor our spot in the food world.”
The Taste Place is also the first permanent home of the Vermont Cheese Council, whose executive director, Tom Bivins, has an on-site office from which he can pop out to check on the best Vermont cheese selection in the state. The former chef and culinary instructor has been integral to the state’s food scene for three decades. “I’ve been advocating for a tasting place in Vermont for years,” Bivins said. “The growth has been just incredible, not just in quantity but in quality. This is a great central location where our cheeses and all the other products are presented in a way that really gives them an opportunity to shine. It’s an asset not only for the Valley but for the whole Vermont food and drink community.”
Beyond stocking a wide range of Vermont products to buy and take home, the Taste Place also offers tasting boards of cheese, meats, and condiments, along with local beers on tap and flights of Vermont ciders and wines. Large photographic portraits, a video loop of cheesemaker interviews, and detailed product labels all help tell the backstory, an important ingredient in building a following for Vermont’s premium products. The retail team led by Tuthill — a trained chef with deep experience in restaurants and food retail — can make recommendations and share information on everything they carry. Tuthill also manages a robust calendar of maker-presented tastings and workshops. “I think I’ve met every single person I’m buying from,” she said, “like Erika of Babette’s, I know for a fact we’re helping to build her business and support her family. It’s the coolest thing to be a part of.” Not to mention, Tuthill added, “We sell all the stuff that makes people happy.”