Cross-Country Skate Skiing in Waterville Valley

Spend the winter gliding through deep pine forests and over snow-covered streams -- and it will be spring before you know it.

Spend the winter gliding through deep pine forests and over snow-covered streams — and it will be spring before you know it.

To be happy living in New England, one needs a winter sport. Otherwise, beautiful autumn days turn ominous as you begin to dread six months of frost. The dark, cold days between Thanksgiving and Easter just stretch on… and on… and on. Sure, hibernating is fun, too — for a while. I like to imagine being curled up by the fire, swathed in layers of cashmere, reading British mysteries and enjoying a buttery snootful of old Scotch. The reality — a YouTube video of a crackling fireplace, my Grandma Harriet’s old scratchy tartan blanket, the Pottery Barn catalogue, and a mug of ginger tea (supports digestion!) — is pretty cozy, to be sure, but somehow less comfy-cozy than my imagined den of wintry delight. And eventually, one’s legs start to feel stiff.

Find the right activity, however, and you start to find yourself looking forward to winter. That’s what happened to me this fall after I discovered skate skiing last year. I’d never gotten into downhill skiing — too expensive, too cold, too many lift lines. And the slow pace of traditional cross-country skiing left me frustrated. I did enjoy a good snowshoe trek, but that never really felt like exercise somehow. Then a ski instructor at Waterville Valley’s Nordic Center suggested Ben and I try skate skiing — easier on the knees, she said. She let us borrow a pair of rental skis and take them around the golf course, and we were immediately hooked. The speed was much more satisfying than traditional cross-country, the side-to-side motion a lot more fun, and the sweaty endorphin rush quicker to attain. After a winter of skiing happily on rented gear (which, at $20 a day, does add up — but is still half the price of renting downhill equipment) we lucked into an insane sale at the L.L. Bean outlet in Concord, NH. Ever since, I’ve been all geared up with no snow to ski on.

This weekend I finally got the chance I’d been waiting for. We drove the two hours north to Waterville Valley and ventured out on the trails — Waterville offers a day-and-a-half pass for only $20 (by it at 2pm on Saturday and it covers all of Sunday, too). While the snow wasn’t fantastic, we had a great time anyway. We zig-zagged past frozen streams and snow-covered pines and worked up a sweat despite the bitterly cold weather. It was the perfect combination of focus, exertion, nature, and gravity. Since I’m a rookie, I’ve only been to a few different spots — Waterville Valley’s cross-country trail system and Fahnestock Winter Park in New York state — but I’m always on the lookout for more. I’ve heard good things about Carlisle’s Great Brook Ski Touring Center, for instance, but have yet to check it out. If you have suggestions of places to go, let me know in the comments. And if you have any good British mystery recommendations, leave those too — today’s 60-degree rainstorm means I’ll be doing a little more reading and a little less skiing in the immediate future.

Start Your Home Bar for Under $200

Here's one way to keep your New England-distilled spirits cold.

Here’s one way to keep your New England-distilled spirits cold.

When it was first suggested that I write something on “building your home bar” for this blog, I balked; this is New England Rambler, not New England Drinker. But it was then pointed out to me that in March in the Northeast, there’s very little rambling and a whole lot more drinking. This logic being unassailable, I had no choice but to accede.

You can quickly begin to build a home bar with a minimal outlay of cash by focusing on the basics.

Every overstocked home bar began as a single bottle.

Every overstocked home bar began as a single bottle.

Every home bar should contain a bottle of gin and a bottle of whisky. A 1.75 liter bottle of Beefeater was selling for $27 at the New Hampshire state liquor store this weekend (aha! there WILL be travel in this post after all!). While fancy gins have become “a thing,” I find Beefeater is perfectly acceptable for most purposes. If you want to go higher end (but not too far into cucumbers or botanicals) Bombay Sapphire is a smooth, versatile option. If you deeply love gin, Cold River Gin (from Maine — more traveling!) is excellent, although you’d probably never want to adulterate it with anything more exciting than a little dry vermouth.

As for the whisky, I think it’s perfectly fine to start with either a bourbon or a rye. If you like beverages slightly sweeter, pick up an affordable bourbon like Four Roses. If you like a dryer, more mineral taste, go for a perfectly serviceable rye like Old Overholt. Both are usually priced between $15 and $20. On the higher end, the ryes by Knob Creek and Bulleit are both excellent, and the Woodford Reserve bourbon always gets high marks.

Vermouth, whether sweet (red) or dry (white) is wine-based, so even the “dry” stuff is still sweetish. You need a good bottle of both. It doesn’t pay to splurge on your gin and then desecrate it with Martini and Rossi. I like Dolin for sweet vermouth and Noilly Prat for dry. A small bottle of either will set you back maybe $12-$15. Unless you’re planning on developing a drinking habit (or hosting a large party) I do think it makes sense to stick to the smaller sizes, since as a wine-based beverage, the flavor of the vermouth will start to degrade after you open it. I thought I hated martinis for a good eight years after I made my first at my parents’ house with a bottle of vermouth that turned out to be older than I was.

Another useful sweet option to keep around the house: Cointreau. While pricey, it’s an essential ingredient in a sidecar (which I tend to make with rye) and in a lot of other classic cocktails. A mid-sized bottle will last you months.

A quick word on simple syrup: you can make an easy, no-heat version by taking equal parts superfine sugar and water and combining in a jar, shaking it until the sugar has dissolved. I always use less than the recipe calls for; a little goes a long way.

Herbaceous amari add a layer of complexity and depth to cocktails. Angostura bitters are essential for most classic whisky cocktails. I don’t think you’ll need to diversify into any of the Fee Brothers flavors or even into Peychaud’s unless you really get bitten by the mixology bug.

Campari, on the other hand, is quite useful in a number of drinks, from the Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari in equal parts) to the Boulevardier (bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari). It’s also delicious when combined with a bit of prosecco as part of a Venetian Spritz.

Always keep a few lemons on hand; you’ll need the juice to make Sidecars and French 75s, wedges to make whiskey smashes, and the peel to liven up your martini. An orange can also be useful (the peel is delicious in anything with Campari, and in a lot of wintry whisky cocktails). Limes probably aren’t necessary, unless you’re going to expand into rum, in which case they’re essential.

Small glass bottles of Schweppes tonic or mini-cans of Polar club soda will keep forever in your cupboard. Feeling fancy? I love Q Tonic (which also comes in mini-bottles).

A stainless steel cocktail set on Amazon — yes, evil Amazon — goes for about $15 and includes a shaker, bar spoon, strainer, and jigger, as well as a pair of tongs you’ll probably never use.

For two bucks, buy yourself a decent mixology app that will let you figure out just how many things you can make with what you’ve got.

Let’s tally up our costs so far (prices are all estimates):
Gin $27
Rye or bourbon $16
Sweet Vermouth $14
Dry Vermouth $14
Cointreau $27
Angostura $10
Campari $27
Tonic $5
Lemons $3 for 5
Cocktail set $15

Total: $160 — or the equivalent of an ambitious evening’s cocktails for two at Drink. If you’d like to add a few other items to round out this list of basics, consider:

Brandy (useful for classic cocktails, and cheapo versions like E&J VSOP are fine. Note that cognac is really just a tastier, more expensive version of brandy — both, like vermouth, are grape-based.)
Rum (Gosling’s black if you like dark and stormies; Meyer’s for the option that best combines versatility with deliciousness; or Sailor Jerry’s for hot rum drinks, like my favorite super-simple toddy: two ounces of rum in a mug, topped with hot water, finished with a squeeze of lime wedge.)
Maraschino liqueur (This clear liquid isn’t sweet, like cherries; it’s a little musky and mysterious-tasting. Combine an ounce of it with an ounce of lemon juice and two ounces of gin for the classic Aviation cocktail.)
Aperol (Like a lighter, sweeter Campari. It also makes a good spritz and shows up in a number of Italianate cocktails.)
Cocchi Americano (A white wine-based aperitivo, it’s like Lillet only better. Combine 1.5 ounces of it with 1.5 ounces of gin, a dash of Maraschino, and a teaspoon of Aperol for a Pretty Old Thing.)

And that’s it! You can do a lot with just these ingredients and simple ratios (the 2:1:1 — 2 oz strong, 1 oz sweet, 1 oz sour — is very forgiving). Yes, there’s an endless array of liquors to buy. But while my bar runneth over with these and more, I think you can get pretty far with these. Or at least, to April.

Six Ways to See Flowers in Boston in March

Crocuses are pushing their obstinate heads through the last remnants of dirty snow outside my office, but make no mistake — spring is still a good ways off. March may roar in like a lion, but in New England, it doesn’t so much go out like a lamb as like a slightly-less-aggressive-I-just-ate-an-antelope baby lion.

Nonetheless, if you’re itching for a bit more greenery, there are a few places you can get a preview of the lushness to come. In no particular order:

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum greenhouse

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum greenhouse

1. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Their verdant glassed-in courtyard is a perfectly climate-controlled jewel box this time of year. Palm trees, a fountain, potted orchids. Alas, they don’t allow camera use or cellphone use inside the museum proper — I CAN NO HAZ INSTAGRAM?! — but I did snap a photo of their greenhouse, replete with back-up flora. Should any plant-life flag or fail in performance of its duties, I suspect one of these runners-up will quickly get the call.

2. The MFA’s Art in Bloom weekend. Confession time: I have never attended this institutional Boston event. This year is going to be different! The event will feature roughly 70 floral arrangements throughout the museum, inspired by the works of art on display. Keep an eye out for their other floral events this spring; my mom, aunt, and I just attended an ikebana demonstration — that’s a spare, deeply meaningful form of flower arranging from Japan. (Also noted: arranging a few willow branches in a vase is much cheaper than buying a huge bouquet of blossoms, even if you buy them at Shaws.)

3. The Lyman Estate Greenhouses. Somehow, these are in Waltham — just a stone’s throw from my Watertown office — and yet I have never heard of them. Obviously, time to rectify that situation. From the website, I deduce that these are among the oldest surviving greenhouses in America, and that they contain camellias, grapes, and orchids.

4. The Limonaia at Tower Hill Botanic Garden. You’ve heard of orangeries. Well, Tower Hill built a limonaia a few years ago — and that’s another spot I fully intend to visit this winter. Spring. Sprinter. Wring. Springer. Whatever we’re calling it.

5. The Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College. Lo and behold, the most diverse under-glass botanicals in the greater Boston area just happen to be at Wellesley College. While I’ve wandered Wellesley’s arboreal campus many times, I don’t think I’ve ever wandered inside their 16 greenhouses — or even realized that they had any.

6. The Museum of Science’s Butterfly Garden. I once went to a butterfly garden on the outskirts of London and found it a magical, if slightly creepy, place. (They’re still bugs, even if they’re bugs with beautiful wings.) I haven’t been to the MOS’s version, but it promises to be “tropical” — and it’s cheaper than Curtain Bluff.

Did I leave off any favorites of yours? Let me know in the comments!