All photos/art by Michael Piazza
Finding croissants and community in rural New Hampshire . . .
In a rural community, where months pass between new attractions, it doesn’t take much to raise our hopes. So when a colleague told us about a new café in nearby Wilton, New Hampshire, with croissants “as good as I’ve had in Paris,” we jumped. He could have said, “The croissants are marginally better than Pillsbury crescent rolls,” and we would’ve gone. But as it turned out, he was right.
Parisian croissants in Wilton? The town sits at the junction of Nashua’s outer suburban sprawl and the forested foothills of the Wapack Range. Like many New England towns, it grew up around textile mills and dairy farms. Later, it became a bucolic magnet for back-to-the-landers and followers of Rudolf Steiner, whose educational theories inform its two Waldorf schools.
Steiner is also the father of biodynamic farming, and in 1985, his approach inspired a group of local farmers—Anthony Graham, Trauger Groh, and Lincoln Geiger—to start what is now the oldest operating CSA in the country. Set atop old Abbott Hill, Temple–Wilton Community Farm produces a cornucopia of produce, milk, meat, and, thanks to cheesemaker Benjamin Meier, excellent Roquefort, feta, Camembert, and Havarti.
The farm is buoyed by its devoted members and its proximity to the schools. Christie and Ben Reed are two such members, young parents of three children, who moved to Wilton from Portland, Oregon, four years ago. “There was no hub or meeting space at the time,” says Christie, whose rosy cheeks and brown waves give her the look of a farm wife imagined by the Pre-Raphaelites.
There also was nowhere to get a great latte, which, for an ex-Portlander, could have been a hardship. So Christie talked to Lincoln Geiger about opening a café in the farm’s 1760s homestead. Geiger sought a variance to the town’s zoning, suggesting that a café could be viewed as a natural extension of the well-established farm stand and in keeping with the agricultural setting. The zoning board approved the plan, and the café opened in February 2011.
Up to this point, neither the Reeds nor Geiger had spent a day behind a professional stove. But they had raw ingredients, gumption, and a stack of cookbooks. Christie imagined a simple, wholesome menu, using the farm’s eggs, milk, meat, and vegetables.
Then her brother-in-law asked about croissants. Was she going to have them? And she thought, Why not try? Without fancy ovens or even a proper bread proofer, she simply worked it out, trial and error. Now the pastries are her calling card. Buttery and yeasty, shatteringly crisp outside and filled with chocolate, almonds, sweet cheese, or nothing at all, they’d be the pride of any boulangerie. But the menu goes on: For breakfast, there’s soft polenta with over-easy eggs, caramelized onions, and feta, or farm yogurt with berries; lunch offers soups and sandwiches.
On this morning, a steady stream of Waldorf parents pass through while an older couple claims a table next to a window. One regular, named Dawn, tells me that lately she doesn’t know half the people who come in, but that she sees it as a good thing. The sun is pouring through the thin cotton curtains and Alison Krauss is singing soft bluegrass on the radio, while a bearded young barista whips up excellent lattes with milk from the cows beyond the door. Back in the kitchen, Christie makes huevos rancheros and banana–Nutella crêpes for the growing crowd. Across the room, Dawn’s friend Jamie says, “I’m so spoiled by the coffee here. Even Starbucks is disappointing,” which makes Dawn laugh. “It’s funny,” she says. “I’ve become spoiled by the lattes in Wilton, New Hampshire.”
Out behind the café, in the barns where CSA members come to collect their bounty, the bins are lined with root vegetables and cabbage—no peas and radishes yet—and local breads, honey, salves, and eggs. The cows in a nearby field loudly declare themselves, as a trio of farm interns is turning a pile of compost. The farm reveals that this project is about much more than just croissants. “A farm is a place where the human soul finds connection with nature,” Lincoln Geiger says. “We have a long yearning for that. We’re off the track, but people want to come because of this place.”
Hilltop Café, 195 Isaac Frye Highway, Wilton, NH. Closed Sunday–Monday; 8:00–4:00 Tuesday–Friday, 8:30–2:00 Saturday; at press time seeking a variance to allow Sunday opening. 603-654-2223; hilltopcafenh.com