Blue Plate Special: Champney's Arising from the flood
Champney’s Restaurant and Tavern’s chef Sarah Klein with her French onion soup.
Champney’s Restaurant and Tavern’s French onion soup.
When Tropical Storm Irene hit our area in 2011, one of its major casualties was the Deerfield Inn, along with the inn’s eatery, Champney’s Restaurant and Tavern. The river proximity that made Deerfield attractive to English settlers in the 17th century placed the main street of Historic Deerfield in jeopardy in the 21st.
Innkeeper Jane Howard told me recently that her reaction to the sight of the inn after the storm was “one of absolute horror.”
“The stench was sickening, furnishings were destroyed, beds and reading chairs (were) under thick ooze, dead fish and foliage mingled with sewerage and effluent, the spinet was full of water and silt,” she said.
The rebuilding process took a year and a half. Champney’s reopened last year in early April, although much of the inn took several weeks longer to restore to use.
“There were cracks all the way to the third floor that were wide enough to fit my entire hand into up to the second knuckle!” recalled Howard.
“The living room curtains had rotted from mold and cold, and we kept finding swathes of mold behind the walls that had to be dealt with prior to re-wallpapering.”
As long as they had to rebuild, Howard and fellow innkeeper Karl Sabo decided to change the look and feel of their tavern.
“The days of the large formal dining room from the beginning of last century are so over for most diners,” Howard explained.
“A great silver lining to the disaster was the opportunity to create a much larger but still cozy tavern with a large dining bar, more beer taps, (and a) fireplace.
“The restaurant is one-third the size it was, and the tavern is almost three times larger with a comfy area for cocktails and cappuccinos.”
She told me that her clientele is varied. It consists of tourists, of course, in town to visit Historic Deerfield, but also “friends gathering after work, meeting for lunch; travelers; many regular area locals; just a broad spectrum of people gathering, drinking, eating.”
“It is really so wonderful to have life and love, and especially laughter back in here again,” she added.
“Boy, is a building sad and pointless when it is cold and empty of use and purpose!”
Chef Sara Klein, who made a bowl of warming onion soup for photographer Paul Franz and me, also enjoys the range of patrons at Champney’s. Klein has cooked in the southwest and in New York City as well as elsewhere in New England.
She applied for work at the Inn because she recalled the Pioneer Valley fondly from her time at Hampshire College.
“I’ve heard Spanish, German, Japanese, French, etc. being spoken in the Tavern,” said Klein. “It’s refreshing to have visitors from around the world as well many regulars from the area who come by every week.”
The soup Klein prepared would provide a hearty make-ahead supper for Christmas or New Year’s Eve. It is one of the most popular items on Champney’s winter menu, along with the fish and beef that customers seem to favor.
I asked Jane Howard what she liked best about the “new” Champney’s Restaurant and Tavern.
“I like the restoration of light and life; chefs who are committed to field-to-fork menus; the opportunity to showcase more from our local brewers, farmers, and foragers; and the joy of community,” she said with a smile.
4 tablespoons butter
4 Spanish onions, julienned
1 Vidalia onion, julienned
2 1/4 cups water
½ cup red wine or sherry (Sarah Klein was toying with a Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo from Carletto Wines when we visited)
1 quart hearty beef stock
2 sprigs thyme, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied
4 bay leaves
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
4 pieces of bread
2 ounces grated mozzarella cheese
2 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
In a heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, slowly caramelize the onions in the butter until they turn a deep golden brown. You will see vegetable gunk at the bottom of the pan; this is called “fond.”
When the onions are to your liking add a bit of water to the pan and stir the fond into it to deglaze the pan. Deglaze with water several more times to release all the fond and mix it back into the onions.
Continue simmering the soup, stirring it occasionally, until it turns dark brown. Deglaze it one last time, this time with the wine.
The entire process of caramelizing the onions should take about 30 to 35 minutes. Sara Klein stirs the onions after the first 10 minutes and again after the second 10 minutes. After that she stirs every five minutes — or even more frequently — to scrape up the fond and keep it from burning.
Stir in the beef stock, the 2 cups of water, the thyme, and the bay leaves. Stir again to release the fond.
Bring the pot to a low boil, and simmer it for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Remove and discard the thyme and bay leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste.
When you are ready to serve the soup, turn on the broiler. Warm 4 crock-style soup bowls. Place them on an oven-safe sheet.
Fill each with hot onion soup. Top with a piece of bread you have cut into a round with a glass or a cutter. Sprinkle the cheese on top of the bread.
Broil until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Serve with extra crusty bread on the side.