All roads lead to Adamant. At least that’s what it says on the T-shirts sold in the tiny village, pop. 48. It should be amended to “all dirt roads.”
The thin byways snaking through Calais serve as a battery of routes to the Adamant Cooperative, where the circuit dead ends. Those roads are well traveled, especially on the late May day when the co-op holds its famous benefit event, the Adamant Blackfly Festival. Each year, people from all over Vermont descend on the mosquito-netted community for a “blackfly fashion show,” “blackfly ‘Jeopardy,’” “blackfly golf” and other insect-related activities billed as “more fun than thought humanly possible.”
A crucial part of the gathering: the Blackfly Pie Contest. I didn’t become a food writer in Vermont to say no to judging a pie contest, so when organizer Alice Blachly called and asked for my services, I was ready. “There is only one prerequisite,” Blachly warned me. “You have to like pie.” Done.
On May 22, the day of the festival, hilly Haggett Road was lined with vehicles ranging from antique British cars to farm equipment. One could look left or right and see picture-book waterfalls. A tent set up on a hill was visible over a creek filled with bathing children.
Inside the tent, I found items put up for a silent auction, including an antique meat grinder, lightly worn clothing, a promise of dinner cooked by a co-op member; a display of papier mâché hats, chairs with resting cats built into the backs; and, finally, a line of seven pies.
At 2:30 p.m. sharp, the other judges — Vermont Public Radio commentator Willem Lange, Adamant community member Andy Christiansen and Winooski actor Jack Bradt — joined me at the judging table. Because of faulty audio equipment, the emcee, Vermont Statehouse curator David Schutz, had to shout to be heard by the crowd of approximately 50.
In a bellow, he requested that the judges introduce themselves to the crowd, then announced the initial pie. Entries were anonymous, but each pastry had its own attached name — this one was called “Swatted Pie” — and ingredient list. Here, the inauspicious first line was “1 pkg. Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust.”
Judges were asked to evaluate the pies on two criteria: taste and creativity. “Swatted Pie” certainly had the latter going for it. The blueberry dessert was displayed with a yellow paper swatter on top, emblazoned with a poem about never swatting a blackfly perched upon a pie. Apparently, it was too late. The dessert was flattened, with stray blueberries strewn on its tray.
A pie with a narrative? Sounded like a winner. Better yet, despite the store-bought crust, this one tasted good. The blueberry filling had been added after the crust was baked, resulting in a bold, fresh berry taste, a far cry from the saccharine jam that fills many attempts.
Next came a tart, blood-red rhubarb pie, titled “Blood-soaked Bug Baffler Pie,” which we later learned was made by Blachly herself, and then a lemon-custard “Giant blackfly” pie was sliced up for consumption.
Despite the sweet’s big name, judges were handed minuscule slices, and one spectator, Calais author Rowan Jacobsen, pronounced them too small for fair evaluation. But they were big enough to demonstrate that the creativity of this entry far outshone its taste. The otherwise conventional confection was topped with a sugar photo of two little girls screaming as they fled from a giant blackfly. Thank you, Photoshop.
An actual blackfly would have found Pie No. 4 particularly attractive. The oblong crust was loosely based on a Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie, with a rich, chocolaty molasses filling resembling a dense brownie. The sweet was decorated to resemble the festival’s resident bug. Skinny licorice legs and biscotti wings protruded from its dark abdomen, and it looked primed for human blood.
The next notable “pie” would have been more correctly called an assemblage of pudding cups, decorated with licorice antennae and M&M eyes. Before it was served, one portion was loaded into a potato gun and shot into the air. The fly survived its performance art, but the judges were served flightless samples.
Pie No. 5 was a localvore entry composed of rhubarb and parsnips, and No. 7 was a gently gingery strawberry rhubarb, but they just couldn’t compare with the big guns.
When the tasting was over, each judge’s scores were fed into a computer and tabulated. The big winner? No. 4, “Blackfly Molasses Pie,” made by Helen Labun Jordan, an agricultural development coordinator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and board member of the Adamant Cooperative.
Blachly’s rhubarb entry and Sarah Vowles’ “Swatted Pie” were also named tops for taste. The McKenna-Thiemann family’s “Giant Blackfly Pie” and the aptly named Dr. Seth Frisbie’s “Flying Blackfly Pie” were recognized for creativity alongside Labun Jordan’s.
The real winners? The judges, who got to sample all the delicacies gratis — blood sucking bugs be damned.
Check out the video below or click here to see the wacky event in action!
Blackfly Molasses Pie
Helen Labun Jordan
If you want to dress it up like a blackfly, bake it in an oval pan, stick on candy eyes and legs and fan out some biscotti for wings.
The crust is from a class I took at Butterfly Bakery [in Montpelier], and the filling is a modification of a chocolate chess brownie pie recipe from a 1986 Bon Appetit.
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cold, unsalted butter
10 tablespoons salted butter (if using unsalted, add a pinch of salt)
1/3 cup molasses
2 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs, whisked
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Mix salt into flour. Cut butter into flour until the mixture has formed a fine grain, but has not begun to stick together (a food processor is the easiest way). Freeze the butter-flour mixture for an hour or more. (You can skip the freezing and refrigerating steps if you’re lazy like me, but it isn’t as good.)
2. Add water a few tablespoons at a time and mix with your fingers until the dough just barely holds together. Do not overmix. Let rest in the fridge, wrapped, for 20 minutes.
3. Roll out on a generously floured surface and place in well-greased 9-inch pie pan — the deeper the pan, the less chance you’ll end up with filling on the bottom of the oven.
4. Bake the crust at 325 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes before pouring in the filling (called “blind baking”).
5. Heat butter, corn syrup and chocolate in a double boiler until smooth. Cool to lukewarm.
6. Beat in remaining ingredients until smooth. Pour into slightly baked crust.
7. Bake for 15 minutes at 325 degrees. Reduce heat to 275 and bake for another 30 to 35 minutes. The filling will rise as it bakes, and the top should be as firm as you would expect brownies to be (or test for doneness with a toothpick).
8. Cool. Tastes good with ice cream!
Swatted Pie for Blackfly Season
5 cups blueberries (4 cups can be frozen; 1 cup must be fresh)
1/4 cup Vermont honey
1/4 cup Vermont maple syrup — Grade B, of course
1 tablespoon real butter
1 teaspoon lemon juice
More butter at room temperature for buttering the pan
A little granulated sugar for the top crust
1 package Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust
1. Pick over and wash your fresh blueberries, and reserve a heaping cup. Simmer the remaining berries in a saucepan with the honey, maple syrup, and 1 tablespoon of butter until the juices are a little thicker than heavy cream. Stir a few times to prevent sticking.
2. Remove from heat and add lemon juice and the uncooked blueberries. Cool, then chill in the refrigerator for up to a day.
3. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and butter the pan. If you’re using a disposable pie pan, you can mash one pan edge down to increase the “swatted” effect. Put one pie crust in the pie pan and flute its edges. Cover the crust’s edges for the first 5 minutes of cooking.
4. Lay the other crust flat on a well-buttered cookie sheet. Trim around the edge, so the round will more closely match the size of the bottom crust. Brush top crust with water and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Prick both crusts well.
5. Bake both crusts at 450 until browned, but not burned. Start checking after 8 minutes if your cookie sheet is nonstick, about 10 minutes if not. If you cook the top and bottom crusts at the same time, you will probably find the one on the cookie sheet cooks faster; take it out as soon as it’s done. Let the crusts cool.
6. Fill the bottom crust, reserving 2 tablespoons of filling.
7. Cut the second, sugared crust into eight to 12 wedges (I use a pizza cutter). Wash and dry your hands very well. Place the wedges on top of the pie filling. Put one palm on the pie and push down gently to achieve the “swatted” effect. (A child would probably enjoy helping with this part!) Finish by dribbling the reserved filling around the edges, as though you had splatted it right out of the pie.
Blood-soaked Bug Baffler Pie
My recipe was loosely based on the recipe for rhubarb pie in a dog-eared and bespattered edition of The Joy of Cooking that I’ve had for years.
Blend 4 cups of diced rhubarb with 1/4 cup of flour and 1 1/2 cups of sugar and let sit for 15 minutes. I just decided to throw in a handful of strawberries for flavor and color.
Pour into an unbaked pie crust, dot with a tablespoon of butter and put on a top crust. I used a lattice crust so the red juice would bleed through the top and look like blood-soaked bug netting. My lattice crusts are very amateurish, but that was helpful in this case, as it gave the effect of torn — and thus ineffective — netting.
Note: The younger and more tender the rhubarb, the better.