When winds grow cold and Friday evenings smell of snow, thoughts of a weekend at a country inn come to mind; those thoughts that have been warming hearts for centuries.
They're a symbol for hospitality, an oasis of safety where travelers spend the night and townspeople gather when the village green is dark and wet. In New England, as in many other areas, the country inn has become part of its tradition.
Here in New Hampshire, the Fitzwilliam Inn has been dispensing hospitality since 1796, when it was a stagecoach stop between Boston and Montreal.
Those narrow roads outside its front door were once major thoroughfares, but today vacationers and commercial travelers are glad to find the road historic, but the traffic minimal. In fact, cars are quickly parked behind the inn to keep such modern reminders out of sight.
The village of Fitzwilliam looks as though it is kept wrapped in tissue paper between your visits, or as Brigadoon reappears once every 100 years to keep it from being touched by ''progress.''
Its 1,700 citizens live in perfect examples of early New England architecture , many of the white houses grouped around the village green, and the Fitzwilliam Inn sedately overlooks them all.
Barbara and Charles Wallace, owners for the past 10 years, searched for six months before this gem with 23 rooms came on the market. Then they settled in with their three generations of family to dispense year-round entertainment for the guests.
With special attention paid to all the seasons, they have such pleasant traditions as the plum pudding served on Christmas Eve, which is prepared by Charles's 84-year-old mother.
Whole families have spent their holidays at the Fitzwilliam Inn. One grandfather invites all his children and grandchildren, an impressive number that few private homes could contain graciously.
The most energetic can go cross-country skiing or hiking on the inn's trails, while those in search of peace and quiet can find a corner to read a book.
But everybody eats . . . and very well, although both Wallaces make modest claims about the cuisine.
''We make no pretense of having a gourmet kitchen,'' Charles said. ''Most of our food is simple American fare.''
What he doesn't mention is that the dining rooms are filled for every meal with neighbors from the Monadnock region as well as guests at the inn.
It is wise to make reservations for dinner. ''Simple American fare'' seems to be what everybody wants to eat.
A professional chef is the core of the kitchen. But Barbara Wallace bakes the bread and makes the desserts each day. These too, she insists, have the flavor of the country.
Her pumpkin bread is a traditional Fitzwilliam Inn recipe, and during the holidays she adds a pound of fresh cranberries chopped coarsely in the blender for a touch of festivity.
''The tartness of the unsweetened fruit works well with the rich flavor of the pumpkin,''she says.
Fruit cobblers are another specialty, with a topping made from her own dried muffin mix enriched with walnuts and enough melted butter to make it crumbly.
At a country inn, guests are sure to take their breakfast seriously. They find a vat of hot cereal ready in cold weather, countless combinations of eggs, bacon, sausages, and French toast - given a nice flavor with grated orange or lemon rind - and always made with French bread.
''Well, lunch is lunch,'' Barbara says in a modest tone, but then she goes on to describe a generous range of dishes from homemade soups to three varieties of omelet. Recently a group of vegetarians made reservations and a vegetable quiche was added to the menu.
Dinner includes most all-time favorites, steaks and chops, chicken and fish, and each day of the week has its own special - perhaps roast lamb or corned beef - and Sunday is always prime rib of beef.
Then on Monday, the Fitzwilliam Inn kitchen does what most home cooks would do with a wealth of prime beef bones. It tosses them into the soup kettle.
''That's why our onion soup tastes so good,'' Barbara says.
Many of the public rooms are given over to serving food or its preparation. Even the glassed-in porch that was previously used only in warm weather has been winterized to accommodate the flow of people coming for lunch or dinner.
The front of the inn is bisected by a center hall with two lounges on either side, each filled with a potpourri of old furniture and accessories, leather-bound books, old china, botanical prints in profusion, and a homey collection of old Oriental rugs.
In the smaller of the two rooms is a black and white television set. ''Someone may want to see a special program,'' Charles Wallace said. ''It's the only TV in the place, but we do have seven fireplaces.''
On the two floors above, the third generously studded with dormers, the 23 rooms have been freshly wallpapered and painted, just yesterday from the fresh look of them. Each is different, with an ecletic collection of furniture, and about half of them have private baths.
''When we first moved here,'' Wallace said, ''the community didn't consider the inn a part of their lives. We set out to encourage them to drop in often, and conversely, we became active members in the town of Fitzwilliam.''
The town had no bank, so Charles arranged with a bank in Keene to perform simple transactions such as deposits and withdrawals, using the telephone and bank computer.
Another texture the Wallaces have added is music. Barbara was on the faculty of the New England Conservatory in Boston before taking on the life of an innkeeper, and she organizes a classical concert with professional musicians who come up for the day.
''Everybody in the family but me is musical,'' Charles said. ''My youngest son, who is a jazz trumpeter, has come back to help us here, and he invites other jazz musicians to join him on Wednesday night for a jam session that is open to the public.''
Fitzwilliam, as beautiful as a village can be, still reflects the New England talent for survival. It began as a farming center, which turned out to be a mistake, because there is so much granite beneath the soil. The major industry then became the making of small wooden objects such as clothespins, but ultimately the town fathers faced facts and began quarrying granite. Cars and better roads made it the perfect suburb for Keene after World War II, and now it has a large population of retirees.
The approach on narrow roads is through dense forests graced with ponds and lakes. ''It's sometimes called the Forgotten Corner of New Hampshire,'' Wallace said, ''and also 'Currier and Ives' country.'' That makes it a perfect place to stay in any season of the year.
Some think to have an inn and run it well is to lead the good life, but it isn't easy and takes much more than mere yearning.
Charles Wallace is a graduate of Cornell's hotel school and was for several years manager at the Wellesley Club, Wellesley, Mass., and later was manager at Boston's Harvard Club, before buying the inn.
Each Christmas season at the Fitzwilliam Inn, carols are sung around the piano, and on Christmas Eve a generous portion of plum pudding made from Elsie Wallace's mother's recipe.
Here is the recipe in original form, with additional instructions below the ingredients. Also, the recipe for Barbara Wallace's pumpkin bread with fresh cranberries.
''This is the way the original pudding recipe reads,'' Elsie Krieg Wallace wrote, ''but read all the suggestions and directions before you start.'' Plum Pudding Fitzwilliam Inn 1 quart stale bread, broken into pieces Milk or water 1 cup molasses 1 cup flour 1 cup seeded raisins 1 teaspoon each cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and saleratus Pinch of salt
1. Break up the bread in a large bowl or kettle and slowly add water, all the while squeezing the water through the bread. Use only just enough to moisten the bread thoroughly.
2. Measure and sift dry ingredients. Add a little flour to the raisins so they don't stick together and will be more evenly distributed. Then add them to the dry ingredients.
3. Squeeze as much water out of the bread as you can and discard. Add the molasses. Mix well. I like to use a wooden spoon. Add the other ingredients and mix well.
Saleratus is the same as baking soda, so regular baking soda may be used instead.
The pudding may be poured into a two-quart tube steamer with a tight lid and the steamer set in a kettle of water. The kettle must have a well-fitting lid, too, to keep in the steam.
It may be put in a regular square or oblong cake pan. In that case, set the dish of pudding in another dish of water and cover loosely with foil.
Bake about 13/4 hours at 350 degrees F. - don't hurry it. Water may have to be replenished in the bottom pan. I do this by using a flower-watering can with a long spout - the kind used for your houseplants - so as to disturb the pudding as little as possible. Hot Sauce for the pudding 1 cup sugar 1 cup water 1/2 cup butter 1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in a little water 1 teaspoon vanilla or 1 teaspoon lemon extract
Combine in a saucepan and let come to a boil and thicken a little. Holiday Pumpkin Bread 4 large eggs 3 cups sugar 1 cup vegetable oil 2 cups canned pumpkin 3/4 cup water 1 pound fresh cranberries 4 cups flour 2 teaspoons soda1 teaspoon baking powder 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon cinnamon1 teaspoon nutmeg
Beat eggs and gradually beat in sugar. Stir in oil and pumpkin. Pick over cranberries, combine with water in container of a blender, and chop coarsely. Add to pumpkin mixture.
Sift together flour, soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Combine the two mixtures well and turn into 3 greased loaf pans, 81/2 by 41/2 inches.
Bake in a preheated 350 degrees F. oven for 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack 10 minutes. Turn out of the pans and cool completely.