Chow­ing Down Chow­dah

Taste & Travel - - Contents - by PETER JO­HANSEN

PETER JO­HANSEN joins the fes­tiv­i­ties in Bethel, Maine.

Robin Far­quhar likes chow­der. My friend is such a fan he can even tell you the ori­gin of the word: chaudière, the pot French fish­er­men once cooked stew in. So last Septem­ber, we trekked to­gether to Bethel, Maine, to join hun­dreds of oth­ers, chow­ing down “chow­dah” at the pretty moun­tain town’s an­nual Har­vest­fest and Chow­dah Cookoff.

A vil­lage tucked into the east­ern flank of New Eng­land’s White Moun­tains might not be where you’d ex­pect to savour chunky seafood soup. But tell that to Far­quhar, a re­tired univer­sity pres­i­dent. Be­sides sam­pling about 10 ver­sions of the dish, whipped up by the re­gion’s best chefs, chow­der heads like him also lis­tened to live mu­sic, vis­ited ven­dors hawk­ing ev­ery­thing from quilted ta­ble run­ners to or­ganic cos­met­ics, watched wood carv­ing demon­stra­tions, got faces painted, rode horse-drawn wag­ons and sipped lo­cal craft beer. Other ac­tiv­i­ties in­cluded demon­stra­tions of cider press­ing and rug hook­ing, a tour of a lo­cal sawmill, a fly­fish­ing com­pe­ti­tion and a 45-mile scenic moun­tain bike ride.

Far­quhar’s love of chow­der dates back to a child­hood on Vancouver Is­land. His fam­ily gathered clams at their beach home and he also dined on lots of chow­der at the is­land’s restau­rants, he says. All that has led to his favourite: New Eng­land clam chow­der. “I like to keep it sim­ple,” he says. “I like to know what I’m eat­ing, and that chow­der fits the bill.” Last year in Bethel, of­fer­ings in­cluded not merely vari­a­tions on tra­di­tional New Eng­land clam chow­der, how­ever. Other recipes fea­tured creamy corn, Ca­jun seafood and hal­ibut.

Robin Zinchuk, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the lo­cal cham­ber of com­merce, which or­ga­nizes the event, says: “Our chow­der’s al­most al­ways milk based, but the va­ri­ety is won­der­ful. And there’s no salt and pep­per on the ta­bles, so you eat it in its purest form.”

For $13, vis­i­tors get four-ounce sam­ples of each en­try, a cold drink and dessert. The lineup can be long. But once chow­der’s in hand, folks sit at out­door ta­bles, slurp their soup, and vote for a favourite. Last year the pro­fes­sional judges’ top three choices mir­rored those of the pub­lic. While the chow­der com­pe­ti­tion is for work­ing chefs only, am­a­teurs get into the act with ap­ple pie — a nod to the “har­vest” part of the fes­ti­val. Af­ter judg­ing, those en­tries be­come dessert.

The fes­ti­val be­gan as a way to bring vis­i­tors to town dur­ing the slow tourist sea­son be­tween the end of sum­mer and the fall fo­liage sea­son, Zinchuk says. For a town of just 2,500, those tourism high­lights are many. There are strolls through the un­usu­ally tidy down­town, a na­tional historic site with struc­tures dat­ing back to the 1770s. There’s a sparkling new state min­eral mu­seum in the works; its col­lec­tion stretches from Maine to Mars. Pic­turesque drives by moun­tain rivers of­fer chances to view moose and other wildlife. Nearby is the state’s top golf course; so, too, op­por­tu­ni­ties for moun­tain bik­ing, white­wa­ter raft­ing and kayak­ing, trout fish­ing in the Up­per An­droscog­gin River, and hik­ing (the area boasts the most chal­leng­ing mile of the en­tire Ap­palachian Trail). There’s even an L.L. Bean out­door school.

And af­ter all that ac­tiv­ity, re­fu­elling op­tions are plen­ti­ful at the area eater­ies, a choice made eas­ier — or not — once you’ve sam­pled the fes­ti­val en­tries. Be­cause it topped the judg­ing, we opted for 22 Broad Street, an up­scale Ital­ian restau­rant in a sur­pris­ingly cozy Greek Re­vival man­sion. Its crispy egg­plant lasagna and chicken breast, stuffed with goat cheese and apri­cots, proved the kitchen’s skills go far be­yond chow­der. And how we chose that restau­rant sits well with Zinchuk.

The chow­dah cookoff is meant to serve as a show­case for restau­rants, she says. Chow­der is the fo­cus be­cause “it’s a fall thing. It’s stick-to-your-ribs and, if the weather is cooler, you eat chow­der to stay warm.” But she hints the cookoff may be a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. Chefs find them­selves so busy now that it’s tough to steal away from their kitchen for fes­ti­val day. That may not faze my friend Far­quhar. “Serv­ings were cer­tainly am­ple to get a good taste of each,” he says. “I couldn’t fin­ish them all.”

PHO­TOS THIS SPREAD CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT Home­made goods for sale; A med­ley of chow­dah; Wagon ride in Bethel’s historic down­town; Punkin’ Paintin’.

PHO­TOS THIS SPREAD CLOCK­WISE FROM Ap­ple pie LEFT en­tries; En­joy­ing Har­vest­fest.

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