14. Apr, 2015

The Land of Lobstah and Clam Chowdah

“If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” – Mark Twain.

My favourite region of the United States is without doubt New England, the North-Eastern corner of the US. It consists of the six states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. Perhaps I am biased, because it is so unlike the Middle America depicted in countless movies and TV sitcoms. Apart from the official language, it probably has much more in common with neighbouring Quebec than with, say, Florida or California. The cuisine is more varied and less fatty than further south, and wine and cider hold their own against lager beer.

In many parts of the world, Americans in general are known as Yankees. In the USA, only New Englanders are referred to as Yankees, and in New England the word denotes someone from Vermont! Although the region and its population are tiny compared to the rest of the Union, both loom large in its history and national life. The Mayflower Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and the Puritans who settled on the shore of Massachusetts Bay were the root stock of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) who were to be the driving force behind the Revolution, the founding of the United States and its subsequent growth and development.

Many notable literary and intellectual figures produced by the United States before the American Civil War were New Englanders, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William H. Prescott. It remains at the leading edge of education and research, with four of the eight Ivy League universities (Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth) located there, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and several of America’s leading private schools. Foodies may be interested to know that Julia Child, the original TV Chef, was a Yankee.

New England is a land of contradictions: it was founded by Protestants, but will forever be associated with Irish Catholics. It is the most French part of the country, but culturally the closest to Britain. New England Republicans lead the North in the Civil War, but today the region is solidly Democrat and its people the least conservative in the USA. Yankees instigated the Revolutionary War, but are nowadays the least hawkish Americans. It is admired for its scenic countryside, but gave birth to America’s Industrial Revolution. It maintains a strong sense of cultural identity set apart from the rest of the country, combining Puritanism with liberalism, agrarian life with industry, and isolation with immigration.

“Yankees” are said to be as tough and unbending as Scots, and as frugally neat as the Dutch. The harsh climate, stormy seas and poor soil of their domain has instilled in them a culture of dogged toughness and an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humour. They often poke fun at their own accents, particularly the “Boston Twang” immortalised by the Kennedys and Boston Rob of “Survivor” fame. Its key feature is a dropped “r” at the end of a word, replaced by a drawn-out “ah” – resulting in “chowder” pronounced as “chowdah”.

New England cuisine is characterised by extensive use of seafood and dairy products, due to its historical reliance on its fishing industry, as well as extensive dairy farming in inland regions. Many of New England's earliest Puritan settlers were from parts of England where baking foods such as pies, beans and poultry were more common than frying as a means of cooking food. Two quintessential indigenous produce are maple syrup and cranberries. The main source of starch is potato, and due to the abundance of dairy, cream is ubiquitous. The predominant cooking techniques are stewing, steaming, and baking.

Fortunately for New England’s culinary fortunes, the ultra-frugal cooking style of the English Pilgrims was enriched by the influence of Italian and Irish immigrants and migrant workers from Quebec who brought the cuisine of Western France with them. Some traditional regional dishes (especially clam chowder, home-style ice cream and baked beans) are now enjoyed all over the United States. The oldest continually operating restaurant in the USA, the Union Oyster House, is situated in Boston while Louis’ Lunch in New Haven (home of Yale) is widely regarded as the birthplace of the modern-day Hamburger. A Portland restaurant called Amato's claims to have invented the "Sub" (made with ham, cheese, tomato, raw peppers and pickles) in 1902.

Fish and other seafood take pride of place in New England’s cuisine, and lobster is the first among equals. The collapse of the Cod population due to overfishing has led to a lobster boom, with the former being its main predator. Maine is the lobster capital of America, and thanks to the abundant supply lobster is no longer the preserve of the wealthy. Relatively inexpensive lobster rolls (lobster meat mixed with mayonnaise and salad, served in a grilled hot dog roll) are widely available in summer. Those who prefer a more formal setting and sophisticated presentation will not be disappointed either. The city of Portland, Maine, known for its numerous nationally renowned restaurants, was ranked as Bon Appétit magazine's "America's Foodiest Small Town" in 2009, and Boston also enjoys a proud reputation for fine dining. Crabs are also consumed with gusto. Maine has its own version of the Maryland Crab Cake, while further south the deep fried soft shell crab is king.

While the cod served in New England nowadays is mostly from Greenland and Iceland, there are other delectable fish left in local waters, most notably haddock, striped bass, halibut, bluefish (aka “shad” in South Africa) and scrod, the favourite among many locals. A chain of Boston franchise restaurants called “Legal Seafood” has taken up the cause of sustainable fishing, and only sources produce from suppliers with Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. This indicates that a company either fishes in a sustainable manner, or – increasingly – “farms” fish in a sustainable way.

No account of New England cuisine would be complete without reference to clam chowder – rich and creamy in Massachusetts; a clear broth in Rhode Island. I am partial to the former – there is nothing more warming on a bitterly cold day than a mug of “chowdah”, sprinkled with crumbled Ritz crackers. It is New England in a pot: an amalgam of seafood, dairy and potato. Clams are to Yankees what shrimp are to Southerners – served in myriad ways. Best known are fried clams, stuffed clams, New England clam bake, clam pie, clam cake, clams casino, clam thermidor and – of course – clam chowder. Oysters have their aficionados as well, and are eaten raw on a half shell, in a stew or deep fried like soft shell crabs. For some strange reason, mussels are not popular in this part of the world.

Less publicised, but also well worth trying, are the fresh water fish of the region’s countless rivers and lakes. Trout and salmon are the poster boys, and can be obtained wild-caught or farmed. Smallmouth bass are valiant fighters and – like all members of the Sunfish family – very tasty. Whitefish has incredibly delicate flesh, and Walleye (“Zander” in Europe) commands high prices in restaurants. My personal favourite, however, is the humble Yellow Perch (“Egli” to Europeans). To me, pan-fried fillets of this tasty little fish can hold their own against sole, kingklip and hake.

Among the non-seafood dishes in New England’s repertoire there are several real winners as well. There is a distinct French-Canadian influence in the cooking of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Classic Quebecois dishes include Tourtière (a savoury meat pie traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve), Poutine (French fries smothered in rich gravy and cheese curds), Cretons (potted pork) and Montreal-style Charcuterie (smoked meats). Largely landlocked New Hampshire has a hearty chowder of its own, featuring corn and bacon instead of clams, and is also renowned for its giant pumpkins. Apart from its utility during Halloween, it is also used in the pumpkin pie which is such an integral part of any Thanksgiving dinner.

Not only the food is different in New England – it has some unique names as well. In New England, hot and cold sandwiches in elongated rolls are called “subs” or “grinders”, as opposed to “hoagies” or “hero rolls” in most other parts of the country. “Sub” is short for "Submarine Sandwich", which Portland, Maine claims as its own. The Italian Sandwich, consisting of ham or salami, cheese, peppers, pickles, tomatoes, is popular, though usually kept distinct from other subs. Another curious name is a hot dog, popular in Boston, called a “New York Hot Wiener” which is completely unknown in New York!

Dessert lovers should feel right at home in the North-East as well. Wild blueberries are a common ingredient or garnish, and blueberry pie (when made with wild Maine blueberries) is the official state dessert. Rhubarb and strawberry pie is a firm favourite, as is the frozen milkshake or “frappe”. Some of the region’s abundant apples find their way into delectable apple pies. Maple syrup, rather than sugar, is used in almost all sweet dishes and desserts. Thanks to Ben & Jerry’s, Burlington, Vermont has become the ice cream capital of America, and Vermont produces more ice cream than any other state in the Union.

Vermont and New Hampshire, like Quebec, produce lots of cider apples. New England cider is among the very best produced anywhere, with my personal favourite being “Woodchuck”. It is not only drunk chilled, but also hot and mulled during the Festive Season. The piece de resistance is without doubt Ice Cider, North America’s answer to Sauternes and Tokay dessert wine. Selected apples are left on the trees until late autumn, when frost causes the skins to crack and much of the juice to evaporate. The dehydrated apples are then crushed, rendering a syrupy must which produces a naturally sweet cider after fermentation. If I had to pick one after-dinner drink to the exclusion of all others, this would be it!

New England has many local lagers and ales with loyal followings. Notable examples include Samuel Adams of Boston, Shipyard Brewing of Portland, and Sea Dog of Bangor. One of my favourite memories of Boston was quaffing a draught Sam Adams in the reconstructed “Cheers” bar in Quincy Market – sitting in Norman Peterson’s chair, nogal!

Wine is also coming to the fore, thanks to the consistent increase in the number of sunny days per year. Although New England is generally regarded as too cold for the production of quality wine, there are areas with milder microclimates that resemble conditions in Burgundy. This bodes well for producers of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir...

For most people, losing your ‘Khakis’ means your trousers are gone. If you’re from Boston, it means you can’t start your car.” – Conan O’Brien.