From the seafood of the Maine coast, via Philadelphia’s homey treats to the crabs and hot peppers of Chesapeake Bay, the north-eastern US makes a great greedy person’s tour
If you know where to look, the north-eastern US is dense with great food, in both raw materials and restaurants. On the coast of Maine, much of the gastronomic wealth comes, of course, from the sea, including produce that old-fashioned Yankees would never think of eating, such as sea urchin roe, seaweed and sea cucumber.
The coast of Maine may be my favourite place in the world, for its rocky beauty, the character of its people, its sense of history, and its food. One of my happiest memories is of the six months I lived and worked in a house by a small harbour. The coast is big. It takes four-and-a-half hours to drive it by the fastest route, which cheats by running partly inland. Stretched out, the coastline would run for more than 3,000 miles, and that’s not counting islands (see mainecoastguide.com).
The town that gives the strongest sense of coastal Maine life is Stonington, at the foot of Deer Isle, connected to the mainland by a tall, narrow bridge. Stonington has by far Maine’s largest concentration of lobster boats. It’s very picturesque, with limited evidence of either the good or ill effects of tourism, and it lies on the Penobscot Bay, which is a candidate for most beautiful bay in the world.
To see the bay properly, take the “mail boat” from Stonington to Isle au Haut, a few miles south at the edge of the bay. Then, if you’re back in town early enough, you can watch the lobstermen unload their catch. From there, head to 36 Main Street and eat a lobster with the locals at the Harbor Cafe (+1 207 367 5099).
Back on the mainland, hang a left at Brooksville for the Cape Rosier peninsula. Near Harborside, lovers of organic veg will enjoy a stop at the famous Four Seasons Farm (609 Weir Cove Road, fourseasonfarm.com), run by eminent gardener Eliot Coleman, to buy produce, books and artworks from the local artist collective.
To the south-west, the other side of Rockland, lies what is probably the north-east’s best spot for oyster-farming, the Damariscotta river. It’s really a long tidal inlet, in whose lower portion the cold water and balance of salt produces slow-growing, full-flavoured, fine-textured oysters. If you want to open them yourself, buy them at the little shop at Glidden Point Oyster Co. If you’d rather have someone else do the work, sample them at King Eider’s Pub right in Damariscotta town.
When I first began to eat in Boston some years ago it was a gastronomic backwater, and appeared to suffer from a strong, lingering Puritan influence. Of course, it had been known for certain foods — baked beans (which can be excellent), cod (ditto), and the incredibly old-fashioned-sounding Indian pudding, which is cornmeal mush with molasses. Now Boston restaurants are totally up to date. Some of the best get their humanely raised, organically fed poultry, rabbit, pork, and other things from Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds up the road in Concord, Massachusetts. Taste these excellent meats at Bondir a contemporary restaurant in Cambridge, just over the Charles river.
Cranberries, an ultra-American, originally wild fruit, are harvested at the end of September and early October. It’s fascinating to see the harvested red berries floating in a flooded bog, but those berries are only for processing. For keeping, they must be harvested dry, which is done nowadays by machine. Kristine and Robert Keese of Cranberry Hill Farm (+1 508 888 9179, organiccranberries.com) in Plymouth, Massachusetts, became the first certified-organic cranberry growers in the US almost 20 years ago. In season, you might catch their two-day harvest, and buy straight from the growers (call first).Nungwi Village
The food of Philadelphia, in the shadow of New York, is underappreciated by those who haven’t been. I’ve come to know the city and its ever-increasing number of good restaurants only as an adult. At weekends, the famous Reading Terminal Market is full of energy and jammed with people coming to buy from the countless purveyors, including Amish. Buy a soft Philadelphia pretzel ($2) in the market at Miller’s Twist .Nungwi Village
Philadelphia is known for scrapple, a loaf made of cornmeal with pork scraps, including liver, plus spices – a polarising food. It’s served sliced and fried crisp on the outside. I once immersed myself in the topic, doing a blind scrapple tasting, looking for the best. It’s diner food, widely available, including at the market, and no one who loves it seems to complain about the quality anywhere.
Heading south-east from Philly, the former manufacturing city of Baltimore is still an important seaport. It sits on the wide Patapsco river where it joins Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore has grit and character. Chefs draw on the enormous and wonderful bay, which is one of the world’s most biologically rich bodies of water.
Blue crabs are not only delicious, they are also the most important food that comes from the bay, in terms of quantity. They’re at the soft-shell stage from May to September. It’s fascinating to watch the crabs moult, which takes place in “floats” – special crab pens on the water or at the water’s edge. They’re easy to spot in places on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, such as around Crisfield. But Baltimore is where the chefs cook them best.
I grew up in Maryland and love its hilly farmland, settled more than three centuries ago. Much of it has been swallowed up by housing, but a new generation of small farms provides great local ingredients. A key Chesapeake item, nearly lost in the 20th century and now being revived, is the pretty, and tasty, hot fish pepper, an African-American chilli once associated with Baltimore’s oyster- and crabhouses, which explains the name. As the fish pepper ripens, it becomes green-and-white striped, before turning brilliant red. A great proponent of Chesapeake food is Spike Gjerde, the chef at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. There you can buy dried fish pepper and fish pepper hot sauce, as well as eat the pepper and other prime ingredients in various dishes.
So there you have it, a foodie trip down the whole of the north-east. From Maine to Maryland, the landscape and ingredients are so diverse that you might feel like you’re in two different countries.
• For more information on holidays in the USA, visit DiscoverAmerica.com