06 October, 2008

The Berlin Fair, Berlin Connecticut

Since 1949, the Lions Club of Berlin CT has hosted the Berlin Fair on the former Connecticut State Fairgrounds in Berlin. It's still a traditional agricultural fair, with livestock judging and folks showing off their handicrafts and canning skills, and of course there's plenty of food.

Our first stop inside the fairgrounds is right inside the gate: Dough House's Giant Raised Donuts. They've been in this same spot at the fair since we first started coming here, almost twenty years ago. Giant donuts are typical "carny food": oversized, unique, and sold from a concession trailer. They're also pillowy-soft and fresh and delicately dusted with sugar - one of the only "sweets" we buy at the fair. And although they're huge, we limit the damage they do to our caloric intake by splitting one between us. (Actually, that's pretty much the way we graze through most of the fairs and events we visit - one of us will take a fancy to a certain food and then my wife and daughter and I will share the munchies and discuss what we like and don't like about what we're having.)

Giant raised donuts notwithstanding, the big food draw at the Berlin Fair isn't in the typical carny food booths. Many of the churches and and civic organizations from the Berlin area have permanent buildings at the fair where they serve various home-cooked foods to the crowds. One vendor I spoke with at the fair says that he really loves setting up at Berlin, because he doesn't have to eat "all that deep fried crap" for three days - there's delicious roast beef sandwiches, homemade mac 'n' cheese, beef stew, barbecued chicken, and even lobster rolls available from the many food buildings. There are far too many great foods to eat at the Berlin Fair even if we were to attend all three days, so I'll just hit some highlights as we go along - starting with the delicious mac-and-cheese made by the Kensington Congregational Church. Cheesy and creamy, it had the wonderful flavor of real cheddar cheese and was obviously scratch-made.It was also a lot better than the sad excuse for pasta e fagioli I bought at the same place. Shown at left, it was a watery mess of elbow macaroni with hardly any beans at all, lots of barely-cooked celery slices, coarsely ground black pepper, and far too much cheap dried oregano. Served with the tiniest "dinner roll" I'd ever seen, the Kensington Congregational Church charged me $4.50 and didn't even give me a pat of butter for the roll. They were also the only building at the Fair that was selling "homemade" baked beans, but I passed on them when one of the workers let it slip that the beans weren't really homemade, they just "opened up cans and added stuff to them." I wasn't about to pay $3.50 for a cup-and-a-half of B&M beans.

One of our favorite sites at the Berlin Fair is the building holding the prizewinners from the baking and canning competitions. We like to compare our own canning results to those of the folks entering the competition, and we also enjoy seeing what types of home preserves are popular. There were rows of canned tomatoes and tomato sauces, strawberry jam, pickles, and jellies. I don't envy the judges - some of the differences between first- and second-place winners were pretty subtle.

One of the first-place winners was a display called "Hot pepper heaven" - a series of old-fashioned rubber-gasket jars, each filled with a different type of pepper. There were red cherry peppers, green cherry peppers, red ripe Hungarian hot peppers, and jalapenos. The four jars together made for a very nice display, and it was easy to see why the judges liked them.

One of the more unusual first-place winners was this jar of sweet basil jelly. Maryanne and I had never heard of this before, but a quick check on Google later showed me that there is no shortages of recipes for it on the Web. We might try making a batch of it later this year (fresh basil is nearly always available to us at our local greengrocer.)

There was also a truly amazing-looking hot pepper jam that someone had made with red cherry peppers. It was an angry-looking fiery red with clusters of seeds hovering near the top and looked like it really packed a kick. It was a blue-ribbon award winner in the "Any Other Vegetable Jam" category.

Another of our "foodie destinations" at the fair is the Roasted Peanut booth. This year, there were a pair of Scouts tending the gas-fired peanut roaster; they were roasting nuts in small, two-pound batches which was just enough to keep up with demand and provide everyone who stopped at their concession with a hot paper bag of freshly-from-the-roaster peanuts. As far back as we can remember, this has been one of the most popular snacks at the fair, and it's no wonder - the aroma of roasting nuts floats over the crowd as they come out of the handicrafts barn and head for the Midway.


There are three excellent places to get fries at the fair, and each of them specializes in a different style of delicious fried potatoes. At the corner of the Midway near the cattle barn, the local Kiwanis Club sells marvelous ribbon fries - russet potatoes, thinly sliced in an "endless" spiral and fried to crispy perfection. Salt, pepper, vinegar, and ketchup is available for those who desire them (my daughter likes ketchup.)

Near the center of the fairgrounds, the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department dishes up thick-cut steak fries, crispy and mealy and very nice indeed. And just down the hill from them, close to the concert stage, is the East Berlin Volunteer Fire Department with their own food pavillion, serving up fantastic sweet potato fries that are crispy on the outside, hot and creamy on the inside - an indescribably delicious contrast in texture that makes for one of the most satisfying noshes at the fair. (The EBFD also sells deep fried Oreo cookies. I hope their kitchen equipment includes a defibrillator.)

Local Agriculture

We were disappointed that the poultry exhibit was so small this year - mostly bantams with a handful of standard breeds. I love chickens, and the poultry exhibits are my favorite part of the fair, so I was sorry to see that most of the barn was taken up with boring old rabbits. Still, I was able to have a little bit of fun, clucking at the hens and hand-feeding them their mash and even hypnotizing a few of them (yes, it really works. Check out this eHow article about it - that's pretty much the way I do it - and make sure you laugh at the end of the article where it warns you to wear "protective gear" because "chickens can cause bodily harm." LOL, what idiots.) But the sheep were surprisingly affectionate this year, some of them actually nuzzling our hands as we walked by, hoping to have their ears and noses scratched.

Giant pumpkins are always a crowd-pleaser at New England fairs. Berlin puts them at the back of the produce barn to help draw people in and through the exhibits.

Other prize-winning vegetables and baked goods were on display as well. Click on any of the thumbnails in the list below to bring up a bigger picture if you're curious.
  • This clustered carrot won a blue ribbon for "most unusual" vegetable.

  • We joked about this potato looking like a fetus, naming it "ProLife Potato." It got second place in the "most unusual" category.

  • This seasonal apple pie was decorated with pastry oak leaves.

  • Delicious cake is delicious.

  • An amazing variety of hot peppers (mostly different kinds of habaneros.)

  • Beautifully decorated carrot cake.

  • The baked goods display, with the winning ribbons attached.

  • Future bacon. Sorry this one's kind of blurry. The little bastards wouldn't stay still long enough for me to get a good, clear shot.

  • Their milkshakes bring the boys to the barn.


1 comment:

Michele said...

The ribbon fries look like something that I would dig into! As for deep fried oreos...I had never had one before moving to NJ. I've come to realize that they are standard boardwalk fare here. I caved into the pressure of the locals and tried one over the summer. If you love tons of sugar and even more grease then deep fried oreos are wonderful. I however found them tasteless and annoying. (I burnt my tongue!) I think my all time favorite fair food would have to be the Made-Rite sandwiches that I would get when I lived in Iowa.