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Culinary cornucopia

With no signature cuisine,New Hampshire serves upthe region's classic tastes

Email|Print| Text size + By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / October 29, 2006

Every other state in New England, it seems, has a culinary claim to fame. Maine's got lobster. Vermont has maple syrup and cheddar cheese. Rhode Island's got jonnycakes and coffee milk, Massachusetts has Boston brown bread and baked beans and Wellfleet oysters. In Connecticut, there's New Haven pizza and . . . well, nutmeg.

But what meal is the hungry tourist from Kentucky or New Mexico eagerly anticipating when he touches down at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport? What quintessential food will the Granite State native, stranded on a business trip far from home, close her eyes and longingly recall?

Steve Taylor , the state agriculture commissioner and a living Google of New Hampshire culture, had some sorry news. "There isn't a unifying food or culinary tradition in New Hampshire," he said.

Taylor said the state's craggy, locally centered personality might be partly responsible. "We aren't really a state, we're 237 little republics," he said. "What's the style in Plainfield probably won't fly in Chichester."

He sent us to his friend Helen Brody, author of "New Hampshire: From Farm to Kitchen " (Hippocrene , 2003).

"It's been one of my problems," Brody sighed at the question . "We do it all well," she said, meaning the New England classics -- blueberries, maple syrup, cider, lobster , and, of course, apples. Heirloom apple varieties are coming back "in a big way" thanks to competition from Asia and the Pacific Northwest, she said.

"We may become known for that," she said. "That's what I'm hoping."

She called back later to say the Legislature had recently named the pumpkin the state fruit.

One thing is certain: Traditional Granite State cuisine tends to be uncomplicated and inexpensive , suiting a thrifty citizenry who revile taxes and pay their legislators a miserly $100 a year.

Taylor, for example, said tourists who want a real taste of New Hampshire should drop in on a church supper, where they might find a chicken pie like the ones he remembers from his childhood. Or they could come to a small-town beanhole supper , where locals cook beans in a fire pit for days at a time. Or return in March for sugar on snow: hot maple syrup drizzled on granular snow.

"The surface of it is cold when it hits the roof of your mouth, and you pull it off with your teeth, and in the middle it's warm," Taylor said. "It's just wonderful."

David H. Watters , co-editor of "The Encyclopedia of New England" (Yale University , 2005) and a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, had other ideas.

"Fried and pickled eel," Watters said. "Eel spearing was a huge local custom, and almost an industry around the Great Bay, especially in wintertime."

Um, anything else?

"The standard New Hampshire supper -- the big meal of the day was dinner, at noon -- was crackers crumbled in a bowl of milk," he said. "It was probably the origin of cereal. Older people and farmers still do that as an evening snack."

And to drink?

"Switchel , which is molasses and vinegar," Watters said, explaining it was a drink settlers enjoyed. "Water doesn't quench your thirst when you're working, but this really does. It's actually very good."

Fortunately, dining in New Hampshire has progressed considerably in 200 years.

A perfect place to sample New Hampshire cuisine in all its plain-Jane glory is the Puritan Backroom in Manchester. A cavernous family - owned restaurant off a road lined with strip malls, the Backroom is where everybody in town comes to eat and hang out.

The Backroom's roots date to 1917, when a pair of Greek immigrants opened their first ice cream and candy shop in Manchester. The Backroom still makes its own ice cream and offers everything from dirt-cheap grilled cheese sandwiches to juicy lamb skewers and Syrian bread pizzas.

But don't miss the chicken tenders, which the Backroom claims to have invented. Back in the 1970s, according to co-owner Chuck Stergiou , then-co-owner Charlie Pappas heard his chicken supplier grousing about all the leftover scraps of chicken breast he had.

"He asked, 'What do you do with them?' and he said, 'We throw them away,' " Stergiou said. "He said, 'Well why don't you give 'em to me?' After a while they started charging him because they knew he was making money."

Another Manchester star is Cafe Momo , which offers delightful Nepalese food in a cozy, brightly painted space just off Interstate 93. Co-owner Bhola Pandey , who is from Nepal by way of Australia, is one of many immigrants from around the world who are transforming Manchester into an ethnically diverse city whose residents speak dozens of languages.

Pandey, who likes his food healthy, uses plenty of fresh vegetables and little grease. His flavors are a bright mix of South Asian herbs and spices -- cilantro, ginger, sesame, lime, chile, curry. We like just about everything here, especially the spicy gundruk soup, made with dried mustard leaves that Pandey grows and cures himself, and momos, the classic Nepalese dumplings, accompanied by a spicy sesame tomato sauce.

For more refined dining, head to Portsmouth, where the Dunaway Restaurant provides a casual but elegant respite after a day of traipsing around . The Dunaway is housed in a softly lighted, rustic Colonial house at Strawbery Banke , a beautiful historic area of town with restored Colonial-era buildings and gardens.

Mary Dumont , the executive chef, was voted one of the Best New Chefs of 2006 by Food & Wine magazine . She prepares rustic American cuisine with local ingredients; her herbs are grown in the gardens at Strawbery Banke , and she cures her own meats. If you forgot to make a reservation, sidle up to the bar for a glass of wine and a snack, like a charcuterie and cheese plate with violet mustard, duck liver mousse, local cheese, and house-cured meats.

A good meal is harder to find in the North Country, home of the White Mountain National Forest. Hungry hikers are in luck: Libby's Bistro in Gorham offers everything from homemade crackers to boneless breast of duck au poivre, served in what feels like somebody's parlor. Chef Liz Jackson worked on the television shows of the late Julia Child, and it shows.

"If you travel in Europe, you can be in a remote spot way up high in some mountain town and stumble into a little family restaurant, maybe grandma's in the kitchen," said her husband and co-chef/owner Stephen Jackson . "We hope that's what people find when they come to Libby's."

Don't miss dessert. The warm gingerbread with oven-roasted pears was about the best we've ever had.

It wouldn't be fair to end without a good old-fashioned N'Hampsha house of pancakes, and you can't go wrong with a stop at the Intervale Farm Pancake House . Run by Patrick Connor , a fourth-generation native of Henniker who grew up on the farm, the place looks a pine-board sugar shack and features homemade syrup.

After all, Granite Staters aren't about to let Vermont own the maple syrup brand.

"Vermont doesn't own anything," said Joseph W. McQuaid , publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader . "They rent from New Hampshire."

Contact Lisa Wangsness at wangsness@globe.com.

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