Yesterday was my first trip of season to the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh. The summer-like weather was almost perfect: temperatures in the upper-70s, without humidity, but with a gusty wind that managed to blow dust and ash onto my contact lenses more than once. The air was filled the crisp snap of banners flapping in the wind, the pulsing beat of pop music from rides, and the cacophony of carnival barkers and sound-effects from games, randomly punctuated by the occasional blatting of vuvuzelas (WHY are those still around??) My nose was tickled by the aromas of frying batter, grilling meats, roasting corn, and farm animals being farm animals. I decided to spend the day outdoors and postpone my visit to the exhibit halls until next week.
I began my fair-food sampling with an apple dumpling from Smitty's Apples. The peeled and cored apple was wrapped in dough that tasted like well-made pie crust, and the tender apple yielded readily to my plastic fork. The caramel drizzle added just the right touch of sweetness to complement, not overwhelm, the flavor of the apple. This would be a great treat for someone looking for a dessert that's not sugary.
After strolling the grounds and taking many photographs (which you can see on the Carolina Sauce Company Facebook page, I stopped for lunch and selected two of my annual fair food stops: The "Hot Fish" booth across from the waterfall by Dorton Arena, and the NC State Farmers' Market Restaurant food truck. The folks at "Hot Fish" know how to fry tilapia, and their fish is always fresh, moist-flaky, lightly battered and never greasy. I dressed my sandwich with Texas Pete Hot Sauce and a long squirt of creamy tartar sauce, and devoured it with a small (which is actually enough to share) side of fried okra from the Farmers' Market truck. The fish was as good as always, but the crispy okra was just on the verge of being greasy, which was a bit disappointing.
The highlight of my day was the bread-making demonstration at the Neomonde Bakery tent, where Chef Benjamin entertained the crowd with his outgoing personality, self-effacing humor, and useful tips for baking bread, all while making a 10-lb batch of cranberry-pecan bread with hands-on audience participation. The large tent accommodated a few dozen folks and came equipped with a commercial mixer, three-oven "tower," a proofing oven, sink, cooking stage & counter, and well-stocked bakery display. Several types of all-natural artisanal breads were available for sampling and purchase, and the jalapeno-cheddar bread was particularly outstanding. You could also buy a variety of pastries and muffins. I took home a loaf of multigrain bread with currants, which has been wonderful with breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you visit the NC fair this year and you are a home baker, I highly recommend watching one of Neomonde's twice-daily baking demonstrations as you'll surely pick up a tip or two that you can use at home.
My next stop was the NC State University ice cream store, where the line wound around the side and extended for some distance--in fact, it was significantly longer than any of the lines for rides. It was well worth the wait for a heaping bowl of their new flavor for 2011, called "Wolftracks," a play on the NC State Wolfpack mascot and "moose tracks" ice cream: creamy vanilla ice cream made by students from milk from the University's dairy farm, with swirls of chocolate fudge and mini peanut butter cups. I don't even want to think about the calories or fat grams.
Feeling safely full and able to resist all further food temptation, I headed over to the "Got to be NC" tent to check out the North Carolina products and say hello to some of my colleagues in the food business, including the folks from Mackeys Ferry Peanuts who were sampling their award-winning peanut butter, and Cheng & Weng of Capsicana Zing with their ever-popular Zing sauce. I did NOT count on hearing the siren-song of Lumpy's Ice Cream and being lured in by their latest inspired creation: bourbon & bacon ice cream. Admittedly, I was both intrigued and skeptical, but decided to get a cup, purely for the sake of research of course. That, and because I cannot resist bacon, especially in unconventional preparations.
The ice cream was unassumingly nondescript in appearance, but with one bite it was clear that this was no "plain-jane" kid stuff. Dense, custard-like vanilla ice cream had been infused with the subtle oaky flavor of bourbon, for an effect similar to that of rum-raisin ice cream but less sweet and without the alcohol bite. As the ice cream melted on my tongue, the generous chunks of chewy, salty, smoky, meaty bacon emerged in all their glory. This was bacony ice cream NIRVANA! If you like eating bacon with syrup-drizzled pancakes, this ice cream flavor is for you. Unfortunately, it's not available in stores--BUT you can buy it by the pint from Lumpy's at the fair! ("It comes in pints!" cried the overjoyed, wide-eyed hobbit.) I'm bringing a cooler with dry ice and stopping at Lumpy's booth at the end of my fair visit next Tuesday.
Having had "second dessert" (the apple dumpling was breakfast, mind you!), I felt compelled to walk another lap--or three--around the fairgrounds before calling it a day. I paused to watch the Jaycees' charity Turkey Shoot, where people compete by shooting at targets and the winner of each round takes home a frozen turkey. For the record, no turkeys are harmed during this competition. But as I turned to leave, I couldn't help but notice the "Giant Turkey Legs" booth strategically located just across the road from the turkey shoot. Coincidence? Perhaps....