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Did you know that Pennsylvania Dutch Country is known as "The Garden Spot of America"?
So it's only natural that this picturesque and productive area has created a series of "Culinary Tours," part of FlavorFest, a celebration of food so big that it lasts all year. You may choose to take one of the Signature Culinary Tours which run from Friday, May 12, through Sunday, Oct. 30, or journey yourself any time during the year.
Just a relatively short drive from Philadelphia - about 80 miles - to the rolling farmlands of Lancaster County takes you back to another century. Amid the miles of bucolic landscape are the fields, farms and small factories that create some of the world's favorite foods.
In this extraordinary locale, the oldest and second-largest Amish community in the country works on small farms, many powered by windmills and horses. These farms produce more food than any other non-irrigated county in North America.
Around the 1720 to the 1730s, the Amish and Mennonite communities left Europe and settled in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania in land granted as part of William Penn's holy experiment of religious tolerance.
For the most part, the Old Order Amish do not own or drive cars (a horse and buggy is just fine, thank you), live without electricity, do not watch television, have prescribed dress patterns, operate their own schools and speak Pennsylvania Dutch among themselves.
Most prefer farm-related occupations, respectfully cultivating the land that provides an abundance of items. And that, of course, leads to right-from-the-oven rich baking. Church is central to social life; prayer services are usually conducted as part of a gathering at private homes.
Although they are known as a people apart, they are also a people together. By choosing to live without automobiles and electricity, the Plain People - as they are sometimes called - embrace a lifestyle that disappeared from America generations ago; their history predates the American Revolution. Lancaster County offers an intriguing escape to a simpler time.
Visitors can spend a day or a weekend, even stay at a working farm, and discover the quaint towns made famous by the local cuisine. Just outside of Lancaster is the quaint town of Lititz, the site of America's first pretzel bakery, where you see pretzels made just as they were 145 years ago.
Also in Lititz is the Wilbur Chocolate Candy Americana Museum and Factory Tour, home of the famed Wilbur buds and lots of accouterments relating to the delectable world of chocolate.
The village of Intercourse houses Kitchen Kettle Village, a complex of 39 charming shops, cafes and demonstrations. Don't miss sampling the world-famous Chow Chow at Kitchen Kettle, where Amish and Mennonite women "put up" more than 5,000 jars of delicious jams, relishes and other tasty foods every day.
For the shop-aholic, Lititz offers Judie's on Main, a stunning boutique; on the same street there is also a consignment shop with bargain-basement prices. Prudent shoppers can also take advantage of the terrific outlets and discount stores on Route 30.
Not far away is world-famous Hershey, Pa. - a chocoholic's paradise. Enjoy a fascinating (and free) ride tour of the plant. Drive through the center of town and observe the Hershey Kiss lampposts. And then there's Hershey Park, which delights young and old from morning till dawn.
A wonderful experience is to tour Kreider Farms in the rich farmland of Manheim. This modern dairy - a third-generation family business - offers Farm Tours that reveal a behind-the-scenes look at a high-tech operation. Visitors drive through a cow palace and watch the cows on a 52-cow-carousel, where a dairy herd of 1,500 are milked daily. The hour-and-a-half tour can be taken in a touring bus or in one's own car. A bus package includes lunch.
Our tour guide, Ken, pointed out a trailer next to a barn, explaining, "Much of our production of milk goes to the kosher community. This trailer is where a religious representative of Star-K of Baltimore lives. He is a mashgiach - a supervisor responsible for seeing the proper processing rules are enforced for kosher certification."
The nonprofit Star-K represents the kosher community in promoting kashruth through education and research.
Glorious farmers' markets offer everything from tomatoes to turnips; the scent of delicious farm-to-market freshness is irresistible. Foods just picked are alive with radiant colors - and the folks who staff the booths exhibiting these wonderful foods are as congenial as your favorite relative. They love to talk to visitors, answer questions and describe their wares.
Market towns throughout the area each have their special celebrations, but the most famous marketplace is the Central Market, the nation's oldest continuously-operating farmers' market, right in the heart of Lancaster. It has been offering fresh meats and produce since 1730.
Today, it's all housed in a magnificent Victorian building, where folks can buy everything from farm meats and produce to locally made artisan cheeses, delectable desserts - creations culled from family recipes from around the world. Also to be had are stunning quilts - a specialty of these industrious people.
The market's open Tuesdays and Fridays, from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and all day Saturday.
Info to Go
Guided motorcoach tours depart from Hershey Farm Restaurant and Inn, Route 896, Strasburg. Tickets can be purchased on line (www.padutchcountry.com) or by phone at 1-800- PA-DUTCH or in person at the Visitors Center.
Tours are by advance reservation only.
• Farm to Fork — Days: Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Highlights: Amish farmlands, Intercourse Pretzel Factory, Kitchen Kettle Village, Strasburg.
• Chocolate-Covered Sundays — Days: Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Highlights: Elizabeth, Lititz, Hershey and Chocolate World, Landis Valley Museum, Strasburg.
• Trains, Farms & Foods — Every day. Strasburg Railroad/ Cherry-Crest Farm option: Monday to Saturday, July through October. Highlights: a 45-minute train ride, corn maze, browsing shops, selected-days visit to Groff’s Grove and Cherry-Crest Farm, farm-tour wagon ride, interactive farm-animal center.