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Mystic — As sunshine streamed down on Olde Mistick Village Saturday, visitors strolled from shop to shop sampling hot cups of lobster bisque or New England clam chowder.
With temperatures reaching the mid-40s, many cast aside their winter parkas and instead donned sweaters and light jackets for the 11th Annual Cabin Fever Festival and Chowder Cook-Off. The festival-goers chatted with friends on benches, snapped photos and lined up for chowder at the village's stores.
"A day like today just reminds you spring is coming," said Laura Jacques of Cromwell.
Jacques was sitting outside a village shop on Saturday afternoon with her husband, Fred Jacques. She said she enjoyed the change in weather after a long, snowy winter — and, of course, the chowder. She said she enjoyed the varieties offered Saturday, from a hearty clam chowder to a southwestern shrimp one.
Jacques was one of hundreds of visitors sampling chowder at the busy festival. Cars packed the parking lot, and several restaurants and shops ran out of chowder or needed additional cups to accommodate the crowd.
The chowder cook-off benefits the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center Emergency Food Pantry, which feeds about 2,000 people per year in North Stonington, Stonington, Pawcatuck, Westerly and Mystic, said the center's executive director, Vicki Anderson.
The festival began more than a decade ago with one merchant's vision and has grown since then, said Anderson. This year, about two dozen village shops and restaurants ladled out their own chowders or varieties from restaurants around the region. The charitable event depends on the generosity of stores and restaurants that donate gallons of chowder, local sponsors and visitors who purchase the tickets for the chowder, she said. The festival, which also featured musical performances and nature exhibits, raised about $21,000 for the food pantry.
Cora Hayward of Norwich and Brian Jolicoeur of Gales Ferry were two festival-goers who were enjoying the sunshine on Saturday afternoon. The festival invited residents to cast their vote for their favorite chowder, and Hayward and Jolicoeur said they liked a clam chowder with hints of celery, as well as a creamy lobster bisque.
Hayward said she can tell a good chowder by how flavorful it is: "It stimulates all parts of the tongue and the palate."
Sharon Clemente, who owns Semolina Pasta Shop with her husband, Stephen Clemente, said Saturday's festival was the busiest one she could remember.
"It's nice after the weather has broken for the community to come together — for a benefit and for fun," she said.
Westerly High School's Highland Grille won for best use of regional ingredients for the chowder made by the culinary arts students. Semolina Pasta Shop won for heartiest chowder, a haddock marinated in Champagne with corn, potatoes and bacon. Soundings Lodge at Mystic Hilton won for most creative chowder, for a buffalo chicken and roasted corn chowder. Day staff writer Rick Koster served as one of the three judges, alongside Dave Tranchida and Elissa Bass.
In the "People's Choice" category, Ocean Blue Catering at Mystic Aquarium took first place, Highland Grille second and Octagon Steakhouse third.
A list of participants and more information on Olde Mistick Village is available at www.oldemistickvillage.com