Lancaster County, located deep in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country , has some of the richest, most productive farmland in the United States. Its farmer's markets are colorful with the fruits of the harvest, its restaurants are friendly with long tables of family style service, and its kitchens turn out some of the nation's tastiest food.
Some of the most famous Pennsylvania Dutch dishes, the ''sweets and sours,'' are the result of hardships that the early Swiss and German settlers faced during the 18th and 19th centuries.
These ''sweets and sours'' that grace many of the region's tables - chow chow , spiced melon, pickled vegetables, corn relish, and preserves - were developed partly because of the absence of refrigeration.
Undoubtedly the best way to enjoy a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch meal is to sit down with a local farm family at their noon meal. The next best way is to visit one of several regional-style restaurants such as the Plain and Fancy Dining Room located in the village of Bird in Hand.
At long tables heaped with bowls of sweets and sours, the food is served family style, allowing for second helpings of country ham, vegetables cooked in brown butter, shoofly pie, and other local specialities.
Two Lancaster County restaurants that have become nationally famous among culinary people are owned by Betty Groff. She and her husband Abe moved to a 96 -acre farm in Mount Joy in the 1960's and began serving dinners to the public in their home on Saturday nights. As clientele grew, Groff's Farm Restaurant expanded to serving five nights a week the year round.
Among the surprises guests at the 1756 stone farmhouse may encounter is Cracker Pudding and a moist chocolate cake, served at the beginning of the meal because, as Mrs. Groff puts it, ''We're sure you won't have room for dessert after dinner.''
Choices of entrees are home-cured ham and the house speciality, Chicken Stoltzfus, a chicken dish served in a rich cream sauce over flaky pastry diamonds. There is also homemade bread, fresh vegetables, seasonal fruits, and a second offering of dessert.
Last summer the Groffs purchased a gracious 1805 brick mansion in Mount Joy that at one time was the country home of Simon Cameron, President Lincoln's Secretary of War. The house, called the Cameron Estate Inn, can accommodate 25 overnight guests in its elegantly paneled rooms.
Among the excellent dishes is cream of watercress soup, made from the abundant supply of fresh watercress that grows on the estate grounds.
Along with the bountiful food served at these restaurants, there are many places where visitors to the area can see foods being made.
Cheese dairies, such as the Lengacher's Cheese House in Kinzers, still use copper kettles to turn out great golden rounds of Swiss, Muenster, and Gruyere cheese.
Pretzel factories in the area, range from the highly mechanized Anderson Pretzel Bakery in Lancaster, to the tiny Sturgis Pretzel House in Lititz, where big soft pretzels are still rolled out by hand. Many types of sausages and wurst produced in Lancaster County also attest to this German influence. Sweet bologna and the spicier Lebanon bologna are two of the varieties that visitors should try.
But fruits and vegetables are wonderful to look at in the old-fashioned farmers' markets in towns throughout the county. The largest and best known is the Central Market in the town of Lancaster on Fridays and Tuesdays. It is the oldest continuously operating open market in the US.
If you are planning a visit to Lancaster County, the Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Bureau at 1799 Hempstead Road, Lancaster, Pa. 17601 can supply further information on restaurants, farmers markets, and attractions in the area.
The following recipes originated in Lancaster County. The recipes for Chicken Stoltzfus and corn relish are from ''Betty Groff's Country Goodness Cookbook'' (Doubleday). Chicken Stoltzfus 1 5-pound roasting chicken 1 1/2 quarts water 1 tablespoon salt 1/3 teaspoon pepper Pinch saffron 12 tablespoons butter 12 tablespoons flour 1 cup light cream 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley, or 1/8 cup dried Pastry squares, recipe below
Parsley for garnish
Put chicken in 6-quart kettle. Add water, salt, pepper, and saffron and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour. Remove chicken and cool enough to debone. Strain stock. Reduce stock to four cups. Remove skin and bones from chicken and cut meat into bite-size pieces.
Melt butter in pot in which chicken was cooked, and mix in flour. Cook over medium heat until golden and bubbling. Add four cups chicken stock and cream, stirring constantly.
Cook over medium-high heat until the sauce comes to a boil. Simmer until thickened and smooth. Reduce heat and add chicken pieces and chopped parsley. Serve hot over pastry squares. Pastry Squares 1/2 cup lard or vegetable shortening 1/2 cup butter 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt About 1/2 cup ice water
Cut lard and butter into flour and salt with pastry blender, or mix by hand, until it forms crumbs. Sprinkle ice water over crumbs with one hand, while tossing lightly with other hand. Use only enough water to hold dough together.
Press dough into ball and put on lightly floured surface. Divide into 2 or 3 parts. Roll each part 1/8-inch thick to fit an ungreased cookie sheet.
On cookie sheets, cut dough into 1 inch squares with a pastry wheel or sharp knife. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven 12 to 15 minutes until lightly browned.
Arrange pastry squares on a heated platter. Spoon chicken on top. Garnish with fresh parsley. Serves 6. Corn Relish 8 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels 2 cups chopped cabbage 1 cup chopped onion 1 cup chopped bell peppers, both red and green if available 4 cups cider vinegar 4 cups sugar 2 teaspoons celery seed 1 tablespoon mustard seed
Put corn, cabbage, onion, and peppers in an 8-quart kettle. Put vinegar, sugar, celery seed, and mustard seed in a 2-quart saucepan and stir until dissolved. Pour over vegetables.
Place large kettle over medium heat. Bring to a boil and cook for eight minutes. Ladle into hot sterilized jars, filling to neck of jar. Seal. Do not move jars until completely cooled, about 12 hours. Makes 4 quarts or 8 pints. Shoofly Pie 1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell 1 cup flour 1/2 cup sugar 4 tablespoons butter or shortening 1/2 cup boiling water 1/2 cup molasses 1/2 teaspoon baking soda Pinch of cinnamon
Line a deep 9-inch pie plate with pie crust, making a high fluted rim. Mix flour, sugar, and butter together with hands until crumbly.
Add water to molasses, cinnamon, and baking soda, and beat with a spoon until foamy. Pour mixture into pie shell.
Add crumb mixture, pressing it down into molasses filling but leaving some on top. Bake at 350 degrees F. 35 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and brown.