More sunny summer adventures originally published in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in June, July & August of 2014.
Midcoast Maine is a knockout for culinary enthusiasts with edible destinations like Salt Water Farm, Cellardoor Winery, and chef-owned inns like The Norumbega and Hartstone. The Camden, Lincolnville and Rockport area is a foodie mecca with tastings, classes and chef’s dinners for locals and tourists alike. “We don’t eat to live,” says local cookbook author, Dana Moos, “We live to eat.”
When looking for a food-centric getaway, I head for the godfather of culinary travel in midcoast Maine, Michael Salmon at Hartstone Inn in Camden. This friendly and accomplished chef attracts travelers from all over. My classmates include a chef from New York, couples from Massachusetts and Connecticut, and a pair of New Hampshire sisters attending their 4th gustatory getaway with a 5th planned for later this summer. “We love it,” they say, “we always learn something new!”
Today is Hartstone’s popular Lobster Lovers class. We’ll prepare Lobster with Vanilla Beurre Blanc; Lobster and Asparagus Salad; Avocado and Lobster Cakes; and Lobster-Gruyere Souffle with Grilled Corn Cream. Hungry yet? Best of all, participants enjoy a generous serving (or two!) of each divinely decadent dish, and will leave with a fistful of recipes.
The Hartstone kitchen accommodates groups of 12, plus chef Salmon and his hard-working sous chef, Tim Biderman. To get things started, everyone is served a glass of chilled chardonnay. Lovely. One sheepish participant announces, “I’m allergic to diary.” Chef Salmon is unfazed, despite the fact that today’s menu includes a soufflé and a beurre blanc. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I can work with that,” producing individual portions that are delicious and dairy-free — he is unflappable.
Things move quickly, here, with tips, tricks and a soupcon of technique. Salmon demonstrates how to peel asparagus and better still, tells us why. He shows us how to use a microplane — I’ve been holding mine upside-down for years. He reveals the simple secrets of his go-to dressing, an unfussy emulsion of oil, tangerine juice and a bit of sweet Vidalia onion. Mm.
By the end of the afternoon, we’ve learned how to safely remove rubber bands from live lobsters (“hold ‘em by the knuckles”), how to roast a perfect tomato, and what it means to “know your salt.” We’ve also eaten four densely delicious courses. The fare is rich and fragrant, the chef and staff are gracious, and I never want to leave.
Rockport’s historic Union Hall houses Salt Water Farm Café & Market, an airy windowed space with exposed brick and central “stage” kitchen. On my first visit, the chef was deconstructing a man-sized halibut for the evening meal. I sipped a Moxie Tonic and watched, riveted, as servings were herbed, seared and delivered to diners — hunks of fresh ocean. The scene made an indelible impression as the ultimate in “dinner theatre.”
Today, the chef is wrangling beautiful farm-fresh produce into tasty meals. The atmosphere is convivial and fuss-free. Dilemma: cheddar-chive biscuit or fig and anise scone? Fig and anise, definitely. Dusted with powdered sugar, it arrives on a rustic enamel plate edged in cobalt blue. With a sweet clotted cream and a cup of chamomile tea overlooking Penobscot Bay, this is bliss with a view.
The saltwater farm is planted right to the to ocean’s edge, where mussels, sea urchins and periwinkles are harvested as part of Ahearn’s hands-on cooking classes. “We focus on fundamental skills here—it’s so gratifying watching people learn to trust their instincts and use their senses. We tear off a piece of every herb, get to know its smell, touch and taste.” The farm’s modern teaching kitchen opens onto the vast garden, ocean views, blue sky and a long gathering table for lovely communal meals.
Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville blends grapes, local and from-away, to make wines like my favorite crisp white, Viognier. Reds range from robust to jammy with clever names like Urbane and Ned Said Red. I leap at the chance for an extended wine tasting and cupcake-baking workshop at Cellardoor with Alysia Zoidis, creator of East End Cupcakes. “It’s cupcake in one hand, wine in the other,” she says. I’m in.
I sip a small glass of Perfect Stranger wine as Zoidis demonstrates her basic cupcake batter and go-to Italian buttercream. The industrial mixer is humming and the soaring barn-space begins to smell of butter and sugar. There are several couples the class, and it occurs to me that culinary travel can be pretty romantic. We sip, observing the art and science of cupcakes, in the changing afternoon light off Levenseller Mountain.
Participants sample East End’s red-velvet cupcakes and taste four flavors of buttercream using little sticks. I confess it’s hard not to use your fingers like a four-year-old. Then it’s on to bacon cupcakes with maple frosting, a wonderful breakfasty blend of salt and sweet. Blueberry cupcakes with native Wyman’s berries, topped with vanilla buttercream, are paired with Clary Hill Blue dessert wine for a sweet blue immersion. Wow.
I’m a little light-headed, but I guess that’s the idea. I’d welcome a palate cleanser of raw steak right about now. “Sugared out?” asks Zoidis. Yup. But it’s so worth it.
Cellardoor owner Bettina Doulton gives back to the community with seasonal fundraising events. Tastings, events and classes run all summer into fall, including wine-and-food pairings and celebrations for a cause.
That Sense of Place
Another culinary gem is found up the road at Camden’s Norumbega Inn. A graceful grand dame, this turreted stone castle is now in the capable hands of Chef Phil Crispo and his partner, Susan Walser, who runs the front of the house. Their tiny dog, Rocco, is official greeter.
I savor a Norumbega breakfast of smoked-cheddar corn muffins, ricotta-plum pastries, and addictive blueberry-lavender shortbread made with Kate’s organic butter and local Glendarragh Farms lavender. With a cup of Seacoast Norumbega blend coffee, this hunk of rocky coast offers up a piece of organic, fair trade heaven.
Crispo refers to midcoast as the “Napa Valley of the East,” and celebrates the diversity of area farmers and purveyors daily as he sources inspiration and ingredients for evening meals. His cheffy-banter is lighthearted, but there is an unexpected heft to his ideas and no mistaking his deep sense of place. “It’s terroir,” says Crispo. “If it grows together, it goes together.”
If you’ve never indulged in a chef’s tasting menu, it’s probably time. Each exquisite bite — aroma, taste, color and garnish (what my husband calls the “squiggly flourish”) — builds on the next. Imagine unctuous asparagus soup at its silky, seasonal best with a drizzle of white truffle oil. Robust Maine venison fajitas. Then maybe a bit of firm native cod with unexpected hints of masala, turmeric and coconut milk, followed by Raven’s Crossing greens kissed by wildflower honey.
Combine this epicurean alchemy with expert wine pairings for a memorable, one-off taste of Maine. In addition to daily kitchen magic, the Norumbega has tastings, pairings and culinary events — check norumbegainn.com for information. In the meantime, if you ask nicely, perhaps you can join chef Crispo in the kitchen and, as he says, “Rattle a few pans together.”