The food scene in Maine is booming, with a new breed of chefs singing the praises of local produce from both the sea and the land. There's loads more to the state than lobster rolls – although rest assured that they are plentiful, and outstanding. Plan a gourmet weekend in Portland to gain insight into just how much there is to Maine's kitchen output.
The Farm-to-table Movement
Mainers like to claim that they invented the farm-to-table movement, and in many ways, they have a pretty solid argument. Back in 1952, two homesteaders named Helen and Scott Nearing purchased 160 acres of land in Harborside and began growing their own food. They also developed four-season techniques using a greenhouse and wrote the watershed book Living the Good Life, which espoused a simple, self-sufficient and sustainable way of farming. The work inspired a whole generation of land and sea farmers, foragers, chefs, restaurateurs and culinary craftmakers. They took the Nearings' ideas and made them widely accessible.
Eliot Coleman and his partner Barbara Damrosch arrived on the scene in 1968, and have since taken the back-to-the-land movement to the next level. They run the celebrated Four Season Farm, and have written extensively about agriculture, publishing numerous titles between them, including seminal texts such as The New Organic Grower and Four Season Harvest.
Blue Blood: Maine's Blueberries
Forget those mushy supermarket fakes – fresh Maine blueberries can't be imitated. Maine farmers grow more than 25% of the world's blueberries (and more than 90% of its wild blueberries, especially in far Down East), and do-it-yourself berry-picking is one of the locals' best-loved summer traditions. The pea-size fruits grow best in July and August, when many roadside fruit farms open their doors to DIY pickers; just drive up US 1 and look out for handmade cardboard signs. If you've got kids in tow, buy them a copy of Robert McCloskey's classic children's book Blueberries for Sal.
In the heart of blueberry country near Machias you can pay a visit to the kitschy Wild Blueberry Land. Inside this blueberry-shaped building you'll find all manner of blueberry edibles. On the third weekend in August, Machias also hosts a big blueberry festival, one of a handful happening in Maine.
Maine produces some delectable oysters, but foodies have long declared oysters from the Damariscotta region to be the best of the bunch. Cool, clean, nutrient-rich waters and a fertile river bottom create just the right conditions for growing high-quality bivalves. This is hardly news to the locals – in fact before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans were shucking Damariscotta oysters for over 2000 years, as evidenced by vast piles of shells, or middens, discovered on the riverbanks. Overfishing and pollution destroyed the oyster beds both in Damariscotta and nearly everywhere else on the eastern seaboard. By the 1980s, however, marine biologists declared water conditions had improved remarkably, and in 1986 Pemaquid Oyster Company opened the first oyster farms on the river.
Today there are more than a dozen oyster farms located up and down the river. In total they ship more than two million oysters to restaurants on the east coast and beyond. For oyster-minded travelers, the epicenter of the oyster scene is the town of Damariscotta, with nearly every restaurant and bar in town serving up these cold-water delicacies. Each September there's also a massive oyster festival held at the waterfront restaurant Schooner Landing.
During late April and May, foragers head to the edges of lakes, rivers and brooks in search of young ostrich ferns. They must find these green shoots when their coiled tips have yet to unfurl – this four-week window is the only opportunity to find the so-called fiddleheads. True to their name, these wild greens do indeed look the scroll at the end of a fiddle (violin). They taste vaguely like asparagus, mixed with the earthiness of mushrooms. If you're around in late April or May, look for them at farmers markets and at seasonally inspired restaurants.
As with other cherished food items, Maine hosts a festival dedicated to the fiddlehead. Get your fix in Farmington (about 38 miles northwest of Augusta) in early May; check out www.mainefiddleheadfestival.com for details.
Looking like steroid-pumped Oreos, these marshmallow-cream-filled chocolate snack cakes are a staple of bakeries and seafood-shack dessert menus across the state. Popular both in Maine and in Pennsylvania's Amish country, whoopie pies are said to be so-named because Amish farmers would shout 'whoopie!' when they discovered one in their lunch pail. Don't leave the state without trying at least one.
Eating is one of the highlights of a trip to Maine. Reservations are recommended for dinner, especially on weekends, and if you have your heart set on a particular restaurant.
- Restaurants Cater to every price range and offer every kind of cuisine.
- Cafes & Bakeries Open during daytime, cafes are good for casual meals, sweet treats or coffee.
- Clam & Seafood Shacks Informal eateries along the coast serving fried seafood and other simple preparations.
- Lobster Pounds Often with outdoor picnic-table seating, where you get messy (bibs provided) cracking open and eating lobster.
- Bars & Pubs Most drinking establishments also serve food, from basic 'pub grub’ to more innovative dishes (at so-called 'gastropubs’).
Note that a number of coastal restaurants and lobster shacks open only for the peak summer vacation season, from Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) to Labor Day (the first Monday in September). Many businesses extend that season, possibly opening sometime in May, and running until Columbus Day (the second Monday in October). Others may only open daily in July and August, but open weekends in May, June and September. It's best to call businesses directly if you're making specific plans.