Golden, dreamy September, I remember you. Your days were longer than your ol’ pal December’s (heyyy there pineal gland— joke’s on you!).
After our inaugural trip to Portland, Maine, this summer, we were itching to get back up north. On our way out of town in June, we stopped in at the inimitable Rabelais Books and picked up some incredible tomes/life-advice/lunch recs/suggestion to attend the Common Ground Fair, produced by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
And that is how, being not a farmer nor much of a gardener nor a Mainer, I ended up as a card-carrying member of MOFGA.
Not all that sure what we were getting ourselves into (I signed us up for talks on working cattle in a woodlot, goat hoof trimming, backyard grain growing, foraging wild plants, and a whole heap of cider chats), we packed up our camping gear, bundled up the babe, and hit the road.
We planned on hitting the road a little later in the day, and so we booked an Airbnb for our first night, rather than trying to set up a campsite late at night. We lucked into a spot in an old farmhouse on a working farm, where Winnie met goats, chickens, a couple of calves, some horses, pigs, and her favorite— the turkeys!
It turned out that our hosts were pals with fermentation guru Sandor Katz (known to our hosts as Sandy, because duh), and that Katz wrote a good portion of his wildly important (get it?!) fermentation book at the farm. MAYBE EVEN IN THE ROOM WHERE WE STAYED, Y’ALL. Also, there was a composting toilet (which made Mike unspeakably happy, marital surprise number 37), the first of MANY on our trip (traveling surprise number 426).
We sat in the most delightful traffic jam of my life (somehow the folks on their way to see blacksmithing demos and friction fire classes were way less aggro than Brooklyn drivers), inching down winding roads tucked in fields of wildflowers (the number of Priuses sent it into twee overdrive) before parking the car and starting the picturesque walk into the fair through a low-impact common woodlot (also there were really cute composting toilet outhouses on this walk—no joke).
I’m pretty much living my life on the lookout for draft animals, so this was no big stretch:
Just outside the path through the woodlot stood a coffee cart that served one kind of coffee (hot, no decaf, correct), brewed using a stockpot of boiling water set on a burner built into the cart, ground by hand over the cart’s tire, and brewed via no-fuss no-frills pourover system. Not pictured: the ring of mismatched chairs next to the cart with a sign defining them as the “Euro-style café”.
In case you’re wondering, Coffeeman is relegated to the area just outside of the fair, as the fair only allows the sale of goods grown and produced in Maine. A coffee climate, it is not, and man cannot live by roasted dandelion root and hot cider alone.
A note: naturally, since we were headed out on a vacation with tons of natural light, a cute kid, and furry animals, we forgot the camera at home. You’re going to have to trudge through over-filtered iPhone snaps, and for that I am truly sorry.
Winnie was over the moon with all of the snacks and plants and grass in which to run around in. Also, kid can rock a double layer of fleece like no one I know.
Given that I was deep in Cider Week planning mode, the weekend was heavy on apples, so as to assuage my guilt for working remotely from a foresty wonderland.
See! Tiny tots working the apple press. Watch those little fingers, kiddos, and drink that stuff before it’s bubbly.
One of the major highlights of the weekend was meeting the legendary preservation pomologist (how’s that for a job title?) John Bunker. I had heard whispers of Bunker as the “apple hunter”, identifying wild and rare apple varieties found growing in backyards, on abandoned farm plots, and the like.
Bunker’s booth at the fair was incredible— a visual illustration of the biodiversity present in apples, alongside what must be the world’s greatest wanted posters.* People approached the apple hunter with apples bundled in handkerchiefs, noting they had just bought some land downeast and had noticed the gangly fruit borne on what appeared to be apple trees— had John seen this kind before? After a visual inspection and a taste, of course, he pegged the variety, and grew the greenhorns’ knowledge base a little more.
*Each of those four words links to a different wanted apple poster, which you can’t tell with this quirky layout, sorry!
Winnie was most excited about animals at a distance, particularly large ruminants, at whom she was more than happy to shout “MOOOOOO! BAAAA! NEIGH! MEGGHRRRHHHGG (goat)!” from about 10 yards away, but whose size rendered her speechless any closer.
But when it came to poultry, of course, Winnie was game.
This gal loves her chickens. She squatted down beside these ladies for at least 20 minutes, quietly bock-bocking in conversation, monitoring the behavior of other young ones around their pen, and then requesting that we visit the rest of the chickens, turkeys, and ducks inside the poultry barn (this request went like, “mo’ bock bock, mommy? mo’? mo’?”)
We stopped off to buy provisions near our campsite in Freeport (aside: we camped at a spot called Desert of Maine, which is basically like a historical monument to the dangers of monocropping and overgrazing), and while I got a forgotten prescription refilled (WTG, mom), Mike spent some pretty quality time with our babe.
Our little campsite with our little camper:
Thing we knew about our baby before we went to Maine: gal loves beans. Thing we did not know about our baby before we went to Maine: OH MY GOD DOES THIS GIRL EVER LOVE BEANS.
On our way to the fair the next day, we stopped at Rolly’s Diner in Auburn, a really delightful diner with a colorful early-bird crowd and the Platonic ideal of diner food with some French Canadian flair thrown in. We ordered Winnie pancakes with Maine blueberries and Maine maple syrup (because duh) but she wasn’t interested because I had something far better on my plate— a cup piled high with steaming baked beans. Winnie finished the entire thing before moving on to a few pancake nibbles.
Throughout the weekend, Mike and I were continually impressed with the food culture of Maine, and not just in a new-American-farm-to-table sort of way (though certainly there are excellent pockets of that culture) but also with the foodways of Maine. The iron cauldrons full of simmering beans then buried in a stone-lined pit under glowing coals, a tradition known as beanhole, was among the most heart-and-gut-warming of the weekend. The next day, a couple of burly dudes dug those pots out, hoisted them up, and began dishing out tiny, hot cups of porky, maple sweetened beans.
When we walked by the smoldering coals earlier in the weekend, we explained to Winnie that beans would be buried there, and while she slept through the unearthing, she woke up immediately after we got our hands on those sweet, sweet beans.
She was so overwhelmed when she woke up with the prospect of beans (and also, daylight, consciousness, the rain, etc) that she immediately burst into tears and sobbed for a solid three minutes before silently digging into her beans with singular focus.
What an adorable little weirdo.
There were tons of families and educational resources in each section of the fair, and I fell in love with these books:
Mike and I will always be cheese people, forever and ever, and it turns out so will the folks at the Common Ground Fair. We stood in a long, snaking line to gain entrance to the “cheese tent” and saw tons of incredible fresh and fermented dairy products all over. We were particularly enamored with the Balfour Farm cultured cream and yogurts (we fed Winnie cultured cream in place of yogurt for a week, which was really hard because I had to taste it and make sure it was, ya know, up to par every time I made her breakfast), as well every single cheese from Tide Mill Creamery, whose sweet little bloomies boasted delicate, paper thin rinds encasing a supple, custardy paste with all the cruciferous funk of Camembert, but clean-clean-clean as could be on the finish. With every bite I blurted out, “Seriously. Seriously, Mike. Seriously,” which I can only assume means they were seriously, seriously delicious.
Also of note: Thirty Acre Farm’s lacto-fermented veggies, which might be the best fermented thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, which is saying something since the best things I put in my mouth are always fermented. So, you know, lots of competition.
We left the fair laden down with gallons of maple syrup, pounds upon pounds upon pounds of wild blueberries, several kinds of sauerkraut, several cheeses, raw milk and fresh cider, and a bunch of books. Also, we all knew a lot more about blacksmithing than we did when we arrived.
The Monday after the fair, we decided to hang around in Portland for the day to catch Rowan Jacobsen chat about the biodiversity of apples and his book Apples of Uncommon Character at Space Gallery. During the day, I worked from a coffee shop in Downtown Portland while Mike and Winnie packed up the campsite.
I took a break for oysters, naturally.
We managed to squeeze in a few other meals and tooling around, and we took Winnie to the Portland Public Library to play, while I worked in the afternoon. If you know me, you know I LOVE PUBLIC LIBRARIES SO MUCH and the Portland Public Library is like, top five public libraries of my life and THAT INCLUDES PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES IT IS THAT GREAT. Here are some other spots we loved on this trip and last that I didn’t manage to work into either of the Maine posts:
Pai Men Miyake— Killer ramen, great beer selection, prices that reminded us that we weren’t in New York anymore, in the best way possible.
Urban Farm Fermentory— Delightful kombucha, cider, and mead, housed in a super cool food collaboration center.
Novare Res Bier Cafe— I cannot overstate how great this spot is, from the incredible bottle list to the well-curated rotating draft list to the massive outdoor deck to the CORNHOLE housed on said deck. I took more than one conference call on that deck, and they were the best conference calls of my life.
Fore Street— EVERYTHING HERE IS THE BEST. Really, every bite I took was like a standing ovation to Maine’s farmers and fishermen.
The Standard Baking Co.— The bakery outpost of Fore Street, above. Chewy, crackly-crusted loaves and decadent baked goods, so obviously you should live here.
Portland Farmers Market— Right, so, of course the most populous city in the state whose food culture I’ve been raving about has a great farmers market. Also, year round!
Rosemont Market— It’s not a vacation for Mike and me unless we manage to visit some grocery stores, so Rosemont was on our must-do list. We loved these little markets around town.
Maine Beer Company— Obviously.
The Holy Donut— Maine potato donuts with flavors like Allen’s Coffee Brandy, Dark Chocolate Sea Salt, and Ginger Glazed Sweet Potato.
J’s Oyster— The day we visited J’s Oyster (which is literally on the harbor, as in, you can probably see the lobster that’s about to go on your plate swimming in the ocean when you walk up) they were being featured in a lobster roll throwdown on the Steve Harvey show. Boy, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a bunch of Mainers say “Harvey”— excuse me, HAAAA-vey— about three dozen times.
Susan’s Fish And Chips— I want to eat everything fried from here all day, every day, but that would require way more cardio than I am currently willing to commit to. But oh, those fried clams.
Treehouse Toys— Fantastic selection of what I’d deem “play focused” toys— that is, toys that require that children play with them rather than doing the playing on their own (in other words, lots of pretend play, puzzles, instruments, puppets, and then like). Mike and I were both really impressed with the merchandising, and Winnie was really impressed with the fact that a thing called a toy store exists.
Portland Head Light/Fort Williams Park— On our first trip, we stayed in South Portland, just down the road from Cape Elizabeth and the Portland Head Light. Fort Williams Park is gorgeous, and the head light is so picturesque. We were stuffed when we arrived, and thus missed out on Bite Into Maine, the lobster roll food truck located in the park, but we heard raves about it for the remainder of the trip, so I consider it to be a major life regret.
Anyway, we’ll be back again, southern Maine— before the lupines bloom next, I’d say.