There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t consider traveling without my climbing shoes. There is nothing like taking the hand of your belay partner and venturing onto a wooded trail or down the whipped, sandy shores of a beach in pursuit of sturdy cliffs and boulders. The discovery alone is heart swelling; my fingers and toes tingle with the anticipation of slipping my hands into a upward snaking crack or hoisting my heel onto a roof that stands as the gatekeeper to my view. My breath steadies and reminds me to be graceful and grateful.
More recently, my fork seems to have taken the place of my battered, musty climbing shoes. Though the subject of my pursuit now varies, the adventure and the company are akin. What joy it brings my heart and belly to follow my nose down the alleyway of a new city and into the swinging doors of a bakery, with a baker tinkering away at her art, coddling the dough that will become the croissant I wrap my lips around – delicately, so as not to waste a flake or crumb. Whereas I used to measure a new place by the composition of rock or the quality of the climbing community, I now take stock of its tastemakers, kitchens, flavors and farms.
Now, the ultimate journey is one where I can combine my two passions – where I can play outside with salted skin and chocolate dirt beneath my fingernails, and then change into a pair of city-slick garb and enjoy an appropriately priced velvety red and juicy, grass-fed lamb burger over sweet conversation at McKay’s Public House with my husband.
All of this is to say, welcome to Maine, which I first met on account of my friends’ wedding in Portland. Thank you to the betrothed Ranwei and Dave, for a weekend of marvel. It is a place where food and outdoor revelry merge.
Though I had never visited the northeastern-most state of our country, friends and strangers were never shy in singing the praise of Portland and the mid-coastal towns that wind their way up Maine’s ragged coast to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Without real expectation, I fell in love.
Portland sits on the southern coast, welcoming visitors into Maine’s fascinating blend of rugged wild beauty and refined, historic townships. Tucked around several harbors, the city is a pocket of progression, with bike-friendly, earth-friendly, community-oriented folks committed to a lifestyle of swinging seasons. The nightlife is hopping, which makes it feel big. The food is outstanding. Of course there is lobster, and more lobster. We took every opportunity to eat it, but there are other fish in the sea.
Our friend Nora led a group of wedding-goers to Street & Co., a rustic, Mediterranean-style seafood eatery that served one of the best meals I have had in the U.S. in the past three years. The restaurant was gorgeous; built with what looked like salvaged wood and decorated with antique and vintage kitchen tools still used for service. A clunky, polished pepper grinder the size of my torso graced one of the counter surfaces, poised over a bowl of freshly ground peppercorns. The kitchen was open for eaters to gaze. Garlic braids and generous bunches of herbs hung from the ceiling, perfuming the restaurant. The bread was perfect and served in thick metal baskets not bothered by napkin linings. The crumbs spilled onto the table as if it were a picnic. Bobby and I shared grilled sardines, just as I remember them in Sintra. Simple: fire, olive oil, parsley, salt. Our server made phenomenal suggestions for wine pairings, and though I can’t remember the luscious white he served me, it melded beautifully with the Portuguese-style seafood stew I devoured with a nutty romesco sauce. We finished off dinner with three desserts; an authentic tiramisu, a lemon curd tart with wild blueberries, and a pecan-bourbon pie. Smack! While standing in line for the bathroom, a Portlander said “this is hands-down the best restaurant in the city.” I concur.
Scratch Baking Co. was a second notable Portland visit. My friend Elizabeth is a baker, and when she tells me to go to a bakery, I do it. She speaks truth. Now, while our crew got a late start that morning and missed their famous bagels and cinnamon rolls, I discovered the best granola I have ever had in my life (outside of my or my mamma’s kitchen). I’m a granola-head. I crave the stuff, and judge it quite critically. This granola was like crack. Their sandwiches and salads were also fresh and well crafted, and their sourdough, herbed butter and freshly sourced eggs and bacon proved a perfect midnight snack for post-wedding debauchery.
Dobra Tea was a soothing afternoon respite, in particular if you’re in the mood for a game of chess (which I rarely agree to, but found quite enjoyable over a masala chai).
Bobby and I had intentions of spending one free afternoon thrifting for clothes, but wound up in Salt Cellar where an ultra-relaxed Chad captivated us with his knowledge of salt, and the various blends that serve for seasoning and cures, like the mild hangover we nursed with charcoal-salt crystals. We were intrigued to learn that the salt world is guarded by secrets; the art of “gluing” salt to make carvings and the alchemy of new flavors is extremely difficult to master. We left the store with black truffle salt (a pinch goes a long way!) and a small Himalayan salt block to melt into soup or make a nutrient drink packed with minerals and electrolytes.
After the wedding, Bobby and I took an extra day to make a quick dash up the coast to Acadia National Park, stopping at the historic villages that perch on Maine’s peninsulas. We stopped in Rockport, a tiny working port that seemed to invoke Cinque Terre’s high-hilled coastal beauty and the rolling, gentle lifestyle of the Dolomites. Yes, I found myself feeling like I was in Europe!
We chanced upon Salt Water Farm, a farm-to-table café and restaurant married to a nearby farm and cooking center. High above the boat makers and fishermen, passionate chefs made simple, flavorful dishes that would make Tamar Adler proud. Though dinner prices were steep for the servings (and the price of a zucchini), I made another top ten discovery: their Greek yogurt is to die for. It’s creamy and thick, with a slight hint of sourness that spells f-e-r-m-e-n-t-a-t-i-o-n. Lucky me, it went perfectly with the Scratch Baking Co. granola I had stocked up on for our campground breakfast.
Onward to Belfast, last stop before abandoning forks for cliffs. At this point in our mad exploration we were hankering for caffeine and a quick snack. My usual perusal of online articles and sites like yelp and urbanspoon pointed all hands in one direction: Moonbat City Baking Co. We had trouble finding this gem, since it’s just three months new and tucked away from Main St. It was worth the search.
Michelle Berry, a French-trained baker and the mastermind behind Moonbat, welcomed us into her electric green shop with a warm smile. Michelle taught baking classes in Boston for thirty years; over time, her dream to move to Maine rose with each loaf of bread. Michelle is committed to small batch, from scratch, artisanal patisserie and loaves. She folds love into every recipe.
Michelle welcomed me into her kitchen, which is visible through an open window behind the counter, where Sarah helps sweet tooth fiends and coffee addicts come to get their fix. She gave me a tour of the various bowls of rising dough on the counter, each playing a critical role in the next batch of seventy-two croissants – Moonbat’s specialty. I don’t usually settle on gluten-free pastries, but the raspberry muffin was exquisite and satisfying. So much so, that while I was snapping pictures, Bobby devoured his ham and cheese croissant AND the remaining ninety-percent of my muffin.
After a thorough eating extravaganza, Bobby and I were ready to trade in our forks for climbing shoes. Acadia National Park – the second most visited park in the U.S. – is a rugged pine-scape flanked by sandy beaches and hard, weathered bluffs we were eager to scale. After a cozy night in our double sleeping bag at Blackwoods Campground, we met up with climbing guide, Dick Chasse, who taught us the art of top-belay. The climbing at Otter Cliff is unique; instead of belaying from below (securing your climber on a rope), one must belay from the top since the tidal ledges with saltwater puddles sit at the food of the cliffs. We took turns lowering each other down the cliffs to ledges with saltwater puddles, and stretching our limbs back up to the top. The wind whipped us, tempered by a solid, autumn sun.
We learned that Dick hails from near Blue Hill on Acadia’s neighboring peninsula, also home to Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s Four Seasons Farm. I have wanted to visit this farm since my field days on Millstone Farm in Connecticut, when my farm mentor Annie Farrell told me about these northern pioneers. The couple’s land is truly in the middle of nowhere, with a winter that defies most winters in the U.S. Despite harsh conditions and a limited growing season, Eliot and Barbara have honed practices and techniques to grow an abundance of produce year-round for area restaurants, farmers markets and the Blue Hill Coop, the nearest market and tiny town center. Bobby conceded to me please to visit, despite the two-hour detour back home. The farm is beyond gorgeous, with a collection of swooping hoop houses to shelter the crops in the cold season. Chicken coops move about the crop rows and flowers adorn every corner. The farm stand had colorful and carefully arranged crates of tomatoes, artichokes, cauliflower and other fresh food on display. Though our stop was short and sweet, with a brief opportunity to meet Barbara, it was worth it!
This tour of Maine was surely the beginning of many more shared meals and culinary adventures. For now, as a fan of sweet endings, I leave you with the lavender chocolate bar we sampled from Black Dinah Chocolatiers, presented with an enchanting sprinkle of crystalized, purple flowers and a swirl of white chocolate to seal each bite.