Everyone knows Maine is the place for lobster, but there are quite a few other foods that you should sample before you leave. For a few weeks in May, right around Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May), a wonderful delicacy starts sprouting along Maine woodland streams: fiddleheads, the still-furled tops of the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). Tasting vaguely like asparagus, fiddleheads have been on May menus ever since Native Americans taught the colonists to forage for the tasty vegetable. Don’t go fiddleheading unless you’re with a pro, though; the lookalikes are best left to the woods critters. If you find them on a restaurant menu, indulge.
As with fiddleheads, we owe thanks to Native Americans for introducing us to maple syrup, one of Maine’s major agricultural exports. The annual crop averages 110,000 gallons. The syrup comes in four different colors/flavors (from light amber to extra dark amber), and inspectors strictly monitor syrup quality. The best syrup comes from the sugar or rock maple, Acer saccharum. On Maine Maple Sunday (usually the fourth Sunday in March), several dozen syrup producers open their rustic sugarhouses to the public for “sugaring-off” parties—to celebrate the sap harvest and share the final phase in the production process. Wood smoke billows from the sugarhouse chimney while everyone inside gathers around huge kettles used to boil down the watery sap. (A single gallon of syrup starts with 30-40 gallons of sap.) Finally, it’s time to sample the syrup every which way—on pancakes and waffles, in tea, on ice cream, in puddings, in muffins, even just drizzled over snow. Most producers also have containers of syrup for sale.
The best place for Maine maple syrup is atop pancakes made with Maine wild blueberries. Packed with antioxidants and all kinds of good-for-you stuff, these flavorful berries are prized by bakers because they retain their form and flavor when cooked. Much smaller than the cultivated versions, wild blueberries are also raked, not picked. Although most of the Down East barren barons harvest their crops for the lucrative wholesale market, a few growers let you pick your own blueberries in mid-August. Contact the Wild Blueberry Commission (207/581-1475) or the state Department of Agriculture (207/287-3491) for locations, recipes, and other wild-blueberry information, or log on to the website of the Wild Blueberry Association of North America (207/570-3535).
The best place to simply appreciate blueberries is Machias, site of the renowned annual Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, held the third weekend in August. While harvesting is under way in the surrounding fields, you can stuff your face with blueberry everything—muffins, jam, pancakes, ice cream, pies. Plus you can collect blueberry-logo napkins, T-shirts, fridge magnets, pottery, and jewelry.
Another don’t-miss while in Maine is Maine-made ice cream. Skip the overpriced Ben and Jerry’s outlets. Locally made ice cream and gelato are fresher and better and often come in an astounding range of flavors. The big name in the state is Gifford’s, with regional companies being Shain’s and Round Top. All beat the out-of-state competition by a long shot. Even better are some of the one-of-a-kind dairy bars and farmstands. Good bets are John’s, in Liberty; Morton’s, in Ellsworth; and Mt. Desert Ice Cream and Ben and Bill’s, both in Bar Harbor.
Finally, whenever you get a chance, shop at a farmers market. Their biggest asset is serendipity—you never know what you’ll find. Everything is locally grown and often organic. Herbs, unusual vegetables, seedlings, baked goods, meat, free-range chicken, goat cheese, herb vinegars, berries, exotic condiments, smoked salmon, maple syrup, honey, and jams are just a few of the possibilities. The Maine Department of Agriculture (207/287-3491) provides info on markets.
“To be happy in New England,” wrote one Joseph P. MacCarthy at the turn of the 20th century, “you must select the Puritans for your ancestors… [and] eat beans on Saturday night.” There is no better way to confirm the latter requirement than to attend a beanhole bean supper—a real-live legacy of colonial times, with dinner baked in a hole in the ground.
Generally scheduled, appropriately, for a Saturday night (check local newspapers), a beanhole bean supper demands plenty of preparation from its hosts—and a secret ingredient or two. (Don’t even think about trying to pry the recipe out of the cooks.) The supper always includes hot dogs, coleslaw, relishes, home-baked breads, and homemade desserts, but the beans are the star attraction. Typically, the suppers are also alcohol-free. They are not only feasts, but also bargains, never setting you back more than about $8.
The beans at the Broad Cove Church’s annual mid-July beanhole bean supper, served family-style at long picnic tables, are legendary— attracting nearly 200 eager diners. Minus the secrets, here’s what happens:
Early Friday morning: Church volunteers load 10 pounds of dry pea and soldier (yelloweye) beans into each of four large kettles and add water to cover. The beans are left to soak and soften for 6-7 hours. Two or three volunteers uncover the churchyard’s four rock-lined beanholes (each about three feet deep), fill the holes with hardwood kindling, ignite the wood, and keep the fires burning until late afternoon, when the wood is reduced to redhot coals.
Early Friday afternoon: The veteran chefs parboil the beans and stir in the seasonings. Typical additions are brown sugar, molasses, mustard, salt, pepper, and salt pork (much of the secret is in the exact proportions). When the beans are precooked to the cooks’ satisfaction, the kettle lids are secured with wire and the pots are lugged outdoors.
Friday midafternoon: With the beans ready to go underground, some of the hot coals are quickly shoveled out of the pits. The kettles are lowered into the pits and the coals replaced around the sides of the kettles and atop their lids. The pits are covered with heavy sheet metal and topped with a thick layer of sand and a tarpaulin. The round-the-clock baking begins, and no one peeks before it’s finished.
Saturday midafternoon: Even the veterans start getting nervous just before the pits are uncovered. Was the seasoning right? Did too much water cook away? Did the beans dry out? Not to worry, though—failures just don’t happen here.
Saturday night: When a pot is excavated for the first of three seatings (about 5pm), the line is already long. The chefs check their handiwork and the supper begins. No one seems to mind waiting for the second and third seatings—while others eat, a sing-along gets under way in the church, keeping everyone entertained.