A HEAD OF CABBAGE
Farther up the coast, Maine's shoreline becomes craggier and the Atlantic breezes more insistent, and one's thoughts inevitably turn to sauerkraut. Generations have made the pilgrimage to Morse's, a little red farmhouse in North Waldoboro.
This area was settled by German immigrants adept at farming and fermenting cabbage. Continuing in this tradition was Virgil Morse, who began selling his sauerkraut commercially in 1918; his family kept up the business for decades until David Swetnam and Jacquelyn Sawyer took over in 2000. Not much has changed.
The best sauerkraut is made from sweet, ivory-hued "winter" cabbage, which holds its flavor better than its more attractive, green-tinged cousin. Here it's fermented in plastic drums in a frigid storage room, slowing down the process—"the longer it takes to make, the better the kraut," says Swetnam—then transferred to wooden barrels. The genial staff will scoop out pints into flimsy plastic tubs that inevitably leak when you carry them on to, say, an airplane. (Trust me on this.) No matter: the result is tangy and assertive, clean and still crunchy. This is raw, unpasteurized, "live" kraut, almost too good to use as a mere garnish.
BACK TO THE GARDEN
A salad is a salad, you say. But not in Maine, not in late summer. The $7 salad we had at Primo was, by any measure, above and beyond. On the surface it was an unassuming tangle of summer lettuces, subtly dressed with a red-wine vinaigrette. But tucked within were powerful herbs from Primo's own garden—verbena, basil, mint, fennel, cinnamon basil—so that each forkful was like slamming hits of herbal extract. Mark sat dumbfounded for minutes, ruminating over a shiso leaf.
If chef and co-owner Melissa Kelly weren't a star in her own right, her garden could carry the day. I've followed Kelly since she was at the great Old Chatham Sheepherding Inn near the Berkshires. After leaving in 1999, she and her pastry-chef fiancé, Price Kushner, ended up in Rockland, Maine, where they bought and renovated a gingerbread Victorian, carving out several homey dining rooms across two floors. Primo (named for Kelly's grandfather from Bologna) is nominally an Italian restaurant, though not so you'd recognize it. Consider Kelly's take on, er, spaghetti and meatballs: bright-green arugula linguine cooked al dente and an ethereal tomato-veal-and-pork ragù topped with feathery wisps of fennel. Every dish manages to seem light and delicate while carrying the most robust and assertive flavors—none more so than what comes from that magnificent garden.
Kelly gets the bulk of attention from out-of-staters, but another young chef has been causing a stir in nearby Camden. One of the nation's most photogenic seaside resorts, Camden remains a favored retreat for the Rockefellers and their ilk. Most chefs up here remain stuck in Ye Olde New England mode—but not Brian Hill of Francine Bistro. Hill got his start in Boston, working under Todd English at Olives when it was still good; after stints in L.A., Hawaii, and New York, he washed up in Camden in 2002 and took a job at Francine. Back then it was just a modest 25-seat café with a single hot plate for a stove. This didn't stop Hill from dazzling local foodies with improbable hot-plate feasts. Hill eventually bought the place, installed a proper kitchen, and drew a devoted following. The night we stopped in, there was an hour wait for a table; James Rockefeller Jr. was ahead of us in line. But Francine is hardly posh. The wooden tables were bare except for tiny planters of chive blossoms.
Hill sources most of his ingredients at the Camden farmers' market: broiler chickens from Mainely Poultry in Warren; organic beef from Caldwell Farms in Turner ("the finest I've tasted, anywhere," Hill raves); and wild-foraged chanterelles from the Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Damariscotta. Like me, Hill is obsessed with fungi. "Maine's chanterelles are actually better than the European variety—they give off this intense apricot-jam aroma the second they hit the pan," he says. "Black trumpets, too. I've never found anything as satisfying as truffles, but these come closest to that big, animal flavor." That evening the black trumpets found their way into a marvelously savory spinach soup. A cluster of oyster mushrooms lent a peppery bite to the sautéed calamari. Hill's cooking is rooted less in the sea than in the funky flavors of the earth; for instance, the powerful tastes of rosemary and braised bacon that accompanied the seared scallops.
Odd coincidence: before he donned his chef's whites, Hill was the guitarist for Heretix, one of Boston's great unsung bands and a favorite of mine and Mark's back in college. We both recognized him as soon as he stepped out of the kitchen: "Wait, weren't you ?" Hill was a talented guitarist, but he's even better behind the stoves—alt-rock's loss, gastronomy's gain.
THE OTHER HARD SHELL
The cove-studded, wildflower-laced Blue Hill Peninsula is famous as the home turf of E. B. White, Helen and Scott Nearing, and Robert McCloskey, who together go a long way in describing the region's bucolic appeal as well as its demographic. Pottery studios, antiques emporiums, glassblowers' studios, yarn boutiques: Blue Hill is heaven for some, twee for others, and absolute hell for anyone between the ages of 6 and 22. I was a sixth-grader when my parents first dragged me here on vacation, and besides the cool sailboats, the only thing that kept me from bolting was the crab rolls.