Flavors of Blue
It’s a farm-to-table world and people in Blue Hill the town and the peninsula naturally make connections to whats local and fresh. Food traditions here go way back to the land (and sea). For the weekend, we follow winding roads on the Blue Hill Peninsula to fields and pastures, shops and restaurants to see what’s growing and cooking on the coast.
In the next room, wood plank floors and walls are arranged with crates and shelves of wine. Couples and families with canvas shopping bags mill about the old farmhouse while the Chuck-Taylor -wearing Treitler, who first came to Blue Hill from Brooklyn as a cello student at Kneisel Hall, moves around a clutch of customers to stand under the day’s offerings of formaggio, listed on a chalkboard. He engages whomever’s next, “Tell me about your cheese interests,” and offers samples according to their answers, cutting from wedges and wheels. If it’s espresso they want, he moves to another counter and manages cups and spoons and the machine that whirs and steams. Near the door is a rack of Tinder Hearth Wood-Fired Bread that’s baked a few miles away by musician-bakers in Brooksville, including croissants and big-as-a-wheel rounds of miche (sold by the pound). Jetson Penkalski helps customers with wine and questions about the small-batch beers displayed in a side room. People are curious about the ale brewed with kelp from Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast (Penkalski reports mixed reviews of seaweed in beer, so far). Meanwhile, Treitler has gotten into a conversation about another find, “an obscure bootleg Merlot that’s amazing.”
The wide-ranging talk and tasting continue at an easy pace on a gray afternoon in this downtown fixture of food, drink, music, and conversation that’s next to Ellsworth Building Supply on Main Street. Open for more than 30 years, the shop was purchased by Treitler in 2004 and it is just one of the gathering places in food-centric Blue Hill, a town with a population of about 2,700. You can’t drive very far around this peninsula’s coves, woods, and rocky blueberry barrens without coming to a farm, orchard, brewery, or bakery. As anywhere, restaurants come and go, but there are local standbys, including Blue Hill’s elegant Arborvine, the taqueria-meets-Downeast-cooking at El El Frijoles in Sargentville, the former take- out turned bakery and cafe at Millbrook Company in Sedgwick, and the near-hidden Buck’s Restaurant in Brooksville. Everyone seems to be cooking, eating, growing, or gathering food. This is what I’m noticing, while we follow the circuit of two-lane roads (routes 15, 172, 175, and 176) around the hilly landscape of the peninsula that juts oceanward between the Camden- centric midcoast and Mount Desert Island’s crowd-drawing Acadia.
The drive in on ME-15 is practically a parade route of small, classic farms, including the Old Ackley Farm, Homewood Farm with its corn maze, Halcyon Grange #345, and the Birdsall family’s beautiful Horsepower Farm. I’d recently met Donna Birdsall at a farm market and learned that along with the working draft horses, four generations of the Birdsall family are involved with the market garden, sheep, pigs, and chickens at Horsepower Farm. We drive up the lane to Horsepower and stop at the woodland-surrounded pasture of chickens. The flock is so tame that the silky-feathered red and black hens run toward the edge of the field to be near us. All of this represents decades of dedicated hard work, but for a visitor, the scene of fowl and plowed fields and a horse barn are like illustrations of a farm in a storybook.
We check in for a weekend stay at the early-1800s Blue Hill Inn, and I soon realize we’re not the only ones in town doing some food touring. In one of the parlor rooms at the nightly wine reception with innkeeper Sarah Pebworth, another guest mentions that she’s just started working on a New Hampshire farm and, on a lark, made the five-hour drive here to check out the organic agriculture scene here. For anyone truly curious about Maine’s back-to-the- land history and current effects, Blue Hill is a mecca.
Organic farmers and writers Helen and Scott Nearing moved to the peninsula in the 1950s, and their tales of trading city life for rural New England in the classic book Living the Good Life have influenced generations of farmers. That includes Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman, whose Four Season Farm proves that even in Maine’s snow-drifted winters, greenhouses can help farmers sustainably grow beautiful, tender lettuce greens and other organic vegetables. I crunch through the healthy, tasty bites of a kale salad from the Blue Hill Co-op (made with Four Season greens) not long before we drive out to see the farm, following Cape Rosier Road west of Brooksville toward Penobscot Bay. On rising land surrounded by woods and arranged with fields, various sheds, and cold frames (mostly uncovered because it’s not yet frosty weather), the farm is impressively complex and more compact than I’d imagined. Damrosch walks the grounds with me, checking on the soil and the lush rows of curly-edged lettuces and deep green kale, along with flocks of red hens being tended by one of the apprentices, Heather Teige from Massachusetts, who tells us she’ll be living and working at the farm for a year. Damrosch and Coleman have been farming here since the 1960s and are also writers who describe and champion the lessons and methods they’ve learned. “This is about as good as it gets,” Damrosch says of the soon-to-be plastic-covered tunnel greenhouses, and the leeks, carrots, beets, and scallions they can look forward to harvesting all winter.
On the return drive from Harborside to Blue Hill, a loop around Brooksville takes us past Sow’s Ear Winery (home of hard ciders and fruit wines), the old Buck’s Harbor Market in walking distance of the boats moored in the snug berths of Buck’s Harbor, and the tall red barn and pig and sheep pastures of David’s Folly Farm on a cove of the Bagaduce River. Our destination is a pizza night at Tinder Hearth, which could be difficult to find if it weren’t for the cluster of cars parked outside the farmhouse bakery as if there’s a house party. I open a middle door with a small sign and inside is a warm, busy scene. On the wall is a handwritten list of the day’s pizza offerings—ingredient choices include butternut squash, arugula, and lamb chorizo—and the crew is tossing and baking rounds of dough. Along one wall is a massive brick oven with fiery coals inside. Two nights a week, the bakery uses the hearth to make pizza for take-out. It’s a cool, sweet-smelling evening outside, and I notice that many of the pizza buyers are carrying their pies to eat at wooden picnic tables behind the house. We borrow plates and a candle and sit down to eat in the saltwater farm’s backyard, too, as the sun sets. Bubbling hot, the pizza slices crackle with wood-fired char on thin crusts.
The next day in Blue Hill, the kiln at Rackliffe Pottery—which reminds me in size and form of the Tinder Hearth oven—is still full of cooling, just-baked clay bowls, mugs, and plates. I’ve stopped in to see the source of the blue-glazed pottery that’s in use on the breakfast table at the Blue Hill Inn. (Blue Hill is one of the clay-abundant places in Maine, so it’s possible to find local-made plates for local-sourced food.) Dennis Rackliffe expresses a natural joy when he talks about the pottery that he shapes. His wife, Margaret, often paints details on each piece. I’m curious about the process, and he shows me the latest batch of the native, raw clay, which was delivered earlier in the week into a rear storeroom. The gray gobs come from a mound at his family’s place in East Blue Hill, and he explains that he learned to shape the platters and chowder bowls from his father, Philip Rackliffe (1920-2013), who served in World War II and was invited to learn the trade of pottery making when he returned to Blue Hill. This is beautiful, useful pottery, and I pick out two mugs to buy and take home.
To continue the food-fueled touring, I’ve garnered an invitation to the home of Jonathan Chase. Near his tomato garden, the chef has a smoker of chicken going in the dooryard beside his saltbox house in South Blue Hill. If you’ve visited Blue Hill since the 1980s or 1990s, the chef’s name is likely familiar. That’s when Chase created his former restaurant, Jonathan’s, on Main Street. He’s also led culinary trips to Italy and France, and his European influences show in the shelves of wine at the seasonal Buck’s Restaurant and Buck’s Harbor Market in Brooksville. The executive chef admits he stocks “more wine than a little store should have.” Next door to a church and within a two-minute walk of the boats in Buck’s Harbor, Chase and a chef de cuisine and pastry chef make olive bread, house-smoked meats, and salads with local greens. Tall and affable, Chase lends me an old copy of Saltwater Seasonings, a Maine recipe book penned by him and cookbook author Sarah Leah Chase, his sister. I flip through and find treasures immediately, like the straightforward directions for Campfire Smelts—if you’ve got smelts, bacon, and hot coals, not much more is needed.
Around Blue Hill, we keep meeting second and third generations involved in food and farming. A short boat ride from Bagaduce Lunch, where Frank Peasley worked as a teenager, he and his wife, Tonyia, are cultivating oysters in the wash of tides on the Bagaduce River, along with help from their young daughters. The couple invites us to hop in the boat for a closer look at their enterprise, Little Island Oyster Company. The family aquaculture outfit took off a few years ago, they explain, when they were able to buy the half-acre Scott’s Island and use the tiny island with a cabin and seasonal dock as a mid-river base of operations. Sedgewick is on one shore and Brooksville is on the other, and the oysters in between grow from seed size to eating size over a year or two, depending on whether they’re grown on the bottom or top. These salty, coldwater oysters are gaining a following— often featured in restaurants like Aragosta on Deer Isle and Eventide in Portland.
In the late afternoon we visit the landmark Arborvine, where farm-to-table is in full effect in the heart of Blue Hill. I peek in the kitchen and see the pans of roast duck and a massive hen of the woods mushroom ready to be prepped for the night’s risotto, and I’d say Tim and Andrew Hikade are lucky chefs. Theirs is a sunny, window-lined kitchen with easy access to the herb garden and the solar-powered craft brewery, DeepWater Brewing Company, out back. The brothers are the second generation to cook at the restaurant opened in 2000 by their parents. John and Beth Hikade have focused on sourcing local and organic ingredients for decades, first at Firepond in Blue Hill in the 1970s and 1980s and then at Arborvine. Tonight the Hikade brothers are cooking with Horsepower Farm carrots and apples, Carding Brook Farm mesclun (grown in Brooklin), and mussels, scallops, and clams from Blue Hill Bay. Every dish is gorgeously plated and served up at fireside tables in the front rooms of the white colonial that does have an arbor vine growing in a green arch over the front door.
Just down the hill is Greenspeed, a hip little juice bar and vegan/ vegetarian lunch and coffee spot with apple-green lettering and a great view of Blue Hill Bay. Owner Anya Metcalf earned her master of fine arts in painting, and the space carries a modern, spare look with art on the walls. Using locally sourced ingredients, she creates “The Local” juice special each day. I order one and watch her push chunks of apple and carrot and handfuls of kale into the juicer to make a delicious concoction.
On this peninsula of farmers, restaurants, and food and drink makers, this weekend drive is just a sampler of the flavors to be tried. During one more stop at the Blue Hill Wine Shop, Max Treitler happens to be spinning a Soviet-era folk music album and looking up recipes for a dinner party he’ll host that night using local ingredients. Just like that, the world of food in Blue Hill grows, again.