Road Trip: My Inner Maine
With a couple of friends, I took off in the middle of last week to explore a part of Maine that tourists, unhappy souls, seldom see. Balfour Farm & Dairy is in the Somerset County town of Pittsfield, population around 4,000, and home to the erstwhile Central Maine Egg Festival, which is probably not as stellar an event as it was back when chickens were kings and chicken farms were ubiquitous in inland Maine. At Balfour Farm there are chickens, yes, and they lay beautiful eggs, but there are also pigs and cows and all of these animals are happy in the open air doing what animals are intended to do, pigs rolling in mud, cows grazing in grassy meadows, and chickens peckpeckpecking at bugs and roots and grit.
Balfour Farm is where Heather and Doug Donahue have made their home for the last almost-quarter century, gradually developing this off-the-grid, solar-powered, organic (certified by MOFGA*) facility where they make very fine cheeses from the milk of their Normande cows. The cows are primarily grass-fed but that requires an explanation because in Maine, in winter, especially in Somerset County, the grass is almost always covered by a foot or more of snow—that’s when Doug and Heather’s girls are fed dry hay and baleage from the farm’s own pastureland. You can taste that terroir in the sweet, rich milk, which also gets converted into buttermilk and yogurt. All of this, along with orange-yolked eggs and pork from their robust pigs is usually sold on site at The Little Cheese Shop, but that venue is currently closed for remodeling. Instead, I ordered online at www.balfourfarmdairy.com and picked up at the farm two very fine, well-made cheeses, a tomme and a Cotswold, the latter an English style cheese with savory onions and chives mixed right into the curd. The tomme, Heather told me, had been aged six months. It was deliciously buttery and sweet, but I’d love to see what a couple more months of aging would do to intensify the flavor. It was excellent on a grilled cheese sandwich made with some whole-grain bread from The Miller’s Table (see below).
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Cheese-making, of course, creates plenty of whey, and that nutritious product gets fed to the pigs, who also forage in the woodlot, sort of free-range pigs, just like the pigs I’ve met in Italy. That diet makes very tasty meat, whether bacon or the splendid pork chops I took home with me. Scroll down for a recipe for sort of Portuguese-ish pork chops marinated in smoky Spanish pimentòn, a whiff of cumin, and extra-virgin olive oil.
If you don’t want to make the trip to this heartland of Maine, you can find Balfour Farm at the Portland Farmer’s Market in Deering Oaks Park, Wednesday and Saturday mornings, and at several specialty stores and restaurants—information is on the website.
And the promised pork chop recipe? It really isn’t a recipe at all but it does require some thought, first of all to select the finest bone-in pork chops you can find, preferably direct from the farmer who raised the pigs, and each one weighing about half a pound and about an inch thick. The recipe is a riff on what my friend the late Jean Anderson called Alentejo-style in her great book, The Food of Portugal (1986).
For two chops, simply take a couple of plump garlic cloves, peel them and crush them, preferably in a mortar with a half-teaspoon of sea salt. Add some black pepper and 2 tablespoons of smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón de la Vera), hot or sweet as you prefer. A half teaspoon of ground cumin is also nice. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, enough to make a paste, and rub the chops all over with the paste. Put them in a dish and add a cup of dry white wine, but don’t stir the wine, just let it sit there. Cover the dish and let it marinate for at least a couple of hours or, refrigerated, overnight. When you’re ready to cook, remove the chops and brown them in a skillet, with any of the paste still clinging to them, in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil—8 to 10 minutes to the side. Stir the remaining bits of the marinade together with the wine in the dish and add to the skillet. Bring to a simmer, scraping up any brown bits in the skillet, then cover the dish, lower the heat to very low, and cook another 10 minutes. Jean says to serve this with rice and spoon the sauce over the rice. Sounds good to me.
From Pittsfield it’s a short hop to Skowhegan and Maine Grains, home turf for Amber Lambke’s amazing enterprise that I’ve watched grow over the last dozen years. As it happened, we arrived in time to see a new Austrian-made grist mill, just arrived and installed, which will give Maine Grains a chance to double production of their beautifully fragrant stone-ground flours from entirely Maine-grown grains—wheat, emmer (another kind of wheat), rye, cornmeal from Maine’s Somali Bantu farmers at Liberation Farms, and the like. The need for another mill is just further confirmation that Maine’s local grain production is indeed on the rise (sorry!) as more and more farmers turn to grain growing and more and more bakers (and brewers) turn to Maine Grains to source their material. The flour mill and company offices are in the former Somerset County Jail, right in downtown Skowhegan. It’s worth a trip if only to have lunch in that same building at The Miller’s Table, a sweet little bistro that offers a simple, hearty menu featuring soups and, what else, sandwiches with bread baked on the premises from flour ground on the premises (can’t get more local-focal than that!) as well as
irresistible pizzas produced in the wood-fired oven. In the adjacent shop you can buy all the grains and flours that Maine Grain produces, as well as breads and other baked things made from the same.
What’s inspiring about this enterprise is not just the incredible difference it has made in a downtown that looked ready to expire from lack of use, but also the inspiration it has offered to Maine farmers, increasingly devoted to producing good, honest food. Once again, I’m reminded of what the dean of Maine farmers, Eliot Coleman, says about the subject: “If you know your farmer’s first name,” Eliot said, “you can trust her product.” Or at least, you can find out what you need to know—who grew it, when, and how.
If you can’t make it to Skowhegan, you can order Maine Grains products online here: https://mainegrains.com, and they’re also available in many grocers, including major chains like Hannafords and Whole Foods. But honestly, it’s worth the drive to see a deeply rural, seldom visited part of Maine, in a historic town that bestrides the swift-flowing falls of the Kennebec River. And if you go in late July, you can take part in the remarkable series of events around the Kneading Conference, July 27 and 28, which brings together farmers, millers, brewers, bakers, and lovers of all things grainy from all over the country and abroad (details on the Maine Grains website or at https://kneadingconference.com/2023-kneading-conference/. It is a grand celebration!
Mother’s Day: Remembering a creative mother
This unlovely looking object began life as a kitchen storage cannister, plain and functional, bought brand new at J. C. Curtis, the erstwhile local hardware store, and decorated by my mother to look old, antique, valued. Mamma treated the surface with something that roughened it and allowed paint to adhere, then she decorated it with a design of flowers and leaves, and as a final touch, in a process called “antiquing,” she rubbed it with a paint labeled “turkey umber” to make it look timeless and traditional. The can held the coffee on my mother’s kitchen counter.
I adopted it after she died. As is instantly apparent, it shows its age—not just in the antiquing but in layers of grime that come from coffee dust as the can is opened, coffee measured out, lid restored, over and over again, morning after morning, down through the decades. At one point I tried to clean it but my attempts also removed some of the design she had so patiently applied. And so it sits, continuing to gather grime (because I too use it to hold the beans for my morning Joe). I expect that those who follow, once I’m gone, will discard it.
Unlovely as it is, I keep it to remind me of the years my mother spent laboriously decorating, not just coffee cannisters but all sorts of objects made of metal or wood, even a large wooden trunk that she claimed was her father’s sea chest. The can reminds me each day of the labor-intensive crafts my mother mastered in the 1950s, from knitting, to painting, to this sort of ornamentation of ordinary household objects.
There was a medley of Christmas-associated work too, which began sometime in October and stretched right up to Christmas Eve. Most of this activity was hand-made—wreaths and boughs, of course, and the Christmas tree which seems in my memory to have been erected in the living room on December 1st and stayed up till New Year’s Day. There were also candles to hand-shape from blocks of paraffin wax, there were candies to make and cookies to bake, and there was what she called “a winter scene” to create. This last was set up on a sideboard in the dining room: covered with cotton batting to imitate snow, it included an elaborate collection of little houses, a skating pond made from a mirror, a ski slope, Santa sleighs, reindeer, and flying angels, miniature evergreen trees, and tiny people going about their various businesses. There was not a sign of a Christ child, a shepherd, or a wise man on a camel; the winter scene was in lieu of a Christmas crèche, which may well have been considered too Catholic.
And all around her there were friends and neighbors, women, mothers, wives, all like my mother contributing and competing with each other to make this Christmas the merriest Christmas ever, to such an extent that I began to think Christmas was created simply to give women something to do.
And in a way I think that was right. Women were trained to run a household, even if they held a job or, like my mother, had once held a job, teaching school. And running the household could be, often was, seen as drudge work, doing the exact same thing every other woman in town was doing, the exact same thing, minus a few modern improvements in technology, that your own mother had done. Cooking, sewing, cleaning, administering, scheduling—there was not much room for creativity (maybe a bit with the cooking part but not much). So the crafts, whether knitting a tiny sweater for a newborn baby or decorating a tin coffee can to look as if it had been handed down from a Pennsylvania Dutch ancestor, that was where a little delight could enter the workplace.
I think I’m making this sound grim and it most certainly was not. My mother loved her life, I think, although she never said as much (and truth to tell, I never thought to ask her). She loved being married to a man who was valued in the community, she loved entertaining and going to parties, she relished organizing things, whether a kid’s birthday party or a trip to a college football game or a picnic on the shore with lobsters and hotdogs and plenty of Manhattans kept cold in a thermos. She had a somewhat mocking sense of humor that stood her in good stead when she felt she wasn’t being taken seriously. But above all, she loved being creative, making Christmas happen and turning silly, stubborn, homely objects into something that make you sit up and take notice.
* Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, www.MOFGA.org, founded in 1971, is the oldest and largest state organization in the country devoted to organic farming.
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When I was a child I wanted to have a small farm with cows and pigs and chickens and all the other farm animals, especially horses. I don’t think my child brain had fully made the connection between raising farm animals and meat on the table. But, I think this is the way farms should be. I have a friend in Wisconsin, Inga Orth Witscher, who has a small farm in the northwest part of the state and who has six Jersey cows. She makes wonderful raw cheddar cheese from their milk. She’s also the host of Around the Farm Table on PBS Wisconsin. I support small farmers in every way I can. I only wish we had more local fisheries. There are a few here, but nothing like the abundance of the Maine coast.
I just bought a dozen of their eggs at the Portland Farmers Market this morning then came home to this post! Planning on making something with eggs and the fresh asparagus the market had also! Truly spring when you find local asparagus and rhubarb at the market. A rhubarb tea cake in the oven right now!