Hopscotch! Surest sign of spring anywhere in the world.
A writer decides to write about spring in Maine and almost inevitably she opens with the words: “Spring comes slowly to Maine. . . .”
Except that it isn’t entirely true. Spring, in fact, comes to Maine in frustrating fits and starts. I recall balmy weekends in late February back when I was in high school in Bethel and my pals and I would go off in our Fair Isles sweaters and Bermuda shorts (yes, that’s how long ago it was) for a day of spring skiing in the Sunday River sunshine. And I also remember another spring, years later, beating my way in the gathering dark down Route 17 in a blizzard—not a snow flurry, but a blinding, all-out, day-long blizzard—trying to get from Augusta back to South Thomaston where a fearful ten-year-old was waiting at home alone. That was the 15thof April and it was the first time I heard the phrase “poor man’s fertilizer,” meaning heavy spring snows that carpet the plowed fields and drive nutrients deep down into the soil where the plants’ roots will fix and take them up.
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If you don’t like the weather, just wait a bit. People say that all over the world but nowhere, I think, with the heartfelt conviction that we feel in Maine.
So when does spring begin in this extreme northeastern corner of the United States where on any one day the temperature can vary by a good 20 to 30 degrees from the rooftop, hovering next to Canada, to the tiptoe base down in Kittery, 400 miles due south? Where it can be blowing snow in the mountains and sailing weather on the coast?
Rhubarb shoots emerge from the garden soil
Where the first swellings of rhubarb emerge to shine like pink jewels in the garden muck while the snow shovel still stands ready by the kitchen door until well after Easter?
We have had to develop other ways than the weather of knowing when spring is upon us. One is the arrival of seed catalogs, especially from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (https://www.johnnyseeds.com), Maine’s own garden seed supplier, with Johnny’s message that all is not lost, the snow will melt, the ice will thaw, the ground will soften, and planting time will come. Those catalogs arrive by late January when there’s still a perilously long stretch of winter ahead. Groundhog Day comes and goes; at that point, the old-timers say, you should still have half your wood and half your hay, insurance against a cold, late spring, And there’s still mud season and a late frost or two to get through, and then, in earlier times, Town Meeting. (Nowadays, many towns tie Town Meeting to the financial year, meeting in June, just when everyone gets caught up with lobster fishing or cultivating the corn field or tending out on early tourists, and can’t pay attention to the scandalous doings the Select Board may be up to.)
Then at some indefinable point, around the middle of March, there comes a shift in the light and even when the air remains cold, often bitter cold, there’s a taste of spring in the air. I can’t say what causes that, maybe just that the sun is higher in the sky, but suddenly, subtly, it seems that winter will not go on forever. You look up and see in the topmost branches of the highest trees, new leaf buds just beginning to swell.
That’s when the miracle of the maple begins with ventures that may well go back to Wabanaki ancestors. It’s time to tap the sugar maples that once lined many of the roads hereabouts, especially the old country roads where the sight of a stone wall with a line of noble maples is a gratifying reminder of the way life used to be—and still is for many. Maple syrup is the goal and it takes 43 gallons of sap from those trees to make one gallon of syrup, in an activity to test the patience of Job himself.
There are other reliable harbingers of spring, among them: robins (though nowadays many of them stay year-round) grubbing on greening lawns, red-winged blackbirds darting over farm ponds, and what we call phoebes but are actually black-capped chickadees singing for spring with their two-stroke call: phoebe, phoe-bee, feeee-beee. And then, one magical evening toward the end of March or early in April, we hear in the near distance the first tentative peep of spring peepers, the tiny frogs (Pseudacris crucifer) that inhabit vernal pools and ponds and peep-peep-peep frantically, males calling to females with desperate urgency, and we can relax at last because we know now that, come what may—rising water, late frosts, sudden snowstorms—it is truly spring.
I’ve added some maple syrup recipes below. Next week let’s talk about another spring reward, fresh greens, whether field-foraged or harvested early from the garden.
But first, let me rant a bit. . . an ongoing complaint
Why do so many restaurants insist on a high-volume environment? What is the rationale behind music (whether rock or Mozart) tuned so loud that it inhibits conversation? Two recent and distressing examples:
One was a really nice restaurant in Boston, Faccia a Faccia on Newbury Street. The food was delicious and beautifully presented—grilled octopus with guanciale and a charred leek vinaigrette; Japanese bream with Jimmy Nardello peppers, pomelo segments, and shiso oil—truly representing a gifted kitchen team under executive chef Brian Rae. The waiters were attentive, solicitous, and amazingly patient with our peculiar dietary concerns. I could have been very happy there except. . . the noise level was so high that we three diners had to lean into the center of the table to talk, making it impossible to eat and have a conversation at the same time. I go to restaurants to see friends and dine well and not to listen to music. Of any kind.
The second restaurant at fault was quite different—a brunch place in Searsport, Maine, called Hey, Sailor! (they also do lunch and dinner) where the corned beef hash with two eggs was good, if not yet Best In Maine. But the problem in the half-full restaurant was, again, the volume of the music being played, which prohibited any conversation at all. And when a polite request was made to turn it down, most at our table of six agreed that the uncooperative manager actually turned it up. That’s a spot I won’t be going back to soon.
Future Events Coming Up Soon
Kate Hill, writer, cooking teacher, and doyenne of an 18th-century canal-side farmhouse in Gascony (southwest France) where she has lived for, well, decades, is opening her beautiful home to guests for writer’s retreats or residencies of one or two weeks in an extremely relaxed and very well-fed environment. You can find out more here: https://relaisdecamont.com/kate-hill-at-camont . If you need a quiet space in a delightful environment to finish your memoir, or that culinary mystery novel you’ve been working on, I cannot think of a better place.
Two more extra-virgins, both from the 2022 harvest, that I was introduced to recently from https://www.olio2go.com:
Tenute Librandi, single cultivar (organic) nocellara, an award-winning oil (Flos Olei ’23, Gambero Rosso ’22, et al.) from Calabria: this is a beautiful oil for those who find the pungent oils of Central Italy (Tuscany, Umbria) somewhat offputting; Librandi is soft, rich, almost sweetly fruity, with herbal overtones. I’ve used it to garnish grilled haddock and it was superb.
Fattoria Ramerino, single cultivar Moraiolo, is almost the opposite: coming from the hills south of Florence, it’s a perfect example of the qualities of a fine Tuscan oil, with the balanced pungency and bitterness that Tuscans esteem so highly. It’s a great garnish for a Tuscan-style steak but I’m planning to save this bottle until fresh tomato season, sensing that it will be a perfect foil for the first tomatoes, maybe along side some high-quality buffalo mozzarella too.
First brown the pork in olive oil
Maple-Mustard Glazed Pork Roast
I asked the butcher for a blade end roast of pork. He said he didn’t know that term but thought it might be the butt, sometimes called Boston butt, which is basically a pork shoulder. “It’s a great cut for roasting,” he said, “because it has a lot of fat running through it which keeps it moist.”
I brined the pork overnight in order to give it even more moisture inside, and flavored the brine with bay leaves, fennel pollen, and garlic, to lend a Tuscan aroma. Then I dried the pork off (discarding the brine) and browned it in a skillet. After removing the browned pork I made the glaze right in the skillet, rolled the browned roast in the glaze, and transferred it to a slow-ish (325º) oven. In just 30 minutes it had arrived at a correct internal temperature of 140º so it was done.
This makes enough for 6 or 8 people, with some left over for sandwiches the next day.
Boneless pork butt roast, aka blade end or Boston butt, weighing about 3½ pounds, rolled and tied
For the brine:
1/3 cup sea salt or kosher (un-iodized) salt
1 tablespoon crushed black peppercorns
1 tablespoon fennel pollen
2 bay leaves
2 crushed garlic cloves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the glaze:
½ cup dark maple syrup
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of ground cinnamon
1 crushed garlic clove
About ¾ cup dry white wine
Set the pork roast in a large bowl. Combine the salt with a cup of hot water and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the salt thoroughly. When the salt is no longer visible, combine the salty water with 6 or 7 cups of ice water, enough to cover the pork thoroughly, in order to chill the brine rapidly. Add the pepper, fennel (if you have it—if not, use some crushed fennel seeds), bay leaves, and garlic and pour over the pork, adding more water if necessary to cover it completely. Set aside in a cool place or refrigerate overnight.
Next day, drain the pork, discarding the brine, and pat the roast dry with paper towels.
Turn the oven on to 325º.
Set a skillet large enough and deep enough to hold the whole roast over medium heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork and brown it thoroughly on all sides, turning frequently for about 10 minutes. Remove the browned roast and set aside.
Add the maple syrup, mustard, cinnamon, and garlic to the skillet, stirring to mix well, and bring to a simmer. Cook for a few minutes, just long enough to amalgamate the ingredients and reduce the glaze slightly.
Now return the roast to the skillet with the glaze and roll it around and around to pick up as much of the glaze as it can until it’s nicely coated. Transfer the skillet to the hot oven and let the roast cook for about 15 minutes, then, using tongs, turn it so the underside is uppermost. Paint or spoon more of the glaze over it and return to the oven to continue cooking another 15 minutes, by which time it should have reached an internal temperature of 140º. (In fact, modern rules for cooking pork say an internal temperature of 135º is sufficient.)
Let the pork rest for about 20 minutes, then cut and remove any strings around it, roll it once more in the glaze remaining in the skillet, and transfer it to a platter.
Use the white wine to deglaze the skillet over medium-high heat, scraping up all the brown bits and reducing the wine-glaze to about a cup of “gravy.” Add half the wine at first, then more as it cooks down. You may not need the whole 3/4 cup. Slice half the pork (or all of it if you’re feeding a crowd), and serve with the juices poured over or brought to the table in a small pitcher.
Blueberry Ricotta Pancakes
If you have maple syrup, you have to have pancakes. These are among the finest I’ve ever made. If you don’t have blueberries, you could add other fruit—chopped bananas are nice, and so are chopped apples. Or just leave the fruit out entirely.
This makes about 12 pancakes, or 6 servings. Be sure to warm the maple syrup before serving it. Nothing destroys a fresh hot pancake faster than a dowse of chilled maple syrup.
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons sugar or less to taste
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 cup well-drained ricotta
3 large eggs, separated
¾ cup whole milk
Grated zest of 1 lemon
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
Unsalted butter for the griddle
2 cups Maine wild blueberries, fresh or frozen
Combine the flours, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder, and salt, and toss together with a fork to mix.
In a bowl, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, milk, lemon zest, and vanilla and beat to mix thoroughly. Fold the flour mixture into the batter.
In another bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until stiff, adding the remaining tablespoon of sugar about half way through. Stir about a third of the beaten whites into the batter to lighten it, then, using a rubber spatula, fold in the rest of the egg whites. Finally, fold in the blueberries, handling gently so you don’t crush them.
Set a skillet over medium-high heat and add about a teaspoon of butter. When the butter sizzles, use a small measuring cup (1/4 or 1/3 cup) to drop pancake batter onto the hot pan. Cook until done and golden brown on each side, turning once. Watch the heat carefully, adjusting it as the pancake cooks. Because of the beaten egg whites, these puff up and take longer to cook at a gentler heat than regular pancakes.
Serve with warm maple syrup and if you wish with another dab of butter on top.
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You painted my childhood, those fickle springs, the mud days when many roads weren't paved so the school bus couldn’t get to the children. Recess used to mean building tiny landscapes of rivers and ponds and dams. Later came marbles, at which I was a dud. Last came softball, and we won’t talk about softball at all, unless inadequacy is the subject.
We only made syrup once. When my mother saw her starched organdy curtains hanging in gray rags, that was the end. There was a sugaring off building, but she'd put her chickens in it.
There was a lot of value in a Maine childhood, people cared about our education a great deal, and we were given so much opportunity that I was shocked when I went away to college to find everybody hadn’t been taught mythology and math games, and that most kids hadn’t had years of National Geographic at hand.
Enjoy your spring. Anyone who made it through those winters has earned it.
Due to the nefarious effects of global warming, upper Maine might be our last hope for maple syrup in the US.