At Salt Water Farm, students go back to the land–and the sea–to learn to forage, fillet, and feast.
My wife calls me a metrosexual wannabe farmer, and I’m OK with that. I love food and cooking, and in a righteous world, I would have pigs in a pen and chickens in a coop and an acre of garden. We would invite friends for feasts of house-smoked pork belly with homemade sauerkraut and heirloom squash and tomato ratatouille, accompanied by hard cider and home-brewed beer. The problem is, my current tillable acreage is 40 square feet of questionable dirt in a front yard. My small village in Maine doesn’t allow pigs even as pets. Nor do I have any idea how to smoke pork belly, make hard cider, or ferment cabbage.
Four hours north of Boston, along a stretch of rugged coastline in Lincolnville, Maine, there’s a place for people like me: people who want to rediscover the agrarian rhythms and farmhouse traditions of a simpler time, in a spectacular setting and with just the right teachers. At the end of the driveway sits a cedar-shingled, post-and-beam barn on 17 acres of former sheep pasture overlooking the ocean. The barn has been transformed into a professional demonstration kitchen equipped with a wood-burning brick oven, a Wolf range, sausage and pasta makers, and an open hearth for spit roasting. Its eastern facade is almost all windows and French doors. Outside, a generous, sun-splashed stone patio includes an outdoor kitchen outfitted with a propane grill and a smoker. Beyond the patio are wide terraces planted densely with herbs and vegetables. Beyond that are blueberry and cranberry bushes, and fruit trees. The eye flows from house to gardens, then to the chaos of meadow grown over in milkweed, goldenrod, thistle, and Queen Anne’s lace, leading down to the achingly gorgeous waters of Penobscot Bay.
This is Salt Water Farm, a school for culinary and farm arts founded two years ago by 30-year-old chef Annemarie Ahearn with the help of farm manager and sous-chef Ladleah (pronounced LAID-lee) Dunn. I have come here for a three-day workshop promising more than a dozen lessons in such topics as chicken butchery, egg cookery, canning, vertical gardening basics, and a session called “the truth about lobster.” With the exception of a very few ingredients—including olive oil, flour, and lemon—everything we touch during our time here will come from the garden, the hens, and the ocean. The odd slab of bacon or round of goat cheese comes from neighboring producers, none more than 15 miles away.
While you only have to go as far as your nearest chain supermarket these days to see local splashed over entire aisles, there’s something a little different going on at Salt Water Farm. When I arrive, Annemarie recounts that one visitor said her farm experience felt like being in Europe, where “the food tastes so much better.” This is no mystery to Annemarie. “The food here tastes as fresh as it does in Europe simply because we are honoring our place. We’re using local ingredients and really taking advantage of the terroir and living within the means we have in Maine.”
Though our workshop is focused on cooking and gardening basics, Salt Water Farm offers something for a range of tastes and ambitions, from tips on foraging for seaweed and mollusks on the islands of Penobscot Bay, to a weeklong pig-butchering and charcuterie boot camp led by a pair of well-known Brooklyn butchers. Annemarie also hosts monthly five-course Full Moon Suppers with guests who might include the local fish buyer for chef Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. Other food celebrities—such as Susan Loomis of On Rue Tatin cooking school in Normandy, France, and cookbook author Nancy Harmon Jenkins—are scheduled a few times a year to teach more regionally focused cooking lessons.
The Salt Water Farm experience attracts more than wannabe-farmer types, though in my class we were heavily represented. Pat, who works on Wall Street and lives in upstate New York, was there with his partner, Tim. From their knowing nods during a bread lesson, I knew they baked. But they also brew beer, make sausage, and have a vegetable garden and an heirloom fruit orchard. What were a couple of accomplished foodies doing there? “It’s a childish pleasure to play with food,” Pat told me. “I’ve never made ice cream or worked with duck eggs or made a salad dressing that was very complicated.”
Also in our group were Maine summer residents, including sisters Jennie from New Jersey, Courtnay from Moscow, and Allison from Dallas, and their mother, Jerrie, from Maine. Jerrie had passed down a love of good food and cooking to her children, and they were thanking her with a Salt Water Farm workshop for her birthday. “We’re all good cooks,” Jennie told me, “but we don’t generally cook together.”
About an hour and a half into day one, I looked around the vast granite rectangle of the kitchen island to see 12 aproned strangers smiling, chatting, banging elbows, chopping, stirring, plucking, mixing, laughing—in short, beginning to form bonds that often arise through the intimacy of making a meal together. Pat was elbow deep in the brilliant yellow duck-egg custard that would become the next day’s lemon-olive oil ice cream. At the other end, students picked the meat off the bones of hot-out-of-the-smoker mackerel, fished that morning from Penobscot Bay. Others cleaned herbs and minced garlic, diced rhubarb stalks for a cocktail syrup, and poached fresh eggs in a swirl of boiling water at the eight-burner cooktop.
At a table beside the massive fieldstone fireplace, Julie, who was just about to leave on a two-year Peace Corps assignment to sub-Saharan Africa, stretched a loaf of focaccia onto a sheet pan, while, through the French doors, I glimpsed the sisters offering their elegant white-haired mother tastes of borage, lovage, and other exotic herbs. Earlier that morning, we had trotted from kitchen to garden and back, carefully plucking, snipping, or uprooting herbs and vegetables that would contribute their flavors to some part of our lunch. That simple lunch—one perfectly poached farm egg and four bites of smoked mackerel over bitter Batavian escarole dressed with a lemon, caper, anchovy, and herb vinaigrette, served with a thick wedge of lemon-thyme focaccia and blueberry buckle for dessert—had opened a few eyes.
As we prepared that first meal, we experienced the very different but complementary teaching styles of Annemarie and Ladleah. A Maine native, Ladleah grew up making bread and cheese and foraging on Vinalhaven, a Penobscot Bay island that is mostly home to lobstermen. Annemarie had more formal training in restaurants in Paris and New York City. To me, Ladleah’s deep knowledge, particularly of the garden, and her relaxed, sometimes improvisational approach in the kitchen were the perfect foil for her partner’s precise teaching style.
A woman of generous build with a round, open face and flashing green-gray eyes, Ladleah is earthy, confident, and comforting. In our bread-making lesson, she showed us how to create our own starter by mixing equal parts water and flour and letting the mixture sit out so that the natural yeast in the air would colonize it. Ladleah explained that using an indigenous starter would impart more interesting, complex flavors to our finished bread. At the end of the three days, we could take our starter home and keep it alive by feeding it additional flour and water. Any loaves we baked back home would thus have the same flavor we created at Salt Water Farm. “Feed your starter every day,” she told us. “It will become a good friend.”
I have always had an uneasy, usually messy, and always unglamorous relationship with dough in most forms, so for me, making bread with a master at my side was both nervewracking and revelatory, leaving me determined to take good care of my starter and prepare the perfect loaf upon my return home.
“Why do I focus first on bread, cheese, pickles?” Ladleah asked later. “Because these are some of the most humble foods that you find offered to anyone anywhere in the world. Bread is one of the basic beginning conversations people have with food.”
The bread lesson was a vigorous rebuttal to the idea that bread making, like raising hens, making your own bacon, and growing fresh herbs and vegetables, falls into the category of “just too much trouble.” “No,” Ladleah reminded us, “this is not bread for the meek! It doesn’t happen in a couple of hours, but it only takes a slight effort to bring a beautiful thing into your existence. Become comfortable with the process, and you begin to integrate it into the everyday.”
While many cooking schools offer a watch-and-learn approach, Ladleah and Annemarie encouraged us to get our hands dirty. They acted more as guides, first showing or explaining and then advising from a distance as we attempted to braise chicken thighs or roll pie crust. Annemarie is rail thin and intense in a soft-spoken way; there is little preacher but lots of facilitator in what she does. “We see food,” she told me, “as something that everybody should be able to have an intimate relationship with. It is so hard for us to write down recipes here, because we really do cook with our instincts. Our goal is to get people to do the same and to trust themselves in the kitchen and in the garden. We have had some very well-known chefs come through here. It’s funny, every once in a while, it’s like they’re fighting the place, the gardens, wanting to fly in this ingredient or giving us their purveyor lists. Salt Water Farm is the purveyor list.”
Annemarie also explained how her own life journey relates to the mission of Salt Water Farm. Originally from Milwaukee, she spent childhood summers at her family’s farm in Maine. She attended culinary school, went to work in New York City with chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill restaurant, and then became the personal assistant for Tom Colicchio of the Craft restaurant empire. Both chefs are deeply committed to local, regional, and seasonal cuisine. After stints at Saveur magazine and Slow Food, the nonprofit organization that advocates for the preservation of regional culinary traditions, Annemarie found herself yearning for a more real and more intimate relationship with food than any restaurant or magazine job could provide. “Instead of just reading books about farming in my tiny Brooklyn apartment,” she told us, “I wanted the farm, the whole experience.” And she suspected others did, too.
Our days at salt water farm consisted of four to five hours of lessons and lectures in the kitchen and trips to nearby purveyors. At least once each day, Ladleah took us outside to help us understand the thinking behind the vast, serpentine garden beds. “To save space, think about edible borders,” she told us, recommending the three-sisters’ planting— a Native American tradition of tall corn shading beans with squash running amok along the ground. “Verticality is a great way to get more into a small space,” she continued, pointing out waist-high Autumn Beauty sunflowers over tomatillos with purple kohlrabi at their base.
The farm doesn’t have accommodations, but it’s just four miles north of Camden, a dainty New England town filled with bed-and-breakfasts, its downtown free of big-box chain stores. After class, some students went biking on the trails of nearby Ragged Mountain or kayaking at Lincolnville Beach. I found myself lingering around the farm, wandering past chickens that I would later turn into dinner. One morning, I climbed Mount Battie in nearby Camden Hills State Park, a few miles of somewhat arduous trail that rewarded me with spectacular 360-degree views over Penobscot Bay, the mountains, and up and down the coast.
During one day of classes, Annemarie led a tutorial on knives. Now, I am both a Luddite and a knife fetishist. “If you put my Dad’s knives in the dishwasher,” I once heard my daughter tell a friend casually, “he’ll kill you.” So I was surprised to see Annemarie whip her knives through an electric sharpener before she gave them a final few snick-snicks with the traditional honing steel. She explained that putting a new edge on the knife with an electric sharpener means you won’t have to resharpen as often. I made a note to buy myself a new, 21st-century gadget.
After the knife session, the class crowded in as Annemarie divided a whole chicken into pieces without cutting through a single bone. She then tackled classic French preparations, making a perfect mirepoix (a mix of diced onion, carrot, and celery) and a bouquet garni (a bundle of rosemary, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf), both of which ended up in our chicken stock. “We don’t waste anything,” she told us, “because we’re using the carcasses of the chicken we eat today for tomorrow’s soup, getting all that great flavor.”
During the morning I saw faces smiling over their own diced onions. Later I watched various students sidle up warily to whole chickens. With great proficiency, all members of the group cleanly chopped legs, thighs, and wings, and triumphantly moved the poultry parts to the pile to be marinated and baked. Annemarie trusted us to help each other. Julie taught me, I showed Jennie, Jennie helped Allison, Allison demonstrated for Tim, and so on.
Some people would leave that day determined, in the future, to buy their chicken whole and use its carcass for savory stock. This embodies so much of what Salt Water does—sharing simple ways to approach seemingly daunting endeavors. It also shows how far most of our lives have evolved away from such basic knowledge. “Some may go home,” Ladleah said, “throw on the Carhartts, and till up the front yard. Others will grow a box of fresh herbs on the apartment windowsill. Either one is fine.”
Annemarie added, “We’re always telling people, you have the power to change things, especially when it comes to what you feed yourself and your family. You choose whether to buy a chicken from Walmart or the farmers’ market. We hope people come away with the confidence and a few more skills to make [that change] happen.”
As I took my place at the polished hardwood table on the last evening, I felt a real pride in the meal we had created. Earlier in the day, Jennie and I picked squash blossoms. Ladleah, rushing off to avert a sorbet crisis, warned us to watch that none of “our little friends” ended up in the dish. Unsure of what she meant, Jennie and I gently opened the flowers to give them a cold-water rinse. Suddenly, Jennie jumped and dropped a fat blossom on the counter. I picked it up—and dropped it just as fast. Inside was a furious bee, buzzing hotly enough to tickle my palm through the thin wall of the flower. Our “little friend” made it back outside to the garden, free to pollinate another day.
The squash blossoms—which we stuffed with herbs and cheese, and fried tempura-style—were handed around as appetizers at our final meal along with elderflower and gin cocktails. Then it was on to a silky smooth corn soup dressed with a brilliant green splash of basil oil and two chunks of lobster. The main course was homemade linguine with peas, bacon, cream, and mint, accompanied by a simple salad of garden lettuces as well as a golden, crusty boule made from that first day’s bread dough. We finished with a raspberry-rosé sorbet and rosemary-olive oil shortbread cookies.
With each day, our confidence and our competence had grown along with the complexity of the meals we prepared. As I said my goodbyes to the group, I reflected that yes, this experience had been about food and how we relate to it, how to make it more authentic in our own lives. But it was as much about the richness of discovery shared. As for how to brew beer and ferment sauerkraut? I’m ready to experiment. A
Writer Michael S. Sanders is the author of Fresh from Maine: Recipes and Stories from the State’s Best Chefs. Brooklyn-based photographer Tara Donne also shot “Uncorking Switzerland’s Secret” in the March/April 2010 issue of AFAR. This story appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.