Local Flavors: Portland, Maine - #112

Every town in the world has a local flavor ... a flavor that comes from its signature dishes ... from a group of preferred ingredients ... or type of restaurant that is popular.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment or a technique.  There are dozens of things that impact on the local flavor.  But the most important influences are always the result of geography, history, and economics.  So please join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of Portland, Maine.

If you start at the most northern point on the coast of Maine and sailed directly down to the most southern point on the coast, you will have traveled about 400 miles.  But if you sailed into each bay ... through each cove ... into each harbor, past each island, and around each peninsula, you would have sailed over 3,500 miles. 

Geologists describe it as a downed coastline because thousands of years ago, the original coastline sank into the ocean and left behind what stands here today.  This is a vast and extraordinary coast.  And is the encounter between the land and the Atlantic Ocean that has controlled the destiny of Maine. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The first European to explore the area was John Cabot, who sailed through in 1497, just five years after Columbus bumped into the Bahamas.  He was an Italian and his real name was Giovanni Caboto ... but he anglicized it so he could sail for the King of England.  And it was his explorations that formed the basis for England's claim to the territory.  The largest city in Maine is Portland, and it was founded just 50 years after Giovanni sailed through.

Portland was built on a three-and-a-half mile wide peninsula and almost everything of interest to a tourist is within walking distance.  The city symbol is the phoenix ... the bird who rises from its ashes, which is perfect for Portland because it has burned down four

times.  The first two were during the Indian Wars, the third was the result of a British bombardment during the Revolution.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The fourth fire took place on the 4th of July, 1866 when a young boy accidentally threw a firecracker into a barrel of wood shavings and set a boat-yard on fire.  The fire brigade arrived, put out the fire, and then went across the street to drink, celebrate the 4th of July, and their success at putting out the fire.  Unfortunately, a number of cinders had drifted across the street and the Portland Sugar Works burst into flame ... taking the rest of the town with it, proving two things ... the Bible was right when it said "Pride goeth before destruction" and Yogi Berra was once again on the ball when he said, "It ain't over till it's over." 

After the fire of 1866, a law was passed that prohibited the construction of wooden buildings which resulted in the beautiful brick-and-granite structures that make up the center of the city.  The old cobblestone streets are lined with shops.  Portmanteau hand makes canvas zipper totes, purses and briefcases.  And you can see them being made in the shop.  Edgecomb Potters sells designer jewelry, fine glass, and glazed porcelain.  Northern Sky Toyz specializes in non-battery operated toys, yo-yos and stunt kites.  The staff encourages you to play before you pay. 

There's a state law requiring all cars to stop for pedestrians, which makes the town even more walkable.  Your walk should include a stroll around the Eastern Promenade, which has the best views of the surrounding waters.  Beautiful homes that date back over a 100 years look out on Casco Bay, the protective islands, and the lobster boats that go in and out almost everyday throughout the year.  These days the Maine lobster business is a big deal…with an annual value of almost $200 million.  But until the middle of the 20th century, lobsters were just contemptible crustaceans.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  I once read a letter written in the 1700s by an Englishman expressing his compassion for the enormous amount of lobster the people of Maine had to eat.  It was all over the place.  They’d just wash up on the shore ... became the most inexpensive source of protein.  Servants who worked under contract in Maine, insisted in the agreement, that they wouldn't be served lobster more than twice a week.  And farmers, who lived near the shore, would actually use lobster as fertilizer. 

A lobster must be cooked while it's still alive.  It was very difficult to ship a live lobster to market.  So the lobsters were stuck here in Maine.  But when we developed forms of transportation that could ship live lobsters all over the world, they immediately clawed their way onto the best menus. 

Tom Martin is a Maine lobsterman.  And his boat is a 37-foot long commercial fishing vessel named The Lucky Catch. 

TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA:  I started when I was 14.  My next-door neighbor was a commercial lobsterman and I started working with him in the summertime, and it was just a habit I couldn't break. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It's wonderful to be out on your own. 

TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: It's a beautiful place to spend time. 

From November through April, Tom uses her to harvest lobster.  But during the summer months, Captain Tom runs tours for people who want to learn about the life of a lobsterman.TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: We're leave at 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning ... we're usually out all day.  This time of year, November, we're using haul traps until it gets dark. BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Every lobsterman has a colored-coded buoy to distinguish his traps from everyone else's.  There are no locks or other security systems on the traps, just the traditional honesty of the Maine lobstermen. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Quick, get the butter! 

TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: These are very old-fashioned wooden traps called half-rounds.  Very seldom are these used anymore for anything besides a coffee table or a lawn ornament.  There, we're going to go in ... we're going to pull our first lobster out here and we're going to measure him across his back from the behind his eye socket down here to the end of his back  that's called his carapace.  It has to be at least three-and-one-quarter inches long.  On the metal gauge, the short side of the gauge, from this point to that point ...


TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: ... is exactly ... three-and-a-quarter. 


TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: So all we do is we touch it right behind his eye


TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: ... lay it down on his back. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It's over three inches.

TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: Over three-and-a-quarter inches ...


TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: ... we have a winner.


Lobstering is one of the oldest industries in the state and supports a way of life for thousands of families in Maine.  All lobster harvesters play a role in sustaining Maine's most important Marine resource.  They support Maine's laws that have historically protected the lobsters in the Gulf of Maine.  They are into sound resource management. 

TOM MARTIN ON CAMERA: Now this lobster's gonna have to go back in. 

Directly across the road from the docks is Fore Street, which was the original waterfront until the railroad filled in the land and pushed the docks back a few hundred yards so they could put their tracks next to the boats.  Today Fore Street is one of the hip hills in town and home to the Fourth Street Restaurant. 

The chef and owner is Sam Hayward and today he's making a fish stew.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA:  Now I'll cut the fish into the right-size pieces for cooking in the broth.  I'm going to cut the monk fish

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Sam is using black fish, wolf fish, monk fish, squid, oysters ... butter clams and scallops. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I notice some of the fish you have the skin on and some you don't. 

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: That's a good question.  A lot of the flavor of the fish is in the membranes directly under the skin, and in some cases the membranes that surround the bones.  I prefer to leave the skin on for that reason whenever I can or whenever the public will tolerate it.  So what I've first done in some instances, such as the Tautog is remove the scales before I cut the filets.  I'm trying to cut the fish into size pieces, taking into consideration their different cooking characteristics so that they'll be all be done at exactly the same time. 


SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: Okay, now I'm ... let's just bring this over.  What I'm going to do is put a little olive oil in the bottom of the cazuela…

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: These are big deal in Spanish and Latin American cooking.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA:  That's right. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  They are great for long, slow dishes. 

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: We use them here for a variety of things ... everything from cassoulet, whose name is similar, of course, to seafood uh braises ... lamb shanks, long-simmered meat dishes of different kinds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The pot holds its heat.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: It's a beautiful thing.  And it actually works in this oven.  It can take the intense heat of this oven. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It's good for both in the oven and on top of the stove.  And glazed on the inside, and this one's glazed on the outside, too.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: I have some at home that are not glazed on the outside.  What's interesting about those is they began to take up the aroma of everything you've ever cooked in them, and it becomes a kind of complex flavoring device of its own.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In defense of the outside glaze, it makes it dishwasher safe.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You pays your money and you takes your choice.  So all of the fish just goes in right on top of the oil.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: Exactly.  And I'll put the shellfish in on top ... as they open up, they'll release some of their juices into the rest of the seafood. 

The seafood is seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, flat-leaf parsley and chervil.  Then finally a broth made from fish stock and vegetables is spooned on to the seafood until the seafood is almost submerged.  And into the oven uncovered for five minutes to let the heat get to the top of the ingredients.  At which point, the cover of the cazuela goes on and everything cooks for 15 minutes more.  If you would like the recipes for this program, and all the other recipes in this series, I'll tell you how to get them at the end of the program.  Sam makes a great effort to highlight foods that are produced in Maine and so does the local public market. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the late 1800s, almost every town in America had a public market.  It was the center for the community, a place where people came together to talk to buy  and to sell foods.  But by the 1940s large supermarket chains began to swallow up the independent distributors of food.  And very soon, almost all of our public markets disappeared. 

But over the last 20 years, public markets have been making a comeback.  Inspired by Seattle's Pike Place, an attorney named Owen Wells advised his friend and client, the late philanthropist, Elizabeth Noyce, to donate $10 million to construct a 37,000-square-foot building to house their vision of a public market, a market that is primarily devoted to foods that are farmed, raised or produced in Maine. 

Sam Hayward took a break from cooking at Fore Street ... to show me around the market. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Valley View Farms.  I read about these guys.  It was an orchard.  They were just about to go bankrupt, and they figured out that if they took their apples and made them into pies, they could sell them for enough money to stay in business.  Value-added.  I like that.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: Yankee ingenuity. 

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: And you'll notice they also have wild Maine blueberries as an ingredient in some of these pies.


SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: Wolves Neck ... this is in Freeport, Maine, a terrific farm that raises all natural beef but they also market here in their stand natural pork that comes from farms in Aroostook County and lamb that actually is raised on islands in Penobscot Bay, just a few miles farther down east from here.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: The wonderful thing about this lamb and beef and pork is that there are absolutely no hormones or antibiotics that are used.  The lamb is completely natural.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Get real, get Maine?

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: This is a program by our Agriculture Department to spotlight Maine's terrific produce, and it's especially important during Indian Summer season like right now when so many great root crops are coming out.  And now we're at the apple section of the Maine harvest vendor.  Apples are really important in Maine.  The two dominant varieties tend to be Macintosh and Portland because they're frost-hardy and are harvested very early, and are good sweet eating out of hand.  Occasionally you'll find a coupe of other varieties, heirlooms like Baldwins and Pippins.  Apples are very important in Maine.  They've been grown in New England since 1629.

SAM HAYWARD ON CAMERA: And apples important in families because they could be stored in a cellar all winter and most household a century ago would have had a barrel of cider gently fermenting until Christmas time.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A little apple cider, my dear?

Portland claims to have more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States after San Francisco.  And many of them are very good.  Our favorite lunch spot was Walter's Cafe on Exchange Street, in the heart of the old Port.  Excellent local micro-brews.  We all kept coming back to the pan-fried Maine clam cakes and the Carolina barbecued pork sandwich.  Some of the best cooking I've tasted anywhere came out of the simple kitchen at the Back Bay Grill.  Joel Freund graduated from the Maine School of Law and immediately decided that he preferred a sauce to a summons.  His restaurant is a favorite spot for serious eaters.  The chef is Larry Matthews and the sous chef is Gordon Cameron.  And their work is superb and consistent.  They bake their own bread and time it so it comes out of the oven as dinner is served.  We started with a terrine of house-cured gravlax and spruce point smoked salmon with marinated red onions, chive creme fraiche and a basket of homemade potato chips. 

The main course was Maine lobster ... on Savoy cabbage, with red curry squash dumplings, and lobster, butter and chive oil.  For dessert, a peach poached in Riesling wine with homemade peach swirl ice cream. 

I didn't finish my wine and Joel was kind enough to point out that there's a state law that allows restaurant diners to bring home an unfinished bottle of wine at the end of the meal.  Waste not, want not.  I love this state. 

I'd also suggest a visit to Q’s Ice Cream.  Ideally not on the same day you're eating in the Back Bay Grill.  Two hundred different flavors all made on the premises, without chemical preservatives or artificial coloring.  Everybody loved the brownie sundae.  There was one place that almost everyone told us we had to visit.  And that was the Standard Baking Company.  The standards at the Standard Baking Company are set by Alison Pray and Matt James.  And fortunately, everything about their work is above standard.  They make all types of breads from baguette to brioche but they also make some excellent pastries.  And every morning, dozens of people stop in for Standard's honey buns and cranberry scones. 

I asked Allison to show us how the scones were made.

ALISON PRAY ON CAMERA:  Whisk it all together and make sure it's well combined.

The dry ingredients,  flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt are whisked together.  

ALISON PRAY ON CAMERA: Our next step is to add cold butter and we'll just break this in with our fingertips quickly so that the butter doesn't melt.  And we'll continue working the butter in until the largest pieces are pea-sized.

Plain yogurt goes into a mixer followed by cranberries.  Next to wild berries, cranberries are one of the few fruits native to North America.  And Maine produces some of the world's best cranberries.  That's mixed together for a moment, then the dry ingredients with the butter goes in and everything gets mixed to become a dough. 

ALISON PRAY ON CAMERA: You don't need a mixer for this.  You could definitely do it by hand. 

The dough is pressed out into a seven-by-seven square and then sliced into eight triangles.  Allison handles the dough with a bench scraper, which is a standard piece of equipment in a baker's kitchen.  It has a simple shape but it cuts, kneads, lifts, and scrapes dough on the baker's work surface.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The key to a good bench scraper is strength and comfort.  You want it to be made of stainless steel.  You want it to be slightly flexible so it will slide under the dough and you want the grip to be rounded so it's comfortable in your hand. 

They're dusted with Turninado sugar, which is coarser than a white sugar and darker, because molasses is added during the manufacturing process.  At this point they go on to a perforated baking sheet, which is basically a non-stick jelly roll pan, with a surface that is covered with teeny holes.  The perfect for formed dough is like buns, rolls and scones where you want the oven's heat to come in direct contact with the bottom of whatever is baking.  And into a 350 degree oven for 12 minutes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And here's a good timer.  It's made by Polder.  It counts in hours, minutes and seconds.  It also acts as a clock.  It has a string so you can hang it around your neck and take it wherever you want.  It also has a magnet on the back so you can connect it to a metal surface.  And once it rings, it starts to count up ... so you'll know how late you are.  I'm late. 

Traditionally, scones are eaten with a dollop of jam. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Jams and jellies are a big business.  Each year Americans spend about a billion dollars on them.  Most of that money goes through giant supermarkets to giant manufacturers.  But alongside the giants, there are a number of small companies that usually started in somebody's kitchen and built themselves into a real business.  A perfect example  Stonewall Kitchen.

JONATHAN KING ON CAMERA: Stonewall Kitchens began in 1991 at a local farmer’s market on the seacoast of Maine and New Hampshire.  My partner, Jim, and I started out of our combined passions of horticulture and cuisine.  We were making these beautiful products these homemade jams, mustards, sauces, pickles, relishes, and we took them to the open air farmer's market, used a card table.  Got a local association ... the Growers Association certificate to sell these to the public.  We put our products out and our customers came and they sampled them, and that first day, we made about $250 and we high-fived ourselves all the way home.

JIM STOTT ON CAMERA: Oh, at farmer’s market, everybody has very elaborate tents and market umbrellas, and it was very fancy.  But we didn't have the money for that so we borrowed Jonathan's dad's golf umbrella and as customers would come up to shop on a rainy day, we'd hold the umbrella over them and follow them down.  It gave us a chance to also interact with them and sway them into what we needed to get rid of that day. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They chose the name Stonewall because Stonewalls are part of the main landscape and because they're held together by design.  They don't use mortar.  And they felt that was symbolic of their company where their products are held together without additives or preservatives.  I love America.  No matter how big a company is and how it dominates an industry, there's always room for a couple of guys to come along and take a slice of the pie. 

While we were visiting Portland, we stayed on the Cape Elizabeth headlands at The Inn by The Sea, which was a lot like living in a Winslow Homer painting.  The Inn faces out on one of Maine's finest sand beaches.  Between the beach and the hotel grounds are a couple of hundred yards of perfect unspoiled marshlands with a private boardwalk along the edge.  The Zagat survey has chosen it as one of America's top hotels and "Country Inns Magazine" has put it on its top ten list.  And I'm adding it to my own list of favorite places.  It only has 43 units which gives it a very homey feeling. 

Each unit is a suite.  There are fireplaces and little kitchens, and balconies with views of the sea.  The uncluttered decor was inspired by the works of John Jay Audubon, the artist and author of "The Birds of America," the definitive book on the subject. 

Twenty of his original engravings hang on the walls of the hotel's public rooms.  The dining room at the Inn is called the Audubon Room.  But in addition to its bird dishes, it also serves beef, game, seafood and some wonderful desserts.  The kitchen prepares a wide range of foods, but there were four dishes that I found particularly interesting.  Char-grilled New York sirloin strip with pan-fried potatoes and summer vegetables.  Knockwurst dogs with caramelized onion roll, and grilled free-range chicken with brown gravy.  And a special for me ... veal roulade with lobster and Roquefort cheese, which was prepared by the executive chef, Jeff Austin. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And each of the dishes was highly rated by my dinner companions who introduced me to the hotel's pet menu.  What are you guys having?  Hey, Tag, dig in.  Boy. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Try not to wolf down your meal.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Didn't we meet in Paris?  Ah, you know, this is great cooking.  No bones about it.  Est-ce vous parlez francais?  Oui, no?

Can we get you a tequila? 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And you're not a vegetarian.  I hate that.  Yes, you came back for your last snack.  Waiter.  Who else takes you to dinner like I take you to dinner?  I take you to the best places. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You know, there's an old saying in television ... never work with children or dogs.  Don't feel bad if you can't finish everything.  We'll just put it in a doggie bag. 

They also provide dog beds, dog dishes, oversized towels, dog tags, dog leaves, dog blankets ... and dog treats. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Well, that's a brief taste of the local flavors of Portland, Maine.  I hope you've enjoyed it and I hope you will join me next time.  I'm Burt Wolf.  And I'm moving out.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.