April 27, 2018
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Flavor from the farm, Maine-style

By Emily Burnham, BDN Staff

The slow-moving fog crept in from Penobscot Bay into the lush green fields of Salt Water Farm in Lincolnville. It was May, but it felt more like early April — and inside the well-appointed kitchen and dining room in the post-and-beam barn where Annemarie Ahearn and Ladleah Dunn cook and teach each week, it felt as cozy as a winter’s night.

Pots of raw whole milk simmered on the stove becoming cheese as Dunn added rennet and acid. Ahearn methodically chopped onions and basil, and boiled noodles for lasagna. Irene Yadao, operations manager for the farm, zipped around the kitchen, snapping pictures and assisting the 10 guests from Maine and beyond, who were assembled there to learn from Dunn and Ahearn how to make ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, and then eat Ahearn’s carefully prepared dinner.

Ahearn, Dunn and Yadao have, for the past two years, offered cooking and food preparation classes and elegant meals at Salt Water Farm, the 17-acre oceanfront property owned by Ahearn and her family. Events are offered year-round, but from May to September, Salt Water Farm turns into a kind of summer camp for locavores, with an array of daylong to three-day-long workshops teaching participants how to do everything from beekeeping and beer brewing to pig butchering and preserving and canning. All accompanied by fabulous meals, cooked by Ahearn and Dunn.

“I think the thing we’re really passionate about is, pretty simply, good, real food,” said Dunn. “Maine, especially, has such a history of farming and fishing and living off the land, and we want to share that and learn from that as much as we can. It’s something that’s so important, and a lot of that way of life has been lost. We’re trying to hold onto that.”

Dunn and Ahearn have very different backgrounds, but many crucial similarities in their ideas about food. As a child, Ahearn, 29, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wis., spent summers in Maine on her parents’ blueberry farm in Dresden. Her family purchased the property in Lincolnville, formerly a sheep farm, in 1999, and slowly converted it into tillable land for vegetable farming.

After attending Colorado College and the Institute for Culinary Education, or ICE, in New York City, Ahearn had stints working for Saveur magazine, and cooked in Paris, Barcelona and New York. She worked for a time at Dan Barber’s James Beard-award-winning Blue Hill restaurant in New York; she also was a personal assistant to Tom Colicchio, owner of the widely acclaimed Craft restaurants and head judge on “Top Chef.”

“I knew New York was the food capital of the country, and I wanted to go there and get my foot in the door and build a foundation of knowledge about food,” said Ahearn. “It was at the ICE that I wrote up my business plan for what is now Salt Water Farm. I knew I wanted to teach, and I had this beautiful property in Maine. I just needed credentials and cash.”

In 2009, after years of networking and amassing knowledge in the United States and Europe, Ahearn decided to forgo the fast-paced life of New York kitchens and slow it down a bit. Salt Water Farm was unveiled for the summer of 2009.

“I was ready to do my own thing, but I didn’t want to do it in New York. It’s incredibly competitive, and, well, there are no real farms in New York [City] itself, even if people are doing rooftop farms,” said Ahearn. “It’s not the same pace of life I was looking for. I knew I could have it here.”

Not long after that, Ahearn met Dunn, a Maine native with a wealth of experience in all the areas Ahearn wanted to explore with Salt Water Farm.

Dunn grew up on Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont and on Vinalhaven, as well as on tiny Pine Island off the coast of Florida, learning farming, fishing and marine skills at a very young age. After graduating from Maine Maritime Academy in 2000, she did everything from studying fish populations in Vancouver to sailing throughout the Caribbean to working for Outward Bound’s Hurricane Island program off the coast of Maine. She settled down in the Lincolnville area in 2006, and opened Kalliste Yacht Services with her husband, Shane, restoring and refinishing boats.

In 2009, she was looking for a way to use her considerable skills and passion for local foods — and meeting Ahearn was just the ticket.

“We have similar skills, but came to them from very different angles,” said Dunn. “We have the same ideas about food, and the same passion for sustainability. Annemarie has all this training and all these connections in the food world, and I’ve just amassed a lot of hands-on experience over the years. We complement each other very well.”

Yadao formed the final piece of the puzzle, as a New Mexico transplant to the midcoast, who previously wrote for Waldo County’s Republican Journal. While Yadao runs the day-to-day operations of Salt Water Farm, Ahearn and Dunn lead workshops and dinners all year.

Some of the regular yearly events include three-day workshops in June, July and August, in which participants stay in the area and learn a variety of skills, from cooking to small-scale gardening. There also are the one-off events, such as specific skill workshops, cookbook signings and field trips to local islands for foraging. And then there’s the weeklong Maine Event in August, an extravaganza of cooking and learning, in which chefs from New York City come up to the farm to work with Ahearn and Dunn and their students.

Salt Water Farm’s monthly Full Moon and Sunday Suppers have become popular quickly. Tourists and local residents have picked up on the unique nature of the suppers, which feature all-local ingredients, some of which were grown on the farm. This month’s Full Moon Supper, held on May 17, featured, among several dishes, local crab on toast with chive mayonnaise, freshly harvested radishes and greens and a rhubarb jam cake, all containing Maine springtime ingredients. Different farmers and purveyors are featured at each dinner, such as lamb farmer Perry Ells of Union, sea urchin diver Brad Scott and organic apple orchard owner Bob Sewell of Lincolnville.

All dinners through September are sold out, as each one only seats 20, and word of Ahearn’s and Dunn’s skills has spread far beyond Knox County. Write-ups on their project in the Boston Globe, and Down East and Food & Wine magazines have brought foodies from all over the state and the country to their table.

“I’d love to keep it at this small, intimate level, but it’s just not sustainable. The interest has been too big,” said Ahearn. “What we’d really like to do is expand the cooking class portion of what we do to be more of a farm-to-table school. You come for a week at a time and spend half a day on the farm and half a day in the kitchen, learning lost culinary arts and things like composting and chicken raising. Or you can come for just a day and learn one specialized thing. It’s like the Maine Media Workshops [in Rockport], just for food. You come to learn.”

A full schedule of events all year long can be found online at www.saltwaterfarm.com. Daylong classes and events range in price from $35 to $75, and dinners are $65. The three-day events start at $425 and include lodging.

Emily Burnham can be contacted at eburnham@bangordailynews.com.

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