Eating local may be the trendy, righteous thing to do, but on the island of North Haven, it’s much more than a virtue — it’s a necessity. When a trip to a large grocery store on the mainland requires a 2½ -hour round-trip journey, it behooves you to grow your own food. And the food that is harvested, prepared and sold on the island is as fresh, organic and delicious as it comes.
Between Turner Farm, Sheep Meadow Farm, Cider Hill Farm, Grant Family Farm and the variety of bakers, beekeepers, fishermen and other purveyors located on the island, fresh vegetables, cheese, meat, bread and sweets are available from May until October. Curious nonislanders can sample an array of locally grown North Haven food at the Nebo Lodge, the eight-room inn and restaurant owned and operated by Chellie and Hannah Pingree.
Nebo Chef Amanda Hallowell has the pick of the litter when it comes to local ingredients, whether it’s fresh lamb from Sheep Meadow Farm or Cider Hill Farm, rye bread from Little Urchin Bakery, or loads of produce, pork and goat cheese from Turner Farm.
“I can go around to farms and know exactly what I can get, and I can super fine-tune the menu to exactly what’s in season right that day,” said Hallowell, who has served up Nebo’s simple food with powerful flavor for four years now. “It’s hard to make a living out here, but selling food in whatever capacity is one of the best ways to do it. And it’s definitely one of the most enjoyable.”
North Haven always has been the most agriculturally inclined of Maine’s island communities, with its rich soil and relatively flat terrain. In fact, Turner Farm, also owned by the Pingrees and operated by farm manager James Blair, has been a farm for more than 200 years — though the last known record of it being operational was 1910. It’s located on a dirt road surrounded by tall, straight pine trees, which emerges onto a field that gently slopes down to a rocky beach.
“Historically, North Haven is a farming community. It was much more about agriculture than fishing,” said Hannah Pingree, former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, and now a full-time restaurateur and new mother. “There’s no granite at all, to speak of. The soil is good. There’s always been a history of it here.”
Though the farming presence always has been a part of life on North Haven, it dwindled in recent decades to a minimum. With the explosion in popularity of farmers markets and eating locally, the island has begun to return to its roots.
“I don’t think it ever went away, really, but it’s as strong now as it has ever been, and probably even more so,” said Pingree. “It’s a part of who we are. It’s something we’re proud of.”
The delicately flavored lamb raised on the island has gained a reputation as among the best in the state, though North Haven has long been know for its sheep farmers. Courtney Naliboff, who during the school year is the music and drama teacher at the North Haven Community School, bakes bread, ciabatta and focaccia at her Little Urchin Bakery, located in the American Legion Hall near the ferry terminal. Adam Campbell’s North Haven Oyster Company was one of the first suppliers of cold, briny, outstanding oysters in the state when it started back in 2002, and now offers the delicious bivalves year-round — though they’re best in the fall.
Turner Farm laid dormant for nearly 100 years, until 2009, when the Pingrees purchased it and began the process of reclaiming the land from years of growth. Its first year producing was 2010, and 2011 already has turned out a bumper crop for produce, meat and dairy. With a year-round population of around 380 that doubles in the summer, there’s enough to go around.
All those locally grown, raised and harvested treats can be found at Nebo Lodge, one of the centers of activity on the island. Hallowell, a North Haven native, has a vision for the food that reflects her roots — simple and extremely easy to eat.
“Is it silly to call it ingredient-based cooking? I don’t know. I think the idea is that we let the ingredients speak for themselves,” said Hallowell. “I think about the French cooking craze of the 80s, and how the ingredients weren’t as important as the preparation. We are the opposite. If the food is good, the rest begins to follow.”
The ever-changing menu at Nebo can be as basic or as extravagant as the diner wishes. A fried fish reuben, featuring local flounder, Morse’s sauerkraut and a house-made tortilla is deeply satisfying, as are the fried green tomatoes topped with chive creme fraiche. Or, you could get a little fancy and go for the grilled lobster tail, with smoked sea salt butter, a chive biscuit, buttery peas and tomato basil salad. Homemade pickles, local eggs, fresh salads and lots of local goat cheese round out the menu, along with a dizzying array of house-made ice cream and sorbet, with flavor combinations like Earl Gray tea and fresh cherry, or beet and orange. And don’t forget the cocktails, created by Josh Amato and featuring house-made vodka and gin infusions.
A trip to Nebo requires a place to stay on the island, as the last state ferry leaves the island at 3:45 p.m., and dinner starts at 5 p.m. You could stay in one of Nebo’s eight elegantly appointed rooms — or, for $20, you could sign up for a spot on Equinox Island Transit’s twice-weekly dinner runs to the island. The boat leaves from Rockland harbor at 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, arrives around 5 p.m., and allows you three hours to meander around North Haven and have dinner at Nebo. It departs for the mainland between 8 and 8:30 p.m. for a sunset trip home.
“Things really started to click last year, and this year, we’ve been out straight almost every night we’re open,” said Hallowell. “I think everybody appreciates having a place to go eat that’s like Nebo, where you can have a really simple meal or have something a lot fancier. Either works. We cater to lots of different tastes and budgets. We try to make it as delicious as possible.”