TOPSHAM, Maine — Forget the glam restaurants of Portland. Find the hottest farm to table feast this season 27 miles north, in an old fairground.
Last week the Midcoast Market Cafe opened at a bare-bones concession stand in the heart of Topsham Fairgrounds. On Fridays when the winter farmers market is in session, Brunswick-based chef Jenn Legnini stirs up a new concept, along with Tuscan kale and white bean soup.
“I’m only sourcing from vendors who are here,” said Legnini, spreading apple and parsnip butter on slices of bread from King & I Angus, sold amid an array of baked goods a few steps away.
Bringing a fresh vibe to local produce, her chalkboard specials feature herb-roasted mushroom and braised chard panini with local tomme cheese and a maple roasted turkey breast with carrots and daikon slaw. Plus a soup made with ingredients fresh from the farmer’s wheelbarrow into her stockpot.
“I think it’s a heck of an idea,” said Dick Piper, owner of Piper Ranch in Buckfield, taking a break from selling grassfed highland beef to peruse the menu. “I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to eat.”
Every week Legnini will transform the kitchen in the exhibition hall, where hot dogs, burgers and bean suppers are typically prepared, into a four-hour gourmet popup. She treks in panini grills, a soup pot and a cooler of garnishes, braised and roasted veggies, cheese and meat sourced days earlier from market vendors. The trained chef, who worked at Portland’s Five Fifty-Five, and apprenticed on a Freeport farm, allows shoppers to experience the harvest with a hearty lunch.
“There is so much available,” said Legnini, who “dreams in flavors.”
While some farmers markets offer sustenance via food trucks or vendors, few have a cafe sourcing on the spot. Last year Legnini, who also runs Turtle Rock Farm, a canned pickle, sauce and spreadable fruit company, was a vendor here. The idea to take advantage of the certified kitchen that sat idle took shape.
“It’s going to bring in more people to the market,” said Cathy Karonis, market manager and owner of Fairwinds Farm in Topsham. Her kale was used in the cafe’s savory soup last week. “I think it could really take off.”
Farmer Bethany Allen from Harvest Tide Organics in Bowdoinham came over to try the soup, also featuring her shallots.
“What a great idea,” said Allen, who hawked beets, cabbage and carrots nearby. “It encourages people to stay and cycle through longer.”
Selling jars of just-roasted Sumatra and Ethiopian coffee beans, Dan Sortwell of Big Barn Coffee in Wiscasset was all smiles. “It’s the next step toward a food hall.”
The roaster is bullish on the idea of fresh vegetables and food stands under one roof.
“People are hard-wired to react positively to fresh food. It creates community,” he said.
The Midcoast Market Cafe is open 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays at the Topsham Fairgrounds. The market runs from November through April.