THORNDIKE, Maine — After a sudden summer rainstorm rolled through rural Waldo County this week, chef Frank Giglio grabbed his basket and a knife and headed into the freshly-washed landscape outside Three Lily Farm to gather some food from the garden.
But it isn’t the usual kind of garden, and the 26-acre farm — tucked into the woods of Thorndike — isn’t an ordinary sort of place.
Giglio, followed by his wife, Camille Giglio, who carried their 2-month-old son, Sunny, walked through their land to a patch of stinging nettles and got to work harvesting enough to make nettle and potato gnocchi for dinner. Meanwhile, their energetic 5-year-old, Wilder, pretended to be a cat, pouncing between patches of burdocks and milkweed.
At Three Lily Farm, a homestead and culinary education center, stinging nettles, burdock, milkweed — and many other types of wild, foraged food — are on the menu.
“So many people see the forest or anything outside as a negative place. [They] look into the forest, and all they see are plants,” Frank Giglio said. “I’m really interested in tuning into nature and eating the foods available at a certain time of year — and seeing nature as an ally.”
It wasn’t always that way for the affable chef, who grew up eating lots of pasta and very few vegetables in what he describes as a typical Italian-American family in southern Connecticut.
He first got interested in food at age 15 when he took a job washing dishes and preparing food in the kitchen of a retirement home. Then he started working at a busy New England-style restaurant, working his way up from the breading station to the grill.
After high school, Giglio knew he wanted to continue working in the industry and went to the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, where he became a classically-trained chef.
“I opened up to a whole new world of food,” Giglio said, adding that he went from eating few vegetables to embracing raw food for a while. “My palate really opened up. I tried a sungold cherry tomato. From that point on, there’s nothing I wouldn’t try.”
Sometime after embracing cherry tomatoes and all that followed, Giglio decided that he wanted to be a different kind of chef. He began learning about herbalism, sustainable cuisine and the farm-to-table movement. Along the way, he met Camille, who was working for a nutrition expert.
“We’ve kind of just merged our passions,” Camille Giglio said.
They spent a year in New Hampshire, where they kept hearing about Maine’s food and farm renaissance, then spent two years in southern Maine. But they were still looking for the perfect home, and a few years ago, they made a list of the things they wanted: they wanted it to be off-grid, to have fruit-trees, have spring-fed water and a home commercial kitchen.
In 2012, they saw an ad for the Thorndike property on the website Craigslist, which had all of those things and more.
“We read the ad and said, ‘Yeah, we’re meant to live here,’” Frank Giglio’s wife said.
When they moved to Waldo County, the couple found that the land they had purchased didn’t reveal all of its secrets right away. Between the wild plants that grew there naturally and the fruit trees, rhubarb and other plants that had been intentionally grown by previous owners, the Giglios are still learning about the place they live. There are highbush cranberries, witch hazel, anise-tasting sweet Cicily, and sea buckthorn, which has bright orange, edible berries. There are grape vines entwined in the tall apple trees, and they are finding, much more.
“It keeps unveiling itself,” Giglio said.
“That, and we keep identifying new things every year,” his wife responded. “I knew only a handful of plants when we came here. Every year I keep trying to add to my repertoire.”
As they’ve learned their landscape, the Giglios also had to reinvent how they support their family by using their farm.
“We didn’t come here with a ton of money,” Giglio said. “In our first year, there were tough times. I wasn’t catering, and nobody knew who I was.”
So the couple had to get creative. Thanks to the internet, they have found people all over the world who are interested in learning about such topics as fermentation and cookery, and are willing to pay to take virtual courses with Giglio. The couple also have opened up their homestead to classes and workshops, including a back-to-the-land “immersion and retreat” to be held this August at Three Lily Farm, which also attract students from all over. And they create and sell small-batch goods such as infused vinegars, hot sauce and herbal salves, body butters and more on their Etsy shop.
“We’ve been on an entrepreneurial path,” Giglio said. “We’ve relied on selling through the internet … the biggest challenge with the virtual side is all the time you need to market yourself. You’ve got to tell your story. There’s so much information coming at you on the internet, you need to work your tail off. You need to share your story.”
Toward that end, their personal and business Instagram and Facebook pages are full of the moments that make up life at Three Lily Farm — the wild foraging, the picture-perfect meals created by Giglio, the rollicking adventures of Wilder and sweet, cuddly photos of and stories about the new baby.
“I’ve learned, when I do post, that if you share that personal touch, someone is more likely to relate,” Giglio said.
“I love our life,” she said.