Text © 2009 by Scott W Clemens
Hailed by Coastal Living magazine as one of the “Top Ten Seafood and Wine Festivals,” and held in Portland, dubbed “The foodiest Small Town in America” by Andrew Knowlton of Bon Appetit magazine, I looked forward with pleasant anticipation to attending Harvest on the Harbor, especially as it takes place in late October when leaves blaze red and gold in the crisp autumn air.
Drawing a mere 4,000 paying customers, the event is composed of a series of culinary adventures set in different venues over three days. The festival affords foodies the opportunity to learn more about Maine’s sustainable fishing practices and aquaculture, and showcases local farmers, fishermen and chefs.
2009 was just the second year of the festival, and it was not without its glitches: The marquees for one of the events, the Food & Wine Marketplace, were too small for the crowd, especially on a rainy day, and with just five wines available, the Harvest Uncorked event was laughably misnamed. However, I should mention that the food is the emphasis here, not the wine, though the The Grand Tasting did include nearly 82 wines, 29 brews and 4 spirits (Maine distilleries make some dynamite Vodka). Yet with a plethora of excellent local microbreweries pouring their creations, it would be just as well to laude this as the Top Seafood and Beer Festival in the country; I doubt any city in the country could top it.
There were many bright spots that make the festival worth adding to your calendar for next year, and some of the kinks should be ironed out by then. It combines the sophistication of fine dining and the rustic energy of mom-and-pop businesses, in an authentic farm/fishing boat-to-table experience, and its diminutive size is just one of its many charms. This year the festival kicked off on a Thursday night with a Grand Tasting event at the end of the Ocean Gateway pier on Portland’s waterfront, also the venue for several other seminars and cooking demonstrations during the weekend. The Grand Tasting featured local microbrews, local spirits (vodka), and the aforementioned wine, to try with canapés from twenty of the area’s top seafood chefs from Rockport to Kennebunk.
Friday morning participants numbering perhaps 250, paid $35 apiece to cast their vote for the 2009 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year. To make into the cook-off, chefs from around the state submitted their recipes for Fall Harvest Lobster dishes. In a blind judging, a professional panel picked the top three recipes to compete, and the audience was charged with picking the favorite. The finalists were:
- Rick Skoglund, 26, a Sous Chef at the Samoset Resort in Rockport, who demonstrated how to make hisButternut-Mascarpone Lobster Ravioli, with Balsamic Pomegranate Spinach Salad.
- Melissa Bouchard, an Eastport native and chef at Dimillo’s Floating Restaurant in Portland, who presented her recipe for Maple Butter Poached Lobster Tail with Sweet Potato & Fuji Apple Bisque.
- and Mackenzie Arrington, a 22-year-old local from Booth Bay, and recent graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, who presented his recipe forRoasted Lobster Tail on Braised Cabbage & Cornbread.
Picking a winner was a difficult task, as all three were worthy of gracing the plate at any fine restaurant. While the votes were being tallied, Standard Baking Company’s Executive Pastry Chef, Tara Smith, treated us to a demonstration and sampling of her Maine Blueberry Ricotta Pound Cake. And when the votes had been counted, Arrington (son of last year’s winner) took home the $1,000 prize and the title.
Throughout the day there were seminars and cooking demonstrations. With so little time, and rain in the forecast, I hopped aboard the mailboat to tour the islands in Casco Bay. The bay’s blue waters are dotted with colorful lobster trap buoys, and onboard I struck up a conversation with the wife of a lobsterman, learning something about fishing and politics. The price of lobster has plummeted this year to $2.75 a pound wholesale (you can buy lobster tails in Portland’s grocery store for $5.00 apiece). The lobstermen have accused the distributors of collusion in setting the price. At the same time, in an effort to create a sustainable aquaculture, the state and federal governments have set new limits on the number of traps any one lobsterman can lay, reducing the number from 2,000 to 800 traps, making it a marginal business. In addition, there are about 200 boats competing for the crustaceans, and the nearly 5,000-mile coastline is divided into zones A – G. The previous week a lobsterman was shot and wounded for setting his traps outside his zone. Which gives you an indication of the real life dramas that attend your farm-to-table experience.
Lobsters aren’t the only game in town, however. With its clear, cold waters, Maine has a vibrant fishing industry, as well as aquaculture farms that produce 16 different species, including cod, halibut, salmon, oysters and mussels. Most of the latter are grown on ropes clear of the bottom. Theo de Koning, a fifth generation musselman from the Netherlands, seeds and grows his mussels on the sea floor which, he asserts, produces a more flavorful mussel (www.acadia-aquafarms.com). Rope-grown or bottom-farmed? — It’s the kind of question that puts a smile on the face of every epicurean traveler, because discovering which you prefer is half the fun.
The Friday evening events were spread among many fine restaurants in the area. I had the good luck to be staying at The Portland Harbor Hotel, where Eve’s at the Garden Executive Chef Earl Anthony Morse (also a noted ice sculptor) was creating a spectacular caviar dinner. This was the hotel’s fifth annual caviar dinner, featuring the caviar of Browne Trading Company, just a block away on the wharf. Rod Browne Mitchell has been in the seafood business for 25 years, supplying such customers as The French Laundry, Williams Sonoma, and Daniel Boulud. This particular dinner focused on eight different caviars from America, Germany and Israel that ranged from the classic to the unusual — one of my favorites was a flying fish roe subtly infused with wasabi, served on an oyster, and chased with champagne. Each of the five courses was matched with a specially selected wine, an exercise that is usually only semi-successful. Here, however, three of the five provided those rare and sublime moments where the wine and food really enhance one another. Not to disparage the other courses and wine pairings, I was most impressed with a slightly sweet 2004 Trimbach Pinot Gris that was heavenly with the Desietra Baerrii German Caviar on Dayboat Scallop, Quail egg, Cockles and Béarnnaise Sauce. A 2006 Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir paired perfectly with Monkfish and White Sturgeon Caviar. And finally, an unusual dessert that paired Hackleback Caviar with Maple Pumpkin Panna Cotta, Huckleberry and Gooseberries, really sang when paired with a 2007 Moscato d’Asti from Spinetta.
Having been to hundreds of such dinners, for better or worse I’m hard to impress, but was impressed by Chef Morse’s artistry, and his uncanny ability to match disparate flavors in ways that were both surprising and exciting, subtle and seamless. Seating for the caviar dinner, which takes place in October during the festival, is very limited and well worth going out of your way to experience.
As mentioned earlier, the marqees that held the Food & Wine Marketplace were too small to handle the crowd. Yet I also must acknowledge that despite the press of humanity, I was able to get to almost every table and taste every item I desired. The array was stunning, from local shellfish to barbecue, from brownies to microbrews, from local apples to clam chowder. The food would have been better appreciated in a less congested setting, but talent and abundance were on display at every turn. Upstairs in the permanent building, more cooking demonstrations were taking place throughout the day, as well as seminars by cookbook authors.
The final event, billed as Harvest Uncorked, didn’t have many corks to pull, as there were so few wines, but some of Maine’s finest produce was open for sampling. A buffet of salmon, braised fall vegetables, cod ceviche, lamb, sausage, and buckets of oysters and mussels were served by more than a dozen local chefs. Lobster Chef of the Year, Mackenzie Arrington and his mother, Chef Margaret Mclellan, were on hand to serve their own recipe of Roasted Beet Soup.
Despite the current popularity of the farm-to-table movement, the growing awareness of the importance of sustainable farming practices, and a new appreciation for locally produced and consumed food products, the fishing industry in the United States has been dwindling in recent years. It’s a shocking statistic that over 80% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, which emphasizes the need to support our own local producers. Festivals like Harvest on the Harbor highlight the artisan producers who put food on our table and form an integral part of local heritage. But if you can’t visit Portland during the festival, there’s a vibrant food scene here that is worth exploring any time of year.
Commercial Street along the bay front is the site of a dozen or more restaurants, kitchen supplies, brew pubs, and a hole-in-the-wall wine shop with an eye opening array of well chosen bottles. If you come in November you might catch Maine Brewer’s Festival, featuring 21 microbrews. And any time of the year you can satisfy your epicurean curiosity by taking a Maine Foodie Tour (www.MaineFoodieTours.com). The company offers an Old Port Culinary Tour, with stops at seven local vendors to sample lobster straight from the harbor, award winning cheese, smoked seafood, Maine’s famous blueberry preserves, chocolate truffles, the original Whoopie Pie, and some microbrews. Those with a sweet tooth can join the Just Desserts Tour, and those with a hollow leg will want to take the Port City Beer Tour for a behind-the-scenes tour of breweries, brewpubs and beer gardens.
Full of facts and recipes.
Cost to attend is $95 per person; seating is limited. Reservations may be made by calling (207) 775-9090 or by visitingwww.portlandharborhotel.com.
Maine Aquaculture Association: