The Foodie Tour Craze Arrives - Rockland, Bite by Tasty Bite
Thursday, November 20, 2014 7:50 AM
Tours of restaurants and markets offering fresh and delicious local food are a growing national trend that, as of next summer, will reach Rockland.
Rachel Seitz serves up a glass of IPA Storm Surge as Dan Pease, owner and head brewer at Rock Harbor Pub & Brewery, right, talks beer. (Photos by C. Parrish)
Pamela Laskey, the owner of Maine Foodie Tours, did a dry run of a 1.7-mile, three-hour downtown walking food tour on Saturday, November 15, as part of the Juice conference in Rockland that explores opportunities for economic and business development in the modern Maine economy.
Laskey started Maine Foodie Tours in Portland with no knowledge of how to run a business. After signing up for trainings for business owners available through SCORE, a non-profit that pairs new business owners with seasoned mentors, and the Maine Technology Institute, Laskey launched her tour business with personal savings in 2009.
Laskey said it took three years for the business to really take off. By this summer, she had a staff of 10 guides and a manager in Portland running four or five tours a day, a team in Kennebunkport running tours, another in Bar Harbor, and was doing research for the 2015 start in Rockland. For the first time this year, the Portland tours will continue on weekends during the winter.
The first stop on the Rockland tour was family-owned Jess's Market for a taste of fresh oysters, steamed mussels, and crab and fish cakes, while the owner of Pemaquid Oyster, Carter Newell, told tour-goers about how to grow mussels and oysters.
Maine is at the northern end of the oyster-growing region, but the clean water produces some of the best oysters now available in the world, said Newell, who started the first oyster-growing business in the state 26 years ago. There are now eight oyster farms in Maine, producing a total of $4 million worth of oysters a year.
Pemaquid Oysters are seeded into the warmer waters of the tidal Damariscotta River where they grow quickly, then are moved to cold clean water off South Bristol for finishing. The result is a constant supply of fresh, briny oysters that, unlike other shellfish, are not susceptible to red tide.
"That's all important, because our customers want a year-round supply and a predictable price," said Newell.
Sweet Italian sausages with grilled peppers and onions on crostini and kielbasa with sauerkraut were featured at the second stop: Terra Optima Farm Market on South Main Street, across from the green clock on the corner of Water Street.
Cheryl Denz, a farmer who raises pigs, beef cattle, chickens, and eggs on her Appleton farm, makes and sells sausages at the market, which also carries local vegetables, Amish milk and yogurts, homemade soups, and daily take-home specials.
Denz said she changed her business hours after tallying sales and seeing most people made their purchases at the end of the work day.
"Thirty-five to 50 percent of my business is between 4 p.m. and closing," said Denz. "People pick up stuff for supper on their way home."
After a quick stop at Cafe Miranda, the long-established local-foods restaurant owned by chef Kerry Altiero, to sample homemade hummus, warm smoky focaccia fresh from the restaurant's brick oven, and sweet end-of-the season cherry tomatoes grown at Headacre Farm in Owls Head (also owned by Altiero), Laskey led the tour to the Farnsworth for a short update on Maine aquaculture.
Fish farming is booming, said Dana Morse of Maine SeaGrant, the University of Maine Extension education service devoted to the marine industry.
Mussels, hard- and soft-shell clams, scallops, sugar kelp, oysters, and salmon are the focus of sea-farm industries in Maine, said Morse. Bait fish like shiners and smelt are being raised in fresh water, as are trout for restocking, and even talapia, a mild-tasting African fresh-water fish that is being grown inside.
Laskey kept the tour moving to the next stop with the promise of wine and chocolate at the Breakwater Vineyards storefront located halfway down Main Street.
Jeanne Johnson, who owns the vineyard with her husband Bill, make several wine varieties, including blueberry wine. Johnson started making honey wine, or mead, after she began keeping bees. Starting out with 60 pounds of honey produced from her two hives she created Bees Knees Mead, a mildly sweet wine reminiscent of Riesling that smells like a field of late summer wildflowers mixed with honey. Now, the vineyard buys a thousand gallons of honey at a time from Swan's Honey in Albion and has a hard time keeping the popular mead in stock.
"I've heard that the term honeymoon comes from the practice of drinking mead every day after a wedding for a moon cycle, or a full month," said Johnson, who said the vineyard's mead is often bought for wedding party toasts.
Apparently, the month of mead drinking started as a Celtic practice that encouraged fertility in newlyweds. The Greeks went further, claiming mead to be the nectar of the gods that spurred humans not just to acts of procreation, but also to acts of poetry and wit.
Kate McAleer, founder and co-owner of Bixby & Co. chocolate bars with fruits, nuts, and spices, was on-hand to offer zingy vegan chocolate to complement the wines, including blueberry, black pepper, and walnut chocolate, and cherry, peanut, and chipotle chocolate."I was going to college and living in a dorm with a Whole Foods on the first floor," said McAleer, who said the store didn't have any organic, vegan, gluten-free chocolate bars that were from sustainably grown local ingredients.
"I decided to make some," she said. Whole Foods was one of her first and now one of her largest customers.
After going national, McAleer faces new challenges.
"We are figuring out how to scale up the process," she said. "Right now, everything is hand cut and hand shaped. We're having difficulty keeping up with demand."
Down at the other end of Main Street near the ferry terminal, Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars provided a counterpoint to wine and chocolate, offering tastes of super-healthy, super-fresh olive oil with so much antioxidant power that it wasn't clear if it was better to consume the oil or rub it in as hand lotion.
We did both.
Nancy and Pat O'Brien, whose flagship store in Bar Harbor is in a former beauty salon, happened to meet an olive oil importer who chased the freshest olive oil around the world, buying it up for his clients just after it was pressed. That happy accident led Nancy to leave her corporate city job and start a retail high-end olive oil business that now has six locations and a busy mail-order arm, with the Rockland store doing almost as much business as the Bar Harbor store.
Pat joined her in the business a year and a half after it was launched in 2009.
The most potent olive oil, like the peppery and grassy Barnea organic extra virgin olive oil from Peru, has a polyphenol rating of 459 parts per million, as compared to around 80 parts per million in store-bought extra virgin olive oil, according to the O'Briens.
The polyphenols are the part of olive oil that is widely regarded to lower the risk of some cancers and heart disease in people who have high-quality olive oil as a regular part of their diets.
The highlight of the taste test was the 25-year-old Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, Extra Vecchio, an "Extra Old" traditional balsamic vinegar from Villa San Donnino in Modena, Italy, dribbled on chunks of aged Parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
It tasted like an Italian vacation and, at $135 for a small bottle, was about the price of a hotel room on that vacation.
The 100-year-old balsamic vinegar stayed on the shelf.
A Copper House English-Style Bitter brewed at Rock Harbor Pub and Brewery, the last stop on the food tour, was just the thing to wash it down and that's what the tour group did as the pub owner and master brewer Dan Pease explained his home-grown business strategy and test-marketing approach.
"I had been home-brewing for 10 years after getting a degree at the University of Maine and working in financial services," said Pease, who learned to make beer on his own through trial and error.
When the former Black Bull restaurant came up for sale three years ago, Pease bought it without a solid plan except that he wanted to brew beer. Last year, after buying a commercial set-up from a brewer in Portland, he started brewing in the pub.
Pease tends to make experimental batches in his home-brewing set-up, and, if he likes the outcome, brews it at the pub. For test-marketing, he drives a keg to pubs owned by friends in Portland and Bangor, sells them the beer for a reasonable price, then gets feedback on what's popular and what's not.
"I don't make any money on that, but I find out what will sell," he said. "I know what people want to drink. It's not always what I want to drink."
Pease is looking at expanding to full-scale production within the next year, so he can sell his beer elsewhere.
"Right now, it's all made right here and we sell out at the pub."
The Copper House, with a rich flavor from roasted barley whose sweetness was tempered by hops, turned out to not be bitter at all and is one of Rock Harbor's top sellers, standing up to Old Thumper, an English-Style Bitter made by Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, according to the beer drinkers in the tour group.
Pease developed a Sochi Imperial Stout, a rich and scarcely bitter dark brew, to celebrate the Olympics.
"We hand stir and it had so much grain in it -about 520 pounds compared to the usual 300 pounds - that it was almost impossible to stir," he said.
One of his recent experiments, which Pease brewed in his driveway, is Lobster Bait Ale - a red ale with a whole lobster, clams, mussels, and lemon added to the mix before brewing.
"I ate the lobster, afterward," said Pease. "It was delicious."
And the beer?
"It tastes great," said Pease, who plans to brew a batch in the pub.
Laskey will offer the two- to three-hour Rockland food tours for $50, including food from seven downtown locations and discount coupons for purchases or meals.