MAINE: ON THE LOB­STER TRAIL

On the lob­ster trail in New Eng­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - NEWS - Polya Lesova

I wake up hun­gry. For­tu­nately, I am in a town that is able to sa­ti­ate a big ap­petite. My hus­band Paul and I have flown to Port­land, Maine, from New York late the pre­vi­ous night for a five-day road trip up the coast. We want to savour the state’s spring beauty, hike some sea­side trails, dip our toes in the still-icy At­lantic. But mostly we plan to eat.

I have lob­ster rolls — that quin­tes­sen­tial sum­mer food — on the brain and after a long, te­diously frigid win­ter, I am only too ready to usher in the sea­son. But the rolls will have to wait. That first morn­ing we take a walk around down­town Port­land and stum­ble on to the Holy Donut.

A small shop in the salt-sprayed Old Port area, the Holy Donut dis­plays a gi­ant black­board pro­claim­ing that all the es­tab­lish­ment’s dough­nuts are made with mashed Maine pota­toes; as it turns out, this re­sults in a moister tex­ture than flour alone. Calo­rie coun­ters might baulk, but not us. We gaze lov­ingly at the dis­play case loaded with colour­ful spec­i­mens, slathered with straw­berry or pome­gran­ate or blue­berry ic­ing. The maple va­ri­ety comes sprin­kled with ba­con. We choose a sin­gle dark­choco­late, sea-salt dough­nut each and, con­grat­u­lat­ing our­selves on rare self-re­straint, move on.

Just a few blocks away, hus­band and wife Steve and Jo­hanna Cor­man run Vena’s Fizz House, a com­bi­na­tion mixol­ogy-equip­ment store and bar that serves cock­tails and mock­tails fea­tur­ing bit­ters, ton­ics, spir­its, syrups and “shrubs”. As we set­tle in, Steve ea­gerly tells us how shrubs (drink­ing vine­gars that date back to colo­nial times) and bit­ters en­hance bev­er­ages much the way spices can el­e­vate food. It is too early for the hard stuff, so we ask him to whip us up a black­berry co­conut fruit fizz, a mix of black­berry puree, co­conut cream and honey vanilla syrup. It tastes like a sum­mer pool party, sunny and re­fresh­ing.

While our itin­er­ary al­lows room for such serendip­i­tous dis­cov­er­ies, I have armed my­self with a list of places to eat from Erin French, chef at the Lost Kitchen, a restau­rant in her home­town of Free­dom, Maine (pop­u­la­tion 719). Lo­cated in an 1834 grist­mill, it ex­udes rus­tic charm, with an open kitchen and wooden ta­bles, ceil­ings and walls. French is a culi­nary am­bas­sador for her state. She de­scribes her cook­ing as “modern farm­house” and uses lo­cal in­gre­di­ents such as as­para­gus, peas and rhubarb in the spring, and heir­loom toma­toes and fresh berries in the sum­mer. “One of my favourite in­gre­di­ents to cook with are spring dug parsnips,” she says. “They are sweet and creamy after stay­ing in the ground through the win­ter and let­ting their sug­ars con­cen­trate.”

At the top of French’s list of must-visit restau­rants is Even­tide Oys­ter Co. in Port­land. We grab two seats at one end of the con­crete bar; an im­pos­ing block of gran­ite loaded with oys­ters on ice oc­cu­pies the other. The lob­ster roll, served on steamed bun, di­verts us de­li­ciously, but the real stars are oys­ters served on the half shell, ac­com­pa­nied by kim­chi, horse­rad­ish and Tabasco ices. We try a half dozen, in­clud­ing the Bas­ket Is­land and Glid­den Point va­ri­eties and could hap­pily while away the af­ter­noon at that sunny counter, sip­ping white wine and slurp­ing up more oys­ters, but Bar Har­bor awaits.

A cou­ple of hours into the four-hour jour­ney, I al­ready have din­ner on my mind. “Dock-and-dine shore din­ners will never go out of style,” French has said in an email in ref­er­ence to Young’s Lob­ster Pound in Belfast, about half­way to Bar Har­bor. De­light­fully old school, it has pic­nic ta­bles out­side over­look­ing an es­tu­ary on Penob­scot Bay. We or­der two lob­sters, coleslaw and potato salad, and cheer­fully make a mess out of pry­ing every morsel out of the shells.

We drive on to Bar Har­bor and over the next cou­ple of days burn off a few of the lob­ster calo­ries by hik­ing in Aca­dia Na­tional Park. On an over­cast day, we walk the pop­u­lar Ocean Path, en­joy­ing ex­pan­sive views of the rugged coast, the spruce forests and waves break­ing against the rocks. We pass Thun­der Hole, a nar­row cave where you can hear the ocean roar, and drive to the top of Cadil­lac Moun­tain for panoramic views of French­man Bay and the Por­cu­pine Is­lands.

At Beal’s Lob­ster Pier in South­west Har­bor we or­der two large lob­sters for lunch one day—they weigh al­most 2.25kg to­gether. We sit down at a pic­nic ta­ble and take in the views. Our lunch comes on a blue plas­tic tray loaded with the two crus­taceans, two ears of corn, two con­tain­ers of coleslaw, but­ter and bis­cuits on pa­per plates. This mon­u­men­tal meal can only be fol­lowed by a nap. We are so full we skip din­ner, if you don’t count a large por­tion of ice cream we share from CJ’s Big Dip­per in Bar Har­bor.

Next morn­ing, ap­petite fully re­gained, we zip over to Jordan Pond House, a high-ceilinged tea­house lo­cated in­side the park, for popovers. Our rolls — lit­tle clouds of joy —ar­rive steam­ing hot; we load them with straw­berry jam and but­ter and dis­cuss our lunch plans.

A cou­ple of days later we make our way south to coastal Cam­den, where we hike to the top of Mount Bat­tie for a view of the hun­dreds of is­lands in Penob­scot Bay, a vista that in­spired Edna St Vin­cent Mil­lay’s poem, Re­nascence. Nearly as in­spi­ra­tional is lunch at Long Grain in Cam­den, which French says serves the “best Thai street food un­der the sun”. This small restau­rant, with its hand­ful of ta­bles, makes its own noo­dles and uses sea­sonal, lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. A stand­out is the pad see ew, a dish of stir-fried broad noo­dles, kale, fried egg and tofu.

After a sun­set sail in Penob­scot Bay aboard Schooner Sur­prise, a 1918 yacht, we head to Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rock­land. The ni­giri and maki are no­tably sim­ple, with noth­ing to un­der­mine the fresh­ness of the fish. Chef Keiko Suzuki Stein­berger, who moved to the US from Ja­pan, tells us she buys seafood from Jesse’s Mar­ket in Rock­land and from in­di­vid­ual fish­er­men. She’s es­pe­cially pleased with the lo­cal tuna, par­tic­u­larly its belly, known as toro. “That is a su­per del­i­cacy in Ja­pan.”

On our last af­ter­noon in Maine, we have one more lob­ster roll at the Lob­ster Shack at Two Lights in Cape El­iz­a­beth. We sit out­side at a red pic­nic ta­ble and gaze at Maine’s rocky coast, and re­alise that if we leave right away, we still have time to hit Mount Desert Is­land Ice Cream in Port­land be­fore our flight.

Bar Har­bor, Maine; shop­ping strip in Port­land, be­low; famed lob­ster roll, bot­tom

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