North Haven Barn Dinner, a Fantasy Realized
This is my fantasy: there’s a barn smelling of wood and hay and the farm that surrounds it. Down the middle there’s a long table, set for dinner guests. Twenty people, maybe more. There are colorful tablecloths and mismatched china and real silverware and wine glasses. Candles provide all the light as the sun sets and night falls. The food? Fresh from the farm-- and plentiful. Flowers, in small vases, run the length of the table. Wine flows, and conversation comes easily whether between old friends or new acquaintances who happen to be seated together.
For years this fantasy dinner happened in my mind in our old (circa 1850s) barn. But there are several things preventing it: we raise chickens and our barn stinks. It is dusty, dirty, not to mention that everyone in my extended family (as well as assorted friends) who has ever moved inevitably has asked us, “Hey! Can we store some stuff in your barn 'til we get settled?” We always say yes (because isn’t that part of the responsibility of owning a huge old barn?) and then they move and never end up getting their stuff, because no one leaves anything really important in a dirty old barn. Just the stuff they don't know what to do with. After a while all the stuff that people leave with us begins to piles up and…well, you get the picture.
My fantasy barn dinner had never happened. But I unexpectedly got to live out my fantasy just a few weeks ago.
The place: North Haven Island, Maine, a one-hour ferry ride from Rockland across West Penobscot Bay
The setting: The Turner Farm, a 160-year old working organic farm.
The event: The first-ever Turner Farm Dinner.
Time and weather: Perfect. 6 p.m. on a glorious summer night. Sky blue. Water sparkling. Steady breeze off the bay, just enough to keep the abundant horseflies from landing
As we crossed the immaculately manicured barnyard overlooking farm fields, hoop houses, and animal pens, we were offered sparkling white wine and cocktails (one, in particular, with syrup made from farm-grown arugula, seltzer, and gin or vodka. Young, tan, attractive island women passed hors d'oeuvres: oshitashi, tender "packets" of steamed spinach and Swiss chard coated in tiny, crunchy sesame seeds. There were island oysters (North Haven oysters are extraordinarily good and sold at some of the finest restaurants on the East Coast). We took our drinks and wandered through the many hoop houses, marveling over the height and general health of the tomato plants, the multitude of herbs, and the outside garden beds planted with garlic (topped with swirly scapes), cabbages, lettuces, spinach, kale, chard, leeks, peas. Each one of these vegetables patches offered a view of the bay that took my breath away. A tall white schooner sailed by during cocktail hour like a dancer appearing on stage at exactly the right moment. The early evening sun dropped ever so slightly turning the sky pink, and making the bay look like it contained glistening jewels.
People seemed particularly taken with the baby pigs, with their striped markings around the girth. They looked like the porcine version of a Belted Galloway cow, and we learned they were Hampshire pigs, famous for their tender meat. The chickens in moveable coops and the goats could be seen off in the distance. But it was the vegetables that called out to me, in their neat rows, looking like the happiest vegetable patch this gardener has ever set eyes on. Never have carrots been offered so glorious a waterside view.
After touring the farm we were called to dinner. Inside the brand-new Turner barn white Christmas lights were strung from the rafters. White candles were lit down the length of the long table, and the barn looked like a movie set. The meal began with huge platters of grilled garden vegetables (eggplant, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini), topped with dollops of Turner Farm creamy white mild fresh chevre. Everything was served family-style. It was like dining with a huge, happy (non- dysfunctional) family. You could feel the merriment in the air. There was fresh cornbread, barbecued ribs (oh those cute little pigs) and a colorful, vibrantly seasoned cole slaw. Huge platters were passed and it looked like everyone had seconds.
We were surrounded by all sort of interesting people—islanders and visitors alike. The Masters of Ceremonies were U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and her new husband, Donald Sussman, who own Turner Farm and have clearly sunk all kinds of love (not to mention funds) into making the farm a success.
Pingree raised a glass and made a toast welcoming us all to the first “Turner Farm Dinner.” Then she talked briefly about the history of farming and agriculture on the island where she moved as a teenager, and still calls home (although most of her time is spent in Washington, D.C.). Prior to rail lines and automobiles, travel by water was far easier and faster than travel by land. North Haven and other Maine Islands were perfect spots for growing and shipping fresh food to cities along the New England coast. One hundred and fifty years ago diners in Boston enjoyed produce grown on Maine islands, along with seafood from the Gulf of Maine.
Later that night, back at Nebo Lodge, where we stayed for three nights (which Pingree owns) I found an old book which explained a bit more about the history of the farm: “On Solid Ground—Farming on North Haven Island from Early Settlement to Present Day” by Lydia Webster Brown. According to Brown, the Turner Farm began in 1850, some 280 acres, making it “the largest farm on the Island… Clara Thomas, the daughter of the original owners, married Jewett Turner in 1860 and the farm became known as the Turner Farm.”
The chef for both the barn dinner and the dining room at Nebo Lodge is the talented Amanda Hallowell. (She grew up on North Haven; her father is the principal of the North Haven Community School — the smallest K-12 school in Maine — and her stepmother is the executive director of the Island Community Center. Hallowell is a chef to watch.
Our dinner at Nebo Lodge the night before included Turner Farm Pork Belly Banh Mi (a generous sandwich served on a homemade baguette with quick pickled farm vegetables, smoked sea salt butter, and chile-spiked siracha hot sauce) and a dish of roasted line-caught cod with green tomatoes, cream, farro, spinach, and juicy green Cerignola olives. An Arborio rice pudding topped with strawberry-balsamic marmalade and a molasses cookie finished it off. Hallowell’s food is at once homey and sophisticated, a lot like the Inn itself.
Hallowell’s skills were just as apparent in every course at the Barn Dinner. Winding down the meal, the next course offered an extraordinarily good Camembert-style cheese made on the farm—soft creamy interior with a soft, mild-flavored rind. Served with it was a lavender-rosemary shortbread. The combination of creamy, rich cheese and herb-infused, slightly sweet shortbread was just right.
Glasses of sparkling white Muscadet were served in Champagne flutes. Before dessert we were all called outside to witness the rising of a brilliant (nearly orange-colored) full moon. The crowd sipped the sweet wine, oohing and aahing over a truly dramatic night sky.
Dessert was a deceptively simple frozen terrine. The outside of the terrine was white (goat cheese) and the middle was a brilliant pink (thanks to farm beets) and hidden amongst the layers was a refreshing layer of mint. It was one of the most thrilling desserts I’ve had in a long time—a perfect ending to a summer meal. The goat cheese, the beets, and the mint were like eating the best of the farm in one frozen bite.
Farm Dinners at Turner Farm will be held August 6 and October 1, 2011. They include a farm tour, and then a four-course farm-raised meal with drinks (served family-style). Dinner costs $75 and reservations are necessary. Call 207. 867.2007
For more information about Nebo Lodge and Turner Farm (as well as Turner Farm Weekend events-- beginning with an island oyster tasting, barn dinner, farm tours, picnics and more) call 207 867 2007; or check out the web site for Nebo Lodge.