“I know people who have been coming here for more than 30 years, and have never been out on the water,” says Grant Hubbard, captain and owner of the Finestkind, a charter boat company out of Ogunquit, Maine. “It’s an entirely different experience, totally different views.”
The winds were strong and the water choppy on an early morning in May. “It’s bumpy,” Hubbard, a.k.a. the Goat, said as we motored out of the harbor. “We’ll see how long you last.” We zipped up our fleece jackets, pulled on stocking caps and gripped the sides of our seats. It wasn’t so bad, and the views were gorgeous: fishing and pleasure boats coming and going, rocky headlands, massive mansions, and long stretches of sandy beach. We were headed to Hubbard’s lobster traps, located just a short distance out to sea.
Our trip aboard Finestkind’s lobster cruise was inspired by a recent episode of “Moveable Feast With Relish,“ a PBS, Emmy-winning traveling food show. In Season 8, Episode 9, host Alex Thomopoulos joined James Beard award-winning chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, whose restaurant, M.C. Perkins Cove, helped put Ogunquit on the map as a New England culinary destination. On the episode, the chefs source Maine’s famous cold-water lobsters aboard the Finestkind, pay a visit to a local brewery, and dine on dishes made with fresh, local ingredients, gathered and prepared by Gaier and Frasier in their coastal Maine home.
“A massive group descended on our home for the second day of filming,” says Frasier. “They had what looked like a special ops command center in our garage, and directors, cameramen and food stylists were swarming about all day and into the night. Through it all we had a blast, as the group was serious but approached the concept of cooking with humor.”
We wanted to put together our own Moveable Feast in southern Maine on a two-day journey seeking out local ingredients and experiences — minus the film crew. We started with a lobster cruise to learn all about those tasty crustaceans.
More than 200 species have been found in the stomachs of lobsters; apparently, they’ll eat anything. Only about half of female lobsters are fertile. Lobsters find food through scent not sight. How many traps can a lobster trapper have? It went from unlimited, to 1,200 to 1,000 to 800, and they caught just as much with 800 traps. They learned to “fish smarter,” the Goat told us.
“The Native Americans really designed this trap,” Goat says as he wrenched in a trap. “Not much has changed.” We watched has he pulled out a couple of crabs and a small lobster, which wasn’t big enough to keep. Finestkind’s lobstering trips depart from Perkins Cove in Ogunquit and last about 50 minutes (207-646-5227, www.finestkindcruises.com; adults ages 12 and up $24, ages 3-11 $12). We saw pretty, coastal scenery and seabirds and learned about lobsters and lobstering in Maine; we even managed to haul in a couple of keepers.
That evening we dined at M.C. Perkins Cove, named one of the Top Ten Places in the World with a View by USA Today and One of Food & Wine’s Top Romantic Restaurants in the Country (207-646-6263, www.markandclarksrestaurants.com). The view of the craggy, rock-lined cove and open ocean was spectacular, and the food lived up, with lots of interesting choices. We opted for classics to start, a bowl of thick Maine chowder with haddock and clams, and the Maine Peekytoe crab cakes. The whole fried trout entrée had Asian flair, served with Chinese fermented black beans and a scallion pancake, and the duck confit entrée was well seasoned with Clark’s deeply flavored hoisin sauce. For dessert, we took a walk into town, stopping at the longstanding Harbor Candy Shop for a box of their homemade truffles (800-331-5856, www.harborcandy.com).
“Maine has the best oysters in the world, it’s just the plain truth, and we’ve eaten oysters all over the world,” Frasier told us. He pointed us to the chilly waters of the Damariscotta River, “the most famous and productive areas for oysters in Maine.” We hit the road early for the hour-and-a-half or so ride north up the coast to Damariscotta.
The historic tidal river, where 80 percent of Maine oysters are farmed, slices through its namesake town, once a booming shipping and shipbuilding center and still filled with sea captain mansions and historic buildings. We were tempted to hop aboard the two-hour Oyster Farms & Seal Watching tour with Damariscotta River Cruises, promising scenic views, information on the world-famous oysters, and on-board tastings (207-315-5544, www.damariscottarivercruises.com, adults $35, ages 11 and up $21). Instead, we visited the Whaleback Shell Midden State Historic Site, a massive shell heap left by successive tribes of prehistoric people and later members of the Abenaki tribes (www.maine.gov/dacf/parks/discover_history_explore_nature/history/whaleback/index.shtml). After, we headed to the nearby Shuck Station Raw Bar, where we ordered the daily dozen, featuring three kinds of oysters from the Damariscotta River, all sweet and briny.
“When we opened our first restaurant, Arrows, in Ogunquit in 1988, southern Maine was something of a food wasteland,” Frasier told us. “Sure, you could get a good, boiled lobster and fried clams, but when it came to other seafood, the product was pretty badly handled. The same was true for the few local farms which seemed to cater only to the simplest needs.”
A lot has changed. Gaier and Frasier started their own mini farm, but others also began to operate small, artisan farms, growing top-quality produce and raising pigs and cows, including Frith Farm in Scarborough, and Chase Farms and Spillers’ Farm Store in Wells. Frasier also recommended Breezy Hill Farm in South Berwick (207-604-0885, www.facebook.com/Breezy-Hill-Farm-378023658925595).
“It’s a little bit of old Maine, set in the rolling countryside,” he said. “The small farm has purveyed the best pigs to restaurants for two generations.”
Unfortunately, the farm didn’t open until 5 p.m. that day, so we headed south into York for a tasting tour at the Wiggly Bridge Distillery (207-363-9322, www.wigglybridgedistillery.com, $19.95), and left with a couple bottles of their light White Whiskey and a bottle of their rich Small Barrel Bourbon. We were both thinking that they’d make fine made-in Maine gifts (or worthy additions to our home liquor cabinets).
We ended our DIY Moveable Feast Maine tour with three more stops. First, we got take-out flatbread pizzas at When Pigs Fly in Kittery, which we brought to the Tributary Brewing Company, just up the street. “It’s our favorite brewery” Frasier says. “Their beer is simply amazing.” We sat outside and split a small flight to go with our pizza (207-703-0093, www.tributarybrewingcompany.com).
Our final stop was the family-owned Taylor Lobster Company (207-439-1350, www.taylorlobster.com). Steve Taylor, one of the owners, still lobsters daily from his dock on Badger’s Island in Kittery, Maine. We picked up four, soft-shell lobsters (two for each of us, which we promised to cook right away), bringing home a taste of Maine. These would definitely not be gifted!
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org