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Reserved: A seat at the table

A big-city chef goes Down East to offer visitors farm-fresh communal meals

By Nancy Heiser
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Picture a communal meal in the Old Country or the Napa Valley — the kind of close-to-the-land supper you see in movies where those gathered raise a glass to toast a table laden with simple, fresh food. Perhaps you wonder, to borrow a phrase from “30 Rock’’ ’s Liz Lemon, how to go to there.

Must you travel so far? Not anymore.

Four miles beyond the snug downtown of Camden, a private lane bears this small road sign: Salt Water Farm. The gravel drive winds through draping pines before opening to a meadow that meets the gray-blue waters of Penobscot Bay. Welcome to the field of dreams for Annemarie Ahearn, 29, the visionary proprietress of a new 17-acre place for communal meals, cooking classes, and farming lessons.

For a unique dining experience, reserve a seat for a five-course feast of local foods that Ahearn and Ladleah Dunn, her farm director and sous chef, prepare and serve to 20 guests year-round on this coastal property. Salt Water Farm hosts at least two communal meals each month, a Full Moon Supper on Mondays, and a Sunday Supper. In the cooler months, the meals are served inside the new, well-appointed barn-style home, in a combined kitchen/dining area. In summer, weekly feasts are enjoyed on the exquisite patio under an arbor, weather permitting.

It’s not a family meal, unless you choose to bring yours. It’s strangers sitting elbow to elbow, fluffing out their cotton napkins, sharing the ceramic water pitcher, passing the basket of bread studded with lemon zest and thyme, everyone eating the same thing. You won’t stay unfamiliar very long. The food is too good, the atmosphere too conducive.

On a wet Sunday in November, my husband and I visited for a Sunday Supper. The weather kept us from lingering outside on the blue stone terrace bordered by dormant gardens of herbs, vegetables, and flowers. We ducked inside to aromas of wood smoke, sage, and bacon. Despite state-of-the-art stainless steel appliances, the enormous space felt cozy. The long table was set with plates and mismatched linens. Gourds, pumpkins, and bunches of rosy shallots doubled as centerpieces. Preserved foods and books lined the shelves of the room, and a wood-fired brick oven gave off a soft heat.

At the granite kitchen island bordered by a dozen stools, guests nibbled on cannellini bean bruschetta topped with fried sage as Dunn grilled slices of her homemade crusty bread. People milled about and chatted with each other and the chefs, who answered questions with ease as they cooked.

The dinners are an extension of the farm, says Ahearn. “I always felt like a front-of-the-house personality with a back-of-the-house mentality, which is why this is perfect for me.’’ The chef/owner grew up in Milwaukee, attended Colorado College and the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan. She has cooked in Paris, Barcelona, and New York. At 22, while at the institute, she wrote a business plan for a class, and Salt Water Farm is that model made manifest. Her parents, who helped fund the project, live part time on Beacon Hill in Boston and part time on the property, in a large house hidden from view. She lives in an apartment above the kitchen.

Ahearn came to this spot in 2009 by way of Brooklyn. That first summer she hosted some of the New York borough’s celebrated DIY chefs for a week of butchering, pickling, and blueberry harvesting. She also cooked her first communal feast at the farm, for 12 people. It proved so popular that she made such meals a mainstay and expanded the table to seat 20, a better number, she found. In 2010, Food & Wine magazine named her one of “40 Big Food Thinkers 40 and Under.’’

After we enjoy a broccoli, cream, and bacon soup garnished with a floret, Ahearn rings a bell and approaches the table. With a poise that approaches serenity, she introduces us to our food so far and its provenance. The cannellini beans came from the farm’s garden, she says. They were shelled, dried for weeks, and simmered in duck fat. The sage is what remained of their fresh herbs. The broccoli is from Dilly Dally Organic Farm, up the road; the cream and bacon are local products.

The chef/owner, clad in sweater, jeans, cowboy boots, and peasant apron, promises to be back for a second brief announcement. More BYO wine is poured, the conversation reignites. People are happy. This feels good. Virtuous. Healthy. We are part of something larger than the sum of what’s on our plates.

“We find there is a gradual melting and melding of the group as the evening goes on,’’ Dunn observes.

The two chefs and administrative guru Irene Yadao serve a course of local greens, beets, and Dunn’s own ricotta. Next comes seared cod, roasted cherry tomatoes, baby rainbow chard and kale, wild rice. Absent are swirls of complicated sauces. But the plate is attractive, and its nod to good nutrition and sustainable sourcing is meant to enlighten. I glance around me. No one leaves a morsel.

Ahearn returns to explain the rest of the meal. “The chard is so beautiful it broke my heart to cook it down,’’ she confesses. Guests ask a few questions. We learn that the center part of the huge table came from a tobacco barn in North Carolina. Ahearn commissioned a local woodworker, Kelly Haley, to build two French wine-tasting tables to append to either end. The building’s posts and beams were salvaged from a Wisconsin barn.

A machine whirs in the background as our plates are cleared. Walnut cake appears, topped with bourbon whipped cream. In the name of good nutrition (walnuts being high in vitamin E), I dig in. The tiny Seckel pears, mulled for a month in cordial, are from the property. My only complaint is the decaf coffee — it’s a little weak.

When the warm weather returns, Ahearn plans to add farming classes to Salt Water Farm’s roster. She is hatching plans for a cookbook and envisions other winter offerings — dogsledding trips followed by a hearty stew the guests prepared in advance, for instance. She wants visitors to discover the area, stay over, and enjoy the region. She doesn’t lack ideas, but for now, the winter communal feasts (she will be featuring locally harvested sea urchins and smelts at two events this winter) and cooking classes continue, drawing visitors from just down the road, or long down the highway, to her comfy barn on Penobscot Bay.

Nancy Heiser can be reached at NancyEHeiser@gmail.com.

If You Go

Salt Water Farm
25 Woodward Hill, Lincolnville
207-230-0966
www.saltwaterfarm.com
Salt Water Farm is located four miles north of Camden, just off US Route 1. Farm dinners are $50 to $65 per person, with $10 gratuity recommended. Space is limited and reservations are essential. The Camden area is a 3 1/2-hour drive from Boston.
The farm does not offer lodging, but there are plenty of wintertime options in the area, including historic inns, B&Bs, and cabins.