EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked cookbook writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins what Maine can learn from Italy and what Italy can learn from Maine when it comes to farm-to-table eating.
I am a very lucky person. I live and work, cook and eat, feed friends and family, in the two most beautiful places in the universe, the coast of Maine and the hill country of southern Tuscany. That these two places are also sources of incredibly fine food, one (Tuscany) historically recognized, the other (Maine) barely noticed until very recently, is probably not by chance. (Since I make my living as a writer and thinker about food, why wouldn’t I choose to live amid the best?)
Thinking of food in Italy inevitably calls to mind one great staple of the Italian table. Not pasta, not prosciutto and salami, not extra-virgin olive oil, not even Parmigiano Reggiano – no, I think the real staple, the foundation if you will, behind all that wonderful food is to be found in the magnificent variety of markets that dominates the food scene. Italy is a gastronomically blessed country, no doubt about it, and it’s in the markets – from small, weekly markets in the country towns of Umbria and Tuscany to the great urban markets of Rome, Palermo, Florence – that the blessing is most apparent. In Venice there’s the Rialto market with its splendor of fresh seafood from the Adriatic; in Catania on Sicily’s east coast it’s the central fish market with an array of big red shrimps, glistening swordfish, tiny anchovies, boned and split open, sea urchins cracked to show their ruby-colored roes; in Genova it’s the Mercato Orientale, with a profusion of fragrant greens from the Ligurian hills, pungent basil and marjoram, sweet spinach, chard, and wild nettles. In my nearby town of Camucia it’s the weekly Thursday market where farmers, housewives, chefs and restaurateurs, cooks and food lovers all gather to gab, poke, prod, discuss, sniff, pinch and eventually to buy anything from seasonal fava beans and wild asparagus to fresh pecorino cheeses to great haunches of roasted porchetta radiating the fragrance of garlic and wild fennel.
Italians, a friend remarked recently, are true locavores.
But we’re getting to be locavores in Maine, too. After long decades of subsisting on the tasteless anonymity of supermarkets, we are finally turning back to the future and starting once again to honor our farmers and fishermen, our cheesemakers and brewers, our bakers and butchers, and all the hard-working, often creative people (cooks and chefs, too) who are taking Maine closer to what I think it must have been like when my parents were growing up in Jonesboro and Thomaston and starting a family in Camden long decades ago. Maybe it wasn’t a gastronomic paradise, but certainly it must have been a food-lover’s heaven when milk came almost straight from the cows, eggs from the farm wife who collected them from beneath her laying hens, vegetables from the family garden and other gardens nearby, fish and lobster from those who hauled in our chilly waters – well, you get the picture. And that picture is re-emerging.
So now, when I think about food in Maine, I also think of markets – the large and growing network of outstanding farmers markets with which we’ve been blessed in recent years, plus community supported agriculture and fisheries (CSAs and CSFs), consumer co-ops that focus on local and sustainable provender, and farmstands that, following Eliot Coleman’s example (how often that name crops up when we think about food in Maine!), offer locally sourced food practically year-round. Bring me your friendly Californian, smug with the knowledge that she has an abundance of the best and the biggest, and I will introduce her to the Maine idea of small but select – and wicked good too. Maybe I’ll give her some of Barak Olins’ bread from the Crystal Springs Market in Brunswick spread with Crooked Face Creamery butter, with a hunk of Hahn’s End’s most excellent aged City of Ships. To which, if it’s June, I’ll add a couple of grilled fresh mackerel right out of Penobscot Bay, topped with bacon made at Maine Street Meats in Rockport, and a bunch of crisp salad greens from Chase’s Daily in Belfast. And a glass of Maine’s finest brew (Allagash? Gritty’s? Marshall Wharf?) to wash it all down. It’s the way life should be, the way good eating ought to be.
But. . . there is always a gloomy little “but” tucked into any glowing picture. But it won’t last, the situation that is, it won’t thrive, unless we all support it – whether we’re in Italy, where in fact many markets are dying, dwindling from lack of customers as Italians turn to those benighted supermarkets, or in Maine where the revival of family farming needs constantly to be protected, nourished, defended. So my word of advice on this lovely spring Sunday: Treasure your markets – treasure your farmers and fishermen, your cheese-makers and beer brewers, your bakers and butchers and chefs and cooks. (And treasure the few but important supermarkets, like Hannaford for instance, that also offer their wares, if only occasionally.) They are what makes life most livable. They are what bring us together around the table. Shop the markets, seek out the local fishermen, buy bread from a local baker (preferably one who uses Maine-grown, Maine-ground grains in the bread), buy beer from a local brewer (who uses Maine-grown hops), and check in with your legislator from time to time – be on the alert for actions in Augusta that can affect such things as who gets to shop at your farmers market, what your kid finds on his school lunch tray, and even what your family will be eating for dinner tonight.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is an authority on Mediterranean cuisines, on the Mediterranean diet and its consequences for good health, on extra-virgin olive oil, and (to her own surprise) on ancient Egyptian maritime technology. A 13th-generation Mainer, she is the author of many books, the latest of which is a revision of her early best-seller, “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”