HANCOCK —- Jamie Young is giving a tour of the Sullivan Harbor Farm smokehouse on U.S. Route 1, going from room to room explaining how he and his small team cure and smoke 75,000 pounds of seafood each year, most of it Atlantic salmon.
One door opens to a curing room, the place where Young, the master smoker, regularly hand rubs sides of salmon with salt, sea salt and brown sugar and lets them sit for six hours. “Brown sugar gives it that buttery taste,” he says, “and the salt helps it sustain its shelf life for 30 days.”
Another door opens, and even though there’s no smoking going on at the moment, the smell of hickory and cherry wood smoke is overwhelming. When all three kilns are going at once, Young says, he has to wear a mask. It can be difficult to walk around the room.
But the smoke doesn’t trouble him because he knows what the end result will be.
“In here,” Young says, “is where all the magic happens.”
The magic he refers to is the smoked seafood Sullivan Harbor Farm has been producing since 1992 – mostly Atlantic salmon at first, then scallops, shrimp, mussels, trout and arctic char. The salmon paté and gravlax – cured for a week in a blend of salt, sugar, fresh dill, crushed pepper and red onion juice – are popular in the smokehouse’s retail store, but over the past four years the company has also developed products that have quietly won it a half-dozen coveted sofi awards from the Specialty Food Association: “Dave’s Bacon,” double cold-smoked salmon brushed with maple syrup, has won two golds and two silvers, and the Omega Burst Maple & Pepper – double-smoked salmon tossed in maple and pepper seasonings – has won two silvers.
Whether it’s the quality of the seafood the company uses or the “magic” of the smoking process, Sullivan Harbor has discovered a formula that makes food lovers sit up and take notice. Rosemont Market & Bakery in Portland is one of the rare southern Maine stores that already carries it, thanks to a tip from a customer who’s a fan.
“A very dear customer of ours, who had experience in the seafood industry, had for a while been telling us, ‘You’ve got to try the Sullivan Harbor stuff; it’s the best there is,'” said store manager Joe Appel. “We tasted it, agreed, and that’s pretty much what led to the relationship.”
Sullivan Harbor has snagged some impressive wholesale accounts, including Legal Sea Foods in Boston and Dean & DeLuca in New York, and in the Acadia area it is well known because of its retail store located within the smokehouse. But to the rest of Maine, the company might as well be located in Iowa. The business has, curiously, flown under the radar in much of the state, particularly in the food mecca that is Portland. That is all about to change, as the company’s founders work to raise Sullivan Harbor’s public profile, develop new products and establish an increased presence in southern Maine.
Harbor Fish Market in Portland has agreed to act as distributor and will now be selling Sullivan Harbor smoked seafood in its retail store.
A popular new tequila-infused smoked salmon got creative juices flowing and led to other ideas for fusing Maine distilled spirits and fruit wines with Sullivan Harbor products.
And the smokehouse has recently started holding tastings in the new Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery tasting room in Portland’s Old Port, mostly because both parties agree that Sweetgrass’ Back River Gin goes well with the smoked salmon.
Perhaps the biggest leap forward for Sullivan Harbor Farm has been its purchase of the old Le Domaine, the legendary (in Maine, anyway) French restaurant and inn located some 500 yards down the road from the smokehouse. It opens today as Ironbound – named after an island in Frenchman Bay – and it will showcase Sullivan Harbor’s smoked seafood in appetizers, salads and other fare.
“Our goal, once we get going this year, is to really tie the smokehouse in, so the idea is that you would be able to come up here and take a smoking course,” said Leslie Harlow, who helped found Sullivan Harbor Farm with owner Joel Frantzman. “So you can go over there for two days, do your smoking course, stay right here, have your room and food included.”
TAKING UP SMOKING FISH
The story of Sullivan Harbor Farm goes back to the early 1990s. Joel Frantzman had owned a sporting camp deep in the Maine woods for nine years, but he was ready to sell the place and begin a new endeavor. He was intrigued by salmon farms he’d seen while vacationing on Grand Manan Island in Canada.
“They were just beginning to farm salmon in these beautiful waters up there – big tides, high currents,” he recalled. “And the New Brunswick government put up a demonstration farm to help induce people who wanted to invest in this kind of venture – local people like lobstermen and such – and show them how to do this.”
After dipping his toe into the subject, Frantzman joined some “quasi-scientists” on a trip to Norway to study the latest aquaculture practices. By this time he’d met and married Harlow, who had a background in the restaurant business, and together they started exploring small smokehouses in Nova Scotia and Maine, artisanal businesses whose proprietors “were more than willing to talk to you.”
He also visited with Des FitzGerald, founder of Ducktrap River Fish Farm Inc., who had built his own smoked seafood business into a multimillion-dollar operation (today it’s known as Ducktrap River of Maine). FitzGerald wouldn’t share any secrets, Frantzman said, “but he gave me one great piece of advice. He said, ‘If it were me, I’d fly over to Aberdeen and start taking some courses there.'”
So Frantzman bought a ticket to Scotland. There, he met chefs smoking salmon in small batches at their restaurants, and he visited the English factories that were manufacturing artisanal “Scottish” smoking kilns like the ones he would later buy. Frantzman returned to Maine with the confidence that he could build his own smoked seafood business. He had just bought a house in Sullivan and set about transforming the 200-year-old barn on the property into a clean, new smokehouse. Eventually, he and Harlow began smoking salmon, asking (lucky) friends and neighbors to critique samples as they developed their “recipe.”
After a while, the company got noticed by Dean & DeLuca and Cook’s Illustrated magazine. (Frantzman cold-called Christopher Kimball at Cook’s, asking him to include Sullivan Harbor in a smoked salmon tasting.) Frantzman also sent unsolicited samples to Roger Berkowitz, the head of Legal Sea Foods, who called the next day and invited Frantzman to Boston. Soon after, Frantzman met with Berkowitz and his father, George (the founder of Legal Sea Foods). Father and son left the room with more samples.
“They came back maybe 10 minutes later, and they had each consumed over a pound of salmon between the two of them,” Frantzman recalled. “I thought we were going to have to take them to the hospital. They said, ‘We’re ready to give you all of our business right now.’ They really put us in business.”
Over the years, the smokehouse has added other big customers, such as the Mohegan Sun and the Ritz Carlton Hotel Co.
Looking back, Frantzman marvels at the naivete he and Harlow showed in the early stages of the business. (The couple are now divorced, but still work together.)
But they always held to their standards.
“Our object was always to do the best and never to take shortcuts, which a lot of people do,” Frantzman said. “A lot of people put fish into brine, and it adds water weight. We do the dry salting. Quality is everything to us. We’re small. We would disappear completely if we didn’t have really high quality.”
Sullivan Harbor buys its Atlantic salmon from a family-owned Canadian company called Northern Harvest Sea Farms in New Brunswick.
The fish are raised in the Bay of Fundy, just 65 nautical miles from the smokehouse, or a couple of hours by truck. Young, the head smoker, meets the truck in Holden to pick up the fish, and drives them back to the warehouse, which means that their product has a much smaller carbon footprint than fish flown in from other countries.
“From the beginning, we’ve always only sourced our fish from this area,” Harlow said. “We do not import anything from Chile, Norway or Scotland, and we are proud of that.”
The salmon are harvested, processed and delivered on the same day Sullivan Harbor orders them. Within 12 to 18 hours of the harvest, the fish are on the curing table in Hancock.
Fish aquaculture has engendered controversy because of its environmental impact, but Northern Harvest Sea Farms is known for its attention to sustainable practices. Hannaford stocks the seafood cases in all of its 184 stores with Northern Harvest salmon fillets because the company meets all the criteria of the grocer’s Sustainable Seafood Sourcing Policy, which was developed with the help of scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.
Northern Harvest was also the first company in North America to receive a three-star Best Aquaculture Practices certification, a third-party international certification. And the company doesn’t crowd the fish. Its salmon are rotated among three remote, pristine sites in the Bay of Fundy, with one site always left fallow so it can recover before being restocked.
Harlow estimates Sullivan Harbor Farm goes through 50,000 pounds of salmon a year – but they also have several sidelines, smoking plump dayboat scallops from Digby, Nova Scotia, and tiny Gulf of Maine shrimp (which they can only buy frozen now). Their Arctic char comes from Iceland, and their mussels from Rhode Island.
“We can’t get Maine mussels anymore,” Harlow said. “There’s such a market now for mussels in the shell.”
After the seafood is hand cured, it goes into one of the kilns. (They are also occasionally used to smoke dulse for Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Franklin.)
Most of the salmon products are cold smoked, which means the temperature in the kiln is less than 90 degrees. Cold-smoked salmon are infused with smoke flavor without being cooked, making for silkier, moister flesh. Anything over 90 degrees is a hot smoke, which infuses both flavor and heat so that products such as scallops and mussels needn’t be cooked again. Hot-smoked salmon is flakier and firmer.
Oddly enough, the head smoker never tastes the result of all his hard work: He doesn’t like fish.
SHOT OF TEQUILA
Most Sullivan Harbor salmon gets smoked for six hours, long enough to add flavor and kill any bacteria. After, a skinning machine skins the fish in less than three seconds, and the brown meat between the salmon meat and the skin is removed and discarded. “It’s really gritty,” Young said. “It’s like eating steamed clams with rocks in them.”
Another tool removes the blood line, similar to removing the vein from a lobster tail.
Young then cuts off the belly trim and soaks it in water to open the pores back up so it can absorb a second smoke. The belly of a salmon contains the most omega-3 fatty acids, so this will eventually become Omega Burst Maple & Pepper salmon bites. (The product lives up to its name. Try a “bite” and wait for the explosive burst of flavors to trigger a salmon high, if there is such a thing. The combination of flavors and textures – tender, but with a bit of bite – is reminiscent of bacon. Salmon bacon actually would be a good name for it, if Sullivan Harbor didn’t already have its “Dave’s Bacon,” which some people apparently eat fried for breakfast.)
On a white board hanging on the wall are the recipes for two of the smokehouse’s new products – a tequila-infused smoked salmon and smoked salmon soaked in apple brandy from Bartlett Maine Estate Winery. Harlow came up with the ideas. The tequila salmon is soaked overnight in tequila, then cold smoked the next day with hickory and cherry wood chips. Then it’s smoked again. After the double smoking, it’s mixed with agave, more tequila and fresh lime juice.
“For years, all the traditional smokehouses did whiskey – Scotch – and it’s got a heavier taste,” Harlow explained. “It’s very good and it goes really well with the woods that you use. But the tequila, to me it just had more of a modern taste. We worked on the recipe all winter, and I think we have finally gotten there.”
The search for new products will continue into the fall, after the fruit harvest, when they plan to collaborate with Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery in Union.
Several years ago, Keith Bodine, who owns Sweetgrass with his wife, Constance, held a tasting that included smoked products from Sullivan Harbor Farm and various other producers “and theirs just stood out as the best.”
DASH OF LE DOMAINE REMAINS
In the weeks before Sullivan Harbor Farm’s new 85-seat restaurant opens, locals stopped by to check out the renovations and reminisce about Le Domaine, the French restaurant founded years ago by Nicole Purslow, who has apparently moved back to France.
Amid the renovations – removing the country French yellows and artwork featuring scenes from the French countryside – Harlow has preserved an intimate corner bench covered with small pillows where a couple in love could sit and spoon at their table while they enjoyed their rie de veau. Above the bench are shelves filled with books.
“Over here, for those people who loved eating at Le Domaine, I’ve changed nothing,” Harlow said. “This is the Le Domaine corner. These two paintings were on the wall. It’s really interesting, people have been coming in saying, ‘Leslie, this is where my wife and I always had our anniversary dinner.’ It’s the same. It will not change.”
She’s saved other parts of the old restaurant as well – original knives, which will hang on a magnetic bar, and beautiful bowls and dishes that will be used to serve Ironbound food. And, of course, the restaurant’s gorgeous brick fireplace, still bedecked with copper pots and pans, will stay.
But almost everything else will change. A sitting room that was once “old school Provence” now feels clubby. Instead of French food, the restaurant will serve “modern American cuisine” and classics with a twist, such as lamb meatballs and French fries with truffle salt. A new birch bar in the fireplace room seats about a dozen.
“I want people to sit here and get a great cocktail,” Harlow said. “They can eat anything off of our menu. If you want to come in and get a bowl of mussels or a burger or sit here and have a nice salad, you can do that. We’re taking the formality away.”
Guests can also spill out into the huge backyard, which abuts a conservation area with trails, to enjoy their drinks and check out the raised beds that will be growing herbs, heirloom tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers and other vegetables for the restaurant.
The restaurant will serve dinner only and will be seasonal, closing this year in November.
Sullivan Harbor has hired Rob Johnson, a chef from Connecticut, to make the menu more approachable than the old one. A selection of smoked seafood from down the road will be featured on a platter as a starter, and smoked salmon will likely find its way into some salads. Richard Penfold’s Finnan Haddie from Deer Isle will appear in the menu’s “comfort food” section (the smoked fish is also sold at the retail store). Fresh salmon from Northern Harvest Sea Farms will be an entree.
Harlow hopes eventually to draw in chefs and home cooks from all over the country to the Ironbound Restaurant & Inn so they can take advantage of smoking classes at Sullivan Harbor Farm just two doors down.
From a 200-year-old barn to an award-winning operation that is now launching a restaurant, Sullivan Harbor Farm is setting itself up for the future.
Frantzman once confided to Harlow that he feared no one in Maine would be interested in their products.
“Well, that’s not true any more, especially in the Portland area,” Harlow said. “Maine has really shown its colors over the past five to six years with really understanding the economic and social advantages of supporting local food. We’re really well-positioned to have Maine embrace who we are, and the smokehouse is really ready for that now too.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 7 p.m. on June 9 to correctly identify the seaweed that Sullivan Harbor occasionally smokes for Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. It is dulse.