In the next few weeks, Lauren Pignatello plans to open a cafe called Milk and Honey at 84 Cove St., the new(ish) home of the Portland Winter Farmers’ Market. Her cafe will feature dairy products from Swallowtail Farm and Creamery, the family farm she and her husband, Sean, run in North Whitefield, as well as herbal products, including elixirs, that Pignatello has either foraged or grown. We called her up to talk menus and, while we were at it, learned how a teenager from New York City developed a fascination with herbs, ultimately ran off to Maine, became an award-winning cheesemaker and gave birth to seven children. At home.
EARLY INFLUENCES: Pignatello grew up in an Irish-Italian family in the Bronx. Despite the urban setting, “I grew up in parts of the Bronx where we actually had some nature.” She rode horseback and went on walks in the woods with an uncle. Then, in the late ’80s, she discovered a pair of apothecaries, one right near the Italian restaurant where she worked. Aphrodisia Herb Shoppe (1969-2010) was “feminine, kind of goddess-oriented,” and she’d go there to read in between shifts at the restaurant. The other was Roots and Herbs in the Bronx, “a little dark room that you had to walk down a few steps to get into.” Pignatello had dogs and no health insurance, and she started her herbal explorations by treating the dogs and then, eventually, herself.
BLIND LUCK: Her first meeting with her future husband was a blind date. “We met in October and we had four dates, and then I visited him in Maine over Halloween and quit my job and stayed until Thanksgiving.” At which point she went back to New York just long enough to pack up her belongings, which included two dogs, both big and burly. “When Sean asked me if I wanted to come, he had forgotten I had dogs,” she said, laughing. They lived in a loft apartment on Orr’s Island, with Sean doing carpentry and odd jobs for Bowdoinham farmers (and friends) David and Alison Berry. One day Sean walked in from a storm, wearing a slicker and his high fisherman’s boots, bearing bouquets in his arms of flowers grown by Alison. “That was it for me.” They’ve been married 20 years. “We drive each other crazy,” she said, laughing. “We are complete opposites.”
FAMILY MATTERS: Another motivation for her transition from city girl to farmer? “My favorite author is Willa Cather. I read ‘O Pioneers!’ when I was 17, so that really inspired me. And ‘My Antonia’ when I was 19.” Another favorite? Laura Ingalls Wilder. “I am a big fan,” she said. In fact, Pignatello’s fifth child is named Royal, after Wilder’s husband Almanzo’s big brother. Did she always plan to have such a big family? “I did!” She remembers playing pool in a bar in her youthful days with a biker guy in leather who asked her how many kids she wanted to have. “And I said six. Now I have seven.” Which makes her very happy, even if “I very rarely sit down.”
The older kids help out – Isabella, 19, is on a gap year before college and works in the dairy when she’s not serving at Fore Street, and eldest son Django delivers cheese and yogurt to outlets around the state, including The Good Tern Co-op in Rockland and Lois’ Natural Marketplace in Scarborough. And fortunately, “I love the chaos.”
HONEY THE COW: The children inspired Swallowtail; Pignatello wanted to make good food for them, including dairy products from their own cow. She bought her first cow, an Irish Dexter, for $500, the proceeds of an annual baked goods and herbal products sale at her home. She moved on to a Jersey named Honey. “I started making yogurt right away with her milk.” Then she opened a small stand at the weekly market at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick. From there, the business took off. Now she has more demand than supply, even though she’s buying milk from six cows (kept at Two Loons Farm in South China).
It’s not easy to delegate, since her yogurts and cheeses are all made to taste, by batch. (Sean does have his own specialties; he’s responsible for Swallowtail’s ricotta salata, which took a second place from the American Cheese Society, one of three awards the national group gave Swallowtail in 2015.) She describes herself as a “grandma cook.” “I am not scientific at all, and it is more of an organic experience.” An extensive one, since she cooks “every day for 12 people and then I have my CSA, which is usually 12 families. I just say, ‘Thank God I really like to cook.’ ”
MENU PLANNER: With all that going on, what prompted Pignatello to make a move to open a cafe this year? She’s been the market manager for the Portland Winter Farmers’ Market for seven years, and this year, the market needed a new home. She found a suitable space on Cove Street and started to envision how it could be used to process herbs in the months the market isn’t held there: May through November. Meanwhile, what about a cafe to keep marketgoers happy before and after they shop? Her vision included lots of grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of yogurt topped with nuts, seeds and foraged items. And now it’s happening, likely in March, although Pignatello reserves the right to surprise us and open earlier. “I love to dream and daydream, and I am very willful, very determined.”