SKOWHEGAN — Bread, beer, tacos and pizza. In other words, nirvana.

That’s what people were treated to Saturday at the annual Artisan Bread Festival at the Skowhegan fairgrounds. The festival is the culmination of the Kneading Conference hosted by the Maine Grain Alliance, a local nonprofit organization that promotes using local grains.

More than 60 vendors were selling goods ranging from brioche buns to craft olive oil, while outdoor ovens churned out pizza after pizza.

Tristan Noyes, executive director of the Maine Grain Alliance, said the fair had exceeded the group’s expectations by midafternoon Saturday. While organizers were expecting about 3,000 to turn out for the free event at the fairgrounds, by early afternoon he said that number would likely be eclipsed.

And those attending couldn’t have asked for a better day, with temperatures in the mid-70s and the sun shining.

“It’s been really great,” Noyes said.

A RUN ON BAKED GOODS

The fair brings together people from all over Maine and New England to see demonstrations and learn about and sample locally sourced products. The two-day conference preceding it showcases lessons from local farmers, millers, bakers, maltsters and others.

“It’s a space (where) they can showcase the amazing things they’re doing,” Noyes said.

Founded in 2010 as a lecture on food, the festival has grown to take over much of the fairgrounds, including Constitution Hall. By early afternoon, baker Claudia Duschenes was closing up her booth. Even though the event was scheduled to last until 3 p.m., she’d completely run out of baked goods with over an hour and a half remaining.

“I could not keep up,” she said.

Duschenes, a Vermonter, said she has come to the conference in the past, although not every year. All the baked goods she had sold that day, such as pretzels and croissants, were produced during the conference. She said the conference was a lot of fun because it’s not just bakers all together, it includes farmers and others involved with producing the goods that go toward the finished products. The proceeds from the sales that day would go toward future Kneading Conferences and local farmers, she said.

Near a wood-fired oven cranking out pizzas, the conference’s keynote speaker, Francis Percival, said he had led a tasting event, pairing bread with cheese. During the conference, Percival, of London, had discussed cheese but linked it to grain production in Maine.

He said while the conference was good because it put roughly 200 people together who spend a lot of time thinking about food and grains, the culminating festival was nice because it allowed bakers and vendors to share their passions with the public and talk about their products.

“This is those people engaging with the Skowhegan public,” he said.

Kerry Hanney, owner of Night Moves bakery in Portland, led a few workshops during the conference, including one about beginning techniques for home bakers. Hanney said both the conference and the festival were wonderful, saying there was so much to learn during the few days in Skowhegan, with so many people from different backgrounds, all of them passionate about what they’re doing.

“With any person, you immediately have this common bond,” she said.

Hanney said the conference was hands-on, with attendees getting to “put their hands in the dough” in a communal event.

WHAT’S UP IN THE GRAIN WORLD

While the festival seemed to be winding down Saturday afternoon, Noyes said overall it was a good sign that the community was supportive of the success of the local grain community. The festival was an opportunity to showcase “what’s been happening in our world of grain” and put on display the dedicated farmers, bakers, brewers and others for the community to get behind.

The fairgrounds also hosted artists and musicians Saturday, with a space for children as well as a gated area where adults could grab a local beer. Not far from the wood-fired pizza oven, a vendor was selling rolling pins, which Noyes said was an example of another benefit of the festival: the ability of people walking through it to find baking accoutrements they might not otherwise find in a store.

With the 2017 event just about in the books, and vendors finishing up with their supplies, Noyes said the space was a place for arts, good food, good beer, and talented bakers to come together.

“It’s a pretty special, one-of-a-kind thing,” Noyes said.

Colin Ellis can be contacted at 861-9253 or at:

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