We walk into the Ocean Gateway building our first night in Portland, and inside the air is electric, people swarming every direction, hands reaching for small bites as they juggle tastes of wine. Live jazz music from the Fogcutters Duo band plays in the corner. A hundred voices comingle. We shed our winter coats and mittens and plunge into the crowd.
Here in America’s most northeastern state, in a glass-enclosed building with surrounding water views, is the opening event for Harvest on the Harbor, a four-day food festival celebrating Maine’s renowned food scene. While we’ve traveled several hundred miles from Nashville (by way of Chicago) to be here, we’re not the ones farthest from home. In fact, attending events and competitions over the next few days will be participants from 34 different states and five countries.
It may sound strange to someone who’s grown up in the northeast, but visiting New England in the fall has been on my vacation dream list for as long as I can remember. When Tim and I got married two years ago and tossed around October honeymoon ideas, Boston or Maine almost won out. Now here we are, a week after our second wedding anniversary, and Tim’s holding a glass of all-natural Crabbie’s ginger beer (and later going back for one more with a ready hand), from inside a building on Portland, Maine’s historic waterfront. I’m taking a plate of seaweed salad, and we’re splitting a Maine pumpkin whoopie pie stuffed with amaretto cream. We collectively marvel at the duck craquelin ice cream sandwiches from Rockland’s Primo restaurant, a reaction only surpassed when we taste the same establishment’s braised pastured beef sliders. We’re actually here, together, in Portland! In the fall!
Portland’s Gorgeous Gelato scoops up samples from its mini ice cream stand—pistachio for Tim, dark chocolate for me. We tuck ourselves into a corner by the windows with our bowls of ice cream and big camera shoulder bag, and Tim says to me, “This is fun!” and I smile. By the time the night is over, we’re sure of two things: There’s a reason Bon Appetit called Portland, Maine, America’s Foodiest Small Town in 2009, and, man, we’re thankful to be tasting it.
We attend two more Harvest on the Harbor events: International Night on Thursday and Top of the Crop on Friday. Thursday’s spread mimics that of opening night’s: Lots of tables with samples, all from local purveyors, but this time with an international theme. We like the vegetable samosas, and I go back for seconds on a pumpkin pie shake, but it’s Friday’s event we’re most interested in and still talking about when we leave Maine Saturday to go home: the four-chef Top of the Crop competition.
At its heart, Top of the Crop celebrates the part of Maine’s food culture we like best: the farm-to-table movement. Each chef presents his take on local, high-quality food, cooking it before the crowd while we receive samples at our seats. Each demonstration feels like a miniature cooking show. “Here’s a trick you can try at home!” and “Watch what happens when I drop this in the pan!” The first chef is David Levi, of the upcoming Portland restaurant Vinland, who wows us by cooking his dehydrated beet chips in ghee, then topping them with strained raw-milk yogurt, all while talking passionately about his plans for what will soon become the world’s first all-local restaurant. “So that means I couldn’t use a lemon,” he explains to the oceanfront room, stressing his point. “I’d have to use something like sorrel or sheep’s sorrel instead.” Three more chefs present after David, each naming the farms that sourced their ingredients like I’d tell you where I bought my milk. Chef Kerry Altiero of Cafe Miranda is named winner, winning over the crowd with talk of his own Headacre farm, a 17-acre Maine saltwater farm that sources much of his restaurant’s food. Our favorites at Top of the Crop: Hearing the passionate chefs speak and learning more about Maine’s local food.
While an event like Harvest on the Harbor would hold obvious appeal for Portland locals who are proud of their town, it’s also a treat for out-of-towners like us. In one evening or afternoon, we are experiencing multiple tastes from multiple restaurants, giving us fast exposure with minimal running around. By the end of the events, we leave Harvest on the Harbor dying to visit Primo if we’re ever in the area again, for example, as well as wishing Vinland had already opened its doors.
But even beyond our scheduled events, Tim and I take advantage of our time in Portland by exploring it and the surrounding towns like we’re on a second honeymoon. Our few days in Portland include walking the city’s charming cobbled streets, the smell of fish in the crisp air; getting lost in Freeport at L.L. Bean’s flagship store and loving the area’s fall colors; driving up Route 1 through Wiscasset, Rockland, Rockport and Camden, each of which charmed us with a marina and farmland and cedar shake homes; and feeling our way around a part of the country that’s easy to love.
Here are some other highlights of where we stayed, what we ate, where we shopped and what we saw in Portland.