A small town for big appetites

There are many things for which the state of Maine has long been famous: low-tide beaches, lighthouses, lobstermen. But in recent years its capital, Portland, has become the East Coast’s must-visit foodie city, with a farm-to-fork philosophy that’s the envy of New England. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes of this growing gourmet destination.

‘Rails opened, lines dropped, davit poised – and the trap is hooked!’ declares Captain Brian Rapp, as he hauls up a mottled green rope to reveal a wire-mesh cage, once 29 feet deep, now packed with glossy orange- and black-speckled lobsters. He takes stock of the crustaceans, gauging their size for harvest, and a smile cracks across the lobsterman’s bearded face. A bumper payday.

In Portland, those in the know call it lobstah, not lobster. That’s the first thing you need to learn before boarding the Lucky Catch trawler, a fishing boat that casts off each morning across the grey waters of Casco Bay from the quays on Commercial Street. At the wharf where the boat often rests at anchor, a concrete plaque is inscribed with a nautical blessing: ‘May you have fair winds and following seas.’ But the way things are going in Portland these days, they should add the pleasure of having a lobster roll in your stomach to the benediction.

Though many have long thought of Portland as a place steeped in little more than coastal fog and shuttered World War II canneries, today this small city can hold its own with any of the foodie capitals in North America. You could call it a Napa Valley with bivalves – a mix of kindred-spirit seafood restaurants, organic food champions and, the most prevalent of all, lobster shacks.

 

Lobsterpalooza and American pies

Above everything, Portland is a seafood valhalla. More lobster is caught and sold off Maine’s ragged coastline than in any other state in the United States, and it has such a mad crush on lobster rolls, it harvests 130 million pounds of the meat each year.

But the city is much more than that. Portland can do lip-smacking blueberry pies (out of every 100 US lowbush berries, 99 come from Maine). It invented the ‘healthy’ Holy Donut (made of more nutritious potato flour, but still gilded with frosting). It was ahead of the craft beer bell-curve in New England: the state’s pioneer, D.L. Geary, began brewing in 1983 as the first post-prohibition brewery east of the Mississippi, and opened their first brewpub in 1986. And its food heroes are permanently conscious of shrinking the distance between product and plate.

‘Portland is hands-down the foodiest small town in North America,’ says Maine Foodie Tours guide Mike Liff, a Californian drawn to the city by his stomach. ‘It’s not just the restaurants or the street food. It’s everything from the local produce to the maverick attitudes. People here don’t do chain restaurants. Instead of Dunkin’ Donuts, we choose local fair-trade independent micro-roasters like Coffee by Design or Arabica. And don’t get me started on the cheese. It’s so good here, it’s hard not to bust past the deli counter.’