It’s a beautiful summer morning at Salt Water Farm, a tiny cooking school housed in a renovated barn on the craggy Maine coast. But the dozen students are nearly as nervous as the seven chickens they are about to slaughter, pluck and eviscerate with guidance from Tom Mylan and Brent Young, both of the Meat Hook. The butchers came up from Brooklyn with a few Williamsburg cooks to teach us—all enthusiastic eaters up from the city—the finer points of farm-to-table food in one stunning seaside setting.
Killing those birds (they’re destined for our next night’s dinner) is a capstone of the four-day experience, which includes course-work on butchery, pickling, canning, cheesemaking, smoking, shucking and distilling, among other serious how-tos. (It’s $1,500, including three nights at a lodge down the road.)
Mylan and Young help host the DIY extravaganza each August, along with cooks like Caroline Fidanza of Saltie, Dennis Spina of Roebling Tea Room and Millicent Souris, Spina’s former pastry chef. They’re assisted by Anne-Marie Ahearn, a former Brooklynite who runs the school, and Ladleah Dunn, a Mainer who teaches several of the traditional food-craft-type classes Salt Water Farm curates the rest of the year. Called “the Maine Event,” it feels not like five days in some stuffy kitchen, but rather a beach house vacation with friends who happen to be seriously skilled cooks.
Before opening the school on her parents’ Maine land, Ahearn called Cobble Hill home. A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education, she worked for Slow Food, was an extern at Blue Hill, interned at Saveur and served as personal assistant to Tom Colicchio. In between, she hung out at Roebling Tea Room, making friends with Mylan, Spina and Fidanza after work.
Ahearn now lives in the apartment above her classroom kitchens, which sit high on a hill. The terrace is surrounded by herbs, tomatoes, chiles, cucumbers, squash, string beans and other growing edibles, and the ocean views are breathtaking, especially from the barn’s incredible flagstone patio. Between cooking sessions, we take a few breaks to swim—complete with a brown-bag lakeside lunch of pork tenderloin and fried green tomato sandwiches with remoulade—cruise the bay on an old schooner and belly up at a waterfront bar in downtown Lincolnville.)
But the best part of the weekend is living out your farmer fantasies: We watch Young and Mylan break down a whole pig, help them cure the belly and even grind, season and stuff our own chorizo for the next day’s breakfast. We jar blueberry jam, pickle cucumbers and bake strawberry pies. A few of us wander down to the water to help Ahearn pick herbs and shoot BB guns with Souris, while the others hang out to cook up ricotta and pull mozzarella from local raw milk and real rennet. Toward sunset, as the chefs prepare dinner—local lobster one night, the next our very own chickens roasted in the barn’s open hearth—Mylan demonstrates how to transform apple cider into booze on an old stovetop still. As it simmers, some students help Souris shuck oysters while others settle in by the flickering fire, drinking craft beer brought over by a brewer just up the road.
While Salt Water Farm’s classes are casual—by midnight everyone’s drinking bourbon and cooking up a 23-pound Meat Hook “man steak” as snack—Ahearn’s fine-dining background shines through. As we share elegant, multi-course meals on the patio table, both the chefs and students, happy Brooklynites all, are in no hurry to head home.
“The Third Annual Maine Event: A Week of Butchering, Shucking, Roasting, Smoking, Pickling, Preserving and Distilling on the Coast of Maine” runs August 9–13.
Photo credit: Josh Nagle.