Food & dining

Q&A

Annemarie Ahearn of Salt Water Farm in Maine

Annemarie Ahearn runs a cooking school and hosts full moon suppers at Salt Water Farm in Maine.
Kristin Teig
Annemarie Ahearn runs a cooking school and hosts full moon suppers at Salt Water Farm in Maine.

Annemarie Ahearn came to appreciate the charms and challenges of the Maine land and seascapes as her family worked to turn 25 soggy and hilly acres in Lincolnville into a livable, workable farm. After nearly a decade of draining, leveling, and constructing, the family launched Salt Water Farm in 2009. Ahearn runs a cooking school there, where she teaches home cooks from all over the world to celebrate the bounty produced — sometimes with struggle — along the Maine coast.

Ahearn’s cooking embraces the Maine seasons, which can mean enduring long winters in anticipation of spring growth. “For me, that’s one of the best parts of living in Maine. You appreciate it so much more because it has such a short moment in the spotlight,” Ahearn says. One way the chef celebrates the rhythms of life in Maine is by hosting a monthly “full moon” supper at Salt Water Farm. Each dinner highlights products that are at their peak that month. Halibut, elderflowers, and chives for June’s Strawberry Moon supper give way to squash blossoms, cherry tomatoes, filet beans, and raspberries for July’s Hay Moon meal. Ahearn has collected a year’s worth of those menus and recipes in a new book, “Full Moon Suppers at Salt Water Farm.” In addition to the cooking school, Ahearn operates Salt Water Farm Café and Market in Rockport Harbor.

Q. You’re not a native Mainer. How did you come to make it your culinary focus?

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A. My father’s family has a blueberry farm in Dresden, Maine, which goes back five generations. I grew up in Wisconsin and we would drive to Maine every summer and go to the blueberry farm and pick blueberries with my cousins. Then in 1999, my family purchased a piece of land right on the coast, which was an old sheep farm. I was living in New York City for much of the time that we were sorting out this piece of land, then building structures on it. We’ve really dug in deep, so to speak, here. We’ve learned a ton about what Maine soil will produce and won’t produce and have tried not to fight it.

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Q. What inspired the full moon suppers?

A. They began the same year that the school began. I was new to the state and in awe of its natural beauty and resources. I was sitting with a friend who was taking in the view of this piece of land and the moon overhead. It was the September harvest moon. He suggested: Why don’t we do a supper club at the farm? We had our first full moon supper in October and really had to start thinking about what we were going to serve and how it reflected our time and place here in Maine, both the season and what was available to us and what historically people ate during that time of year. That first one was pretty epic. We had a car explode in the driveway and both fire departments came. We literally started with a bang.

Q. What was on your most recent full moon menu?

A. June for us is really a celebration of what other people would think of as spring greens and early vegetables — like peas, baby carrots, fava beans, tons and tons of herbs such as lovage, sorrel. We have so many chives and chive blossoms growing here. We use chive blossoms in everything — compound butters and vinegars, and we deep fry them. We wait a long time for growth in Maine. The menus of the book really try to celebrate that notion.

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Q. Are you able to maintain enthusiasm for local food during the winter?

A. Certainly New England is famous for making foods stretch through the winter, whether it’s pickling it, preserving it with smoke or vinegar, salt. As we shift into the winter months, the cold, cold winter months, we do dive into those old New England culinary traditions that have helped families for generations get through the bitter temperatures. And then — this is something I’ve forgiven myself for — I love ethnic food and there’s no better time to experiment with it than the winter in Maine. I usually do it when I can’t have one more bowl of chowder.

Q. At the cooking school, you teach people to cook without recipes. Is that Maine self-reliance at work?

A. Some people don’t think cooking comes naturally to them, but it’s mostly because they’ve read so much in the food media telling them they’re doing it wrong or just this notion that there’s one way to do something. For me, cooking is about both success and, more importantly, failure. Our workshop program has just become in the past year about not using a recipe. By the end of the week, [students] have developed certain skills. Something switches in their mind and they realize cooking is not necessarily about following the rules, but rather trusting your ability.

Michael Floreak can be reached at michael.floreak@gmail.com.