This story starts with the Somerset Grist Mill, housed in Skowhegan’s old jailhouse. It is now the home of Maine Grains, a company that mills organic grains. Much of the grain comes from Maine farmers. And this farming community has spread their belief in local food to include a vibrant farmers market outside the mill.
The market has become a community event. We visited it one Saturday morning last year to find gorgeous local produce and cheese, flowers and fresh breads, probably made with flour milled right here. Some of the 60 shareholders in The Pickup CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) were getting their boxes of weekly fresh produce.
On that visit I noticed people having breakfast at tables on the sidewalk. What I didn’t know was that the food was from the Pickup Cafe, now serving breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekends.
Adam and his wife Rosa (who is the chef) have come up with a unique concept for a restaurant. Holding true to their commitment to local organic food, Rosa develops her menu from organic produce (much of it obtained from the CSA) and locally produced meats. This is the farm-to-table concept at its finest.
Three walls of this restaurant are brick. Large blackboards provide information about the CSA, the farmers market and the cafe itself. Many tables that night were filled with families. I overheard the server recommending the Baba Ghanoush appetizer to a nearby table. “Yeah, I had that last week. It was great,” replied the diner. Adam told us that many loyal customers dine here weekly. Once I tasted Rosa’s food, I certainly understood why.
One of Rosa’s specialties is the Ground Turkey Empanadas. The spices in the empanadas were amazing — not spicy hot, just deep flavors. The flaky crust was equally amazing. They are served with a black bean corn salad and zesty sour cream. The story behind this dish was that Adam and Rosa had a version of these empanadas while on their honeymoon in Puerto Rico. Rosa has a good palate and was able to come up with a winner on this dish.
The baguettes served here are really delicious. Adam tells us that they come from Good Bread, one of the vendors at the farmers market. The baguettes arrive at your table with an herbed olive oil for dipping. Yum!
I ordered the Grilled Smoked Pork Chop which was topped with pear, fennel and cranberry chutney. The pork came from Kniffin’s, just down the road. The smoked pork was incredible. I’ve always avoided smoked pork, thinking it would taste salty like ham. Theirs was unbelievably tender, not at all salty and full of flavor.
By the way, the mashed potatoes served with my dinner were the best I’ve ever eaten. After we returned home, I emailed Rosa and asked for her recipe, which she generously shared.
The portions are good sized here and are a bargain with most entrees in the $12-$17 range. This is amazing home-style cooking with the freshest of ingredients. The Pickup Cafe is open for dinner Friday and Saturday nights from 4-9 p.m. Definitely give this one a try!
When we ran into Amber Lambke — who owns the grist mill with Michael Scholz — at a trade show in Rockland in October, she told us about The Pickup Cafe. I couldn’t believe we’d not heard of it. In place for a year and a half, this restaurant is a real treasure — not to be missed, often to be visited.
The commitment to all things local here is astonishing, from the pasta to the pig. The pasta comes from Pasta Fresca and Blue Ribbon Farm — they go to Italy every year to get new recipes. We’re envious!
Our favorite butcher, Herring Brothers in Guilford, supplies the sausage and theirs is the best in the state. Those milk-fed pigs from Sarah Smith’s Grasslands Farm are also superb. And the prosciutto from Kniffin’s Specialty Meats — oh my.
Rick and Tracy Kniffin are third- generation owners of a Madison retail store and North Anson processing plant. They actually use Herrings Brothers to slaughter the free-range, grass-fed animals, most of which come from farms within 75 miles of their plant. Their smoked meats are especially popular.
This restaurant is small, with large doors that open to the summer-time space outside. I predict they are going to need a bigger space, because their food is very good and their fresh and healthy approach is what many of us are looking for these days. Adam (a gregarious guy who spends his time waiting tables and visiting with guests) and Rosa both worked in Portland restaurants. In fact, Adam worked in two of our favorite restaurants, Hot Suppa! in Portland and Mainely Brews in Waterville.
Even their beer is local — brewed right in Skowhegan by Oal Pond, one of my favorite breweries. I started my dinner with an Oak Pond While Fox Ale.
My beef and root vegetable stew, served with a crusty grilled baguette, included lots of veggies. The beef was tender and tasty and the baguette was really good. At one point, while Lin was talking to Adam, I was wolfing down her empanada. Wow! It was great. As Lin told me, “someone loves cilantro as much as I do.” It was at that point that Adam pointed out that if we liked their seasonings, we could take them home.
On a nearby shelf, seasonings and teas from Rosa’s mother at Blessed Maine Herb Farm in Athens are available to take home with you. We did.
A lover of all things pasta, I ordered the Pasta Carbonara with sweet peas and prosciutto in a creamy egg and Romano cheese sauce. “I love this ham,” I exclaimed, only to have Linda respond, “It’s prosciutto.” The portion was huge, the veggies nice and crisp, the pasta superb.
“What’s that on my broccoli?” I inquired. My guess: maple syrup. “Not even close,” said Linda. “It’s fresh ginger.” I am learning a lot on these travel column visits.
Our dessert, a chocolate veggie torte, came from the Bankery next door. I felt especially healthy, knowing this tasty treat was made of vegetables.
There’s a lot to like here other than good food. The commitment to Maine, to our farmers, to our health, to our communities, is extraordinary. This is a place to support and savor. Please do it soon.
The Pickup Cafe and CSA
42 Court St. (on the back side of the grist mill), Skowhegan
www.thepickupcsa.com and also on Facebook
Dinner Friday and Saturday 4 to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday brunch, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
We just missed their last-of-the-season Wednesday pizza night.
Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.