The ABCs of the Maine’s local food system could go something like this.

A is for aquaculture,
B is for blueberry harvests,
C is for combating food waste,
D is for diversifying crops,
E is for expanding markets,
F is for fisheries in flux,
G is for grazing livestock …

While there is certainly lots to learn, there are also many ways to consume – bite by bite – the growing body of information about the food produced in Maine and the many people who deliver it to our plates. The Maine Food for Thought eating tours offer a high-level survey course on most things edible, local and sustainable, from Aroostook County potatoes to the day’s catch hauled into Kittery Foreside’s working waterfront.

The Land, Sea to Fork lunchtime tours, conducted from early May through late October and costing $79 per head, guide adventurous eaters into the dining rooms of six Portland restaurants Union in the Press Hotel, Evo Kitchen+Bar, Luke’s Lobster, Solo Italiano, Mami and Piccolo. The same company also offers late afternoon Toast to Maine tours that tap into how the local beer scene plays into the food system.

All the tours start with Union’s chef Josh Berry’s seafood chowder with coconut and lime. Tour company owner Bryce Hach says the soup highlights a variety of local fish and demonstrates how Portland’s culinary talent can coax out the flavor of local food in different ways. In this case, Berry puts a southeast Asian spin on the New England classic combination of clams, white fish, potatoes and cream.

Makrut lime leaves Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

As attendees chow down on the chowder, the Hach explains how hake is an under-loved species of white flaky fish caught in the Gulf of Maine by the groundfish fishery that had to switch their focus away from cod as regulators cut quotas on the latter in an attempt to help stocks rebound. As the eaters pulled the clams from their shells, Hach dove into how green crab is an invasive species wreaking havoc on the state’s soft-shell crab population. The bread served with the chowder, said Hach, is sweetened with the honey from local bees, housed in a hive on the roof of the Press Hotel where Union is located. And the micro-greens used as a garnish the dish, grown in a hydroponic system in the hotel’s basement, serves as Hach’s segue into a conversation about methods farmers are using to extend Maine’s short growing season.

“We have the opportunity to vote in favor of the Maine food system every day by thinking more about what we choose to eat,” says Hach, who founded the tour operation about two years ago with his wife, Sarah. The couple met in a statistics class in Pittsburgh where they were both pursuing master’s degrees in public policy. They moved to the Portland area in 2012 and began working on a business plan that combined their expertise in food policy and their love of food. The inaugural Maine Food for Thought tour was conducted about 18 months ago.

The Hachs choose restaurant partners based on chefs’ overall commitment to serving local and sustainably produced food and their willingness to develop a dish that highlights and illustrates some aspect of Maine’s food system not already part of the line-up. Location is also key as any restaurant included on the tour needs to be in the vicinity of the tour’s other Old Port locations to keep the total distance covered in each tour to about a mile. And the partners must have a semi-private space and staff to accommodate up to 16 folks for a single course and a serious chat.

Because the dishes change with the seasonal flow of ingredients, the menu can change from tour to tour. Last week, Evo’s chef Matt Ginn served us a colorful beet salad with a kalamata olive crumble. The variety of beets – golden and ruby, roasted and pickled – gave Hach the opportunity to talk about the importance of biodiversity. The blueberries and husk cherries in the salad led to a chat about native crops that can be harvested for large scale (think frozen blueberries) and boutique (have you ever eaten a husk cherry outside of a high-end restaurant?) food operations.

Our stroll down the pier to Luke Lobster provided the perfect opportunity to discuss the challenges of a working waterfront in a bustling tourist town. The taste of Paolo Laboa’s world champion pesto at Solo Italiano highlights how basil grown in Olivia’s Gardens greenhouses in New Gloucester alongside crops that host a predatory insect habitat so that the use of chemical pesticides is not required. At food truck turned brick-and-mortar Japanese Street restaurant Mami, Hach returned to the importance of eating under-loved species of seafood as co-owners Austin Miller and Hana Tamaki served us miso yaki skate with pickled onions. But he also took some time to talk about curbing the amount of plastic we dump in the ocean and how Maine’s booming shellfish and seaweed aquaculture industry was helping to clean the Gulf of Maine naturally.

On the last stop at Piccolo, Chef Ilma Lopez made us vanilla cake roulade with chocolate cream and fall fruit compote. As we polished off our progressive meal in decadence, Hach detailed this restaurant’s efforts to curtail food waste to the point where nothing goes to waste in the kitchen. And he ended our tour by commending Lopez for her leadership role in raising money through culinary events across to help feed the 20 percent of Maine’s population who still experience food insecurity in their lifetime in spite of Maine’s expanding food system. Food for thought, for sure.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Union restaurant’s Asian-inflected chowder. Photo by Zack Bowen

NEW ENGLAND STYLE CHOWDER WITH COCONUT AND LIME

Serves 4

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

6 oz. smoked trout, broken into pieces

1⁄4 cup chopped onion

1⁄4 cup chopped celery

2 tablespoons thinly sliced lemongrass

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

5 cups of coconut milk (either lite or full fat)

3 makrut lime leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons

1/2-pound fingerling potatoes, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

1/2-pound hake fillet

1 dozen littleneck hard shell clams, scrubbed

Microgreens

Crusty bread

Warm the oil in a medium stockpot over medium heat. Add the trout to pot and cook for 1 minute. Add the onions, celery, lemongrass and garlic and cook until onions are translucent, 4-5 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, lime leaf and potatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the fish and clams and simmer until the fish turns opaque and the clams open, 7-10 minutes. Use a spoon to gently break apart the cooked fish. Compost any unopened clams.

Divide the seafood and vegetables among four warm bowls, ladle the broth over the seafood and garnish with microgreens. Serve with crusty bread.

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