“The light is changing, dear winter people, and the owls are chatting at night,” is the lyrical beginning of the weekly menu at Acacia House Inn. On a side street in Bar Harbor, Acacia House is a busy B&B during the height of the season. Unlike many other innkeepers, though, instead of closing the doors and heading south for a much deserved rest, Anna Durand and Ralph McDonnell open the doors to the public three days a week for a breakfast only the winter folk can savor.
The weekly online postings are poetry, written with food love seasoning every word. The entry continues: “The sap isn’t running yet, but soon…this weekend’s specials will include smoked salmon hash with eggs, hollandaise, and herbed toast points; French toast with homemade quince marmalade filling and cardamom custard; roasted vegetable and Parmesan tart served with fennel salad; and big love and Happy Birthday to Carrie Cross, a winter person wintering in North Carolina.”
“I love the food of winter; root vegetables, apples, pears, nuts, meats, and dairy.” Anna is squeezing limes for lime curd as she says this, and adds, “I don’t use much that isn’t local, but lemons and limes are in season now, they are at their prime. They bring a zing and a balance.” The breakfasts at Acacia House are intense with winter flavor, and just an occasional accent of the tropical. It is rich food, and redolent of the earth. “I am always trying to find the thing that tastes like dirt, earth.” That is the taste from a root cellar, slightly musty, a combination of beets, dried mushrooms, and potatoes. It is a deeply satisfying taste.
Anna’s heritage is French, Russian and English, and may account for her affinity for the deep, rich flavors of winter. Her fascination with earth flavors deepened when she was pregnant with her first daughter, and she vividly recalls a craving to eat dirt. Like pickles and ice cream, this is not an uncommon desire among mothers-to-be.
Pregnant or not, dark, concentrated root vegetables and cured meats have a taste many find comforting in the cold months. Anna says in the summer fresh basil and perfect garden tomatoes are delightful, but she just does not connect with them the way she does with winter fare. “In March I get the summer dread,” she says. “I know I’ll love summer when it is here, but I do not want to see winter go.”
Dirt is not on the menu, but a celebration of earth is. Another post reads: “Welcome winter! This weekend we will have spicy sausage hash with sage-fried toast and eggs; cardamom-date French toast; Swedish style pancakes with cranberry jam and rum custard, as well as our usual pancakes, local, organic eggs and bacon, bagel plates, and Dirk’s delish Crooked Porch coffee.” And Winter Board.
Winter Board is a celebration of the elements. A round plank of wood is the base, akin to a medieval trencher, which was a piece of stale bread used as a plate. Diners at Acacia House do not eat the wooden plate, but it is a nod to the past, and laden with flavors suggesting earth, water and fire. A mound of shaved cabbage and beets, topped with horseradish cream is a snow-capped mountain, representing the earth. Smoked salmon and mussels suggest the fire that preserved them. Fish eggs from fish pulled through the ice of a local cold lake represents water. This work of flavor and art is embellished with a small candle, and a thimble of aquavit—fire and water. Aquavit for breakfast? Anna concedes it is her sense of rightness that requires this, and guests obligingly hoist the small glass and drink the tiny drops that blast them with crisp, clean winter flavor.
The breakfast rooms are vibrant with color, rich deep egg yolk yellow, paprika red-orange, and crisp, clean white trim, a bright contrast to the muted tones of root hash or French toast stuffed with apples and almond paste. Alder twigs drip with twinkling white lights and straw stars. An antique sideboard has fresh coffee and a basket of pastries. The tables are filled with separate parties, but conversation moves from one table to another. These are the Winter People. While not friends or family, somehow everyone feels familiar—if not, they soon will. There is no pressure or expectancy to mingle. A few tables have people staying at the inn. Some are focused on each other, others look around and join the chat. “Are those the pancakes?” someone asks, looking at a stack of Russian ricotta-filled pancakes with tart cherries gracing the top. “Oh, you have to have the pear tart with warm cheese,” someone else advises.
Anna and Ralph have been told they should include food photos with their posts, but that would add yet more time marketing, less working with food. It would also take away from the beauty of the word painting. The presentation of each entrée is artistic; a shredded celeriac basket has a sunny poached egg nestled in a bed of spring green spinach, and the entire nest is balanced on a small branching twig. A photo would show that, but the words Anna writes evoke the flavor and the spirit as well as the vision.
Ralph is the front man at the Inn, arranging chairs, taking orders, offering suggestions and seeing that Edith Piaf is on the playlist. He is calm, but never stops moving to see that everyone is taken care of. He and the tiny staff keep the coffee pot full, tables neat, and people smiling. He is the visible partner. Anna usually remains in the kitchen, but is present in every plate that goes out. Recently she took a minute to visit a table, and pulled a soft blue egg from her apron pocket. Gently cupped in her hands, she showed it to a seated diner, who cooed and stroked it.
For both Ralph and Anna, breakfast is a way to stay in touch with the community. “Ralph will come into the kitchen with an order, and tell me what news a guest has shared. I may have time to go out and talk, but if I don’t, Ralph keeps me connected,” Anna says. She also says he is the practical one, who keeps an eye on business and cash flow. Their decision to offer breakfast to the public was part Anna’s love of winter food, and part simply good business. Most Mainers know closing a house down is hard on a building. Plaster freezes then crumbles, woodwork cracks, floors become uneven. Ralph and Anna kept Acacia House heated through the first winter, as low as possible, and the heating bill still had them surprised. Staying open year-round was a common sense decision. “I missed the year-round community. We meet great people visiting and staying with us in the summer, but we were not seeing the year round folk we always connected with at the bakery,” Anna says. “And, it paid the fuel bill.”
Open year-round is good for the building, and, hopefully, the bottom line. The goal is to have Acacia House support the family, without the need of outside jobs. The real gain, however, is the chance to cook winter food for the winter people, a term they may not have coined, but have made their own. Every week Ralph, Anna, and their kids hot glue a strip of birch bark, a tiny alder catkin, or a dried hemlock twig to the top of the menu. Regulars greet each other, and continue conversations left off a week ago. Every diner feels like more than a customer, they are one of the Winter People, and special. It is this combination of food and spirit that keeps the winter people coming back.
Acacia House Inn is serving Winter People until March 24. Reservations suggested.
For Bed and Breakfast accommodations go to www.acaciahouseinn.com
Winter People fare will start again in December 2013, checkout their Facebook page.
More posts from Acacia House ( recipes follow)
“If music be the food of love, play on…Breakfast for Twelfth Night this weekend will include King Cakes: almond meal pancakes with winter fruit compote, cider glaze and whipped cream; turkey hash with onion gravy, eggs and biscuit; and English Breakfast: eggs, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms and toast; and Lamb’s Wool punch. Enjoy the snow!
Welcome March Lion! Cabin fever specials this weekend: bittersweet chocolate pancakes with raspberry sauce and white chocolate fool; shallot and mushroom frittata with smoked blue cheese and homemade toast; Beech Hill Farm spinach salad with hard cooked egg, pickled onions, marinated fennel, rye points, and dried chile chèvre with lemony mustard seed dressing.
Skates sharpened and ready for the wind to die down….this weekend’s specials will include lemon ricotta pancakes with ginger curd and candied lemon peel; moose hash with eggs and white pine beurre blanc; and eggs Benedict with shittakes and Caleb’s arugula. See you at Little Long Pond, stay warm!
Welcome Mom, to the inn, and Buttercup to our family. This weekend’s menu will include bittersweet chocolate pancakes with coffee butter and hazelnut praline; a savory galette with leeks, greens, and smoked blue cheese; and a Hangtown Fry if I can track down the oyster guy.
Happy Valentine’s, beloveds. This weekend we shall have chocolate pancakes with orange coffee butter and hazelnut praline; a frittata with leeks, Chris Brown’s bacon, arugula and blue cheese; another round of bubble and squeak; and creamy horseradish polenta with poached eggs, grilled greens, and buttered crumbs in addition to our usual menu.
Melt together 10 Tablespoons butter and 2 oz bittersweet chocolate and let it cool slightly.
Whisk together 4 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
1/2 Tbls. salt
2 Tbls. sugar
1 Tbls. brewed coffee
Whisk in the melted chocolate and butter until completely combined
Combine 1 cup cocoa powder and 1 3/4 cups unbleached white flour in a smaller bowl
Add 2 1/2 Tbls. baking powder
Add the dry ingredients to the wet, then whisk using a back and forth motion – DO NOT STIR! You whisk it back and forth around the bowl, just until thoroughly combined, then take out the whisk and let it puff. Heat a cast iron griddle or skillet to medium/high heat, brush with butter and gently deflate the batter by lifting out spoonfuls of it to cook. You have to spread it to make an even thickness on the griddle. Serve with syrup, whipped cream or orange -coffee butter: mash together 8 Tbls. of unsalted butter, a pinch of salt, the grated rind of an orange, a small handful of instant espresso powder and half a handful of sugar.
Homemade Gravlax (cured salmon):
This takes two days to cure, so you can make it on Friday for Sunday brunch
Use a 1/2 pound filet of salmon, skin on.
Combine: 3 Tbls. chopped fresh dill
1 Tbls. fresh ground pepper – pre-ground doesn’t work well
2 Tbls. kosher salt
2 Tbls. sugar
Put the salmon skin side down in a cake pan or ceramic plate with a lip on it. Splash a tablespoon or so of Aquavit or white wine on the salmon, then spread the combined ingredients all over the salmon. Lay a piece of plastic wrap over top of the fish, weight it with another plate and a small weight such as a small frying pan or piece of granite, then refrigerate for two days. When you want to eat it, slice it very thin with a sharp knife at an angle and lift it off the skin.