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Event Celebrates the Bounty That's Growing, Cooking and Brewing Right Here in Maine

If all you know about the Maine food industry is that it's heavy on seafood (lobster and fried clams), or that it's seasonal (strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, apples, potatoes), or that its season is short (greens in the summer), then it's time to stretch your eating habits. Quietly and remotely, Maine's food products have blossomed into a year-round industry that includes all of the above, as well as cheeses, jams, wines, breads, mushrooms and beer. And that's not all.

The full range of the state's bounty is the subject of Maine Fare, a three-day celebration of Maine's food, beverages, chefs, eateries and innovators and the economic engine behind them all. The event, which is open to the public, takes place Sept. 15-17 at locations throughout Camden, including an opening gala tasting reception featuring the culinary delights of regional chefs 6-10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, at the Camden Yacht Club.

If you've wondered about artisanal cheeses, where to buy locally grown beef, where the best bread is on the rise, or the value of organic food, three days of mingling with experts in the field might offer compelling answers for the dinner table, the health of Mainers and the creative economy. After all, entrepreneurial skill is at the heart of successful businesses such as Stonewall Kitchen, the jams and jellies company in York, and Browne Trading Co., a seafood, shellfish and caviar supplier in Portland.

"We have to stop apologizing about being from Maine as far as food is concerned," said Nancy Harmon Jenkins, the Camden- and Italy-based food writer who championed the idea of the weekend fair. She grew up in Maine and is co-owner with her sister of the Market Basket, a gourmet store in Rockland. "Those who have been interested in food in the past have said: 'I'm from Maine, but I learned how to eat in Boston.' But I didn't. I learned to eat here. And the food was good. I think it's even better now. It's a good time to be a cook in Maine and to eat in Maine. That's what this is all about."

In addition to food tastings, the lineup for the weekend includes cooking demonstrations, seminars about eating winter staples in a northern climate, a vineyard tour, and book signings with former New York Times food writer Molly O'Neill and cookbook author Elinor Klivans. Jenkins, who will give the opening keynote address Saturday morning, will also sign copies of her books about Mediterranean food.

"This is a really great start to what I hope will be an annual festival," said Brian Hill, chef at Francine Bistro in Camden. His cooking class on fresh, local food takes place Sunday afternoon at the restaurant. "There's such a great food movement here, and it only gets attention a few months of the year. We want to show that the exuberance goes on all year long."

Although his restaurant is named after the last owner's daughter, Hill likes to think of "Francine" as a wordplay on his interest in French cuisine and Maine products. He grew up in Warren. So his pride in local products and employing local food growers is both patriotic and enthusiastic.

"If you look back in history, Mainers used to crave vegetables," he said. "Just look at how many heirloom beans there are here."

Among the local products Hill uses at Francine - and will use in his Sunday roast dinner demonstration - are fish, beef and organic chicken.

Erika McGilley, market manager at Camden National Bank, helped organize a food and wine festival in Camden in the spring of 2005. It was a success, but Jenkins suggested moving the action to September, at the height of Maine's outdoor bounty. McGilley leads the all-volunteer team in part, she said, because she lives here year-round, and unless residents take up the banner of Maine products, including food, then how else will Maine thrive in industry both inside and outside the state?

"Our area has taken some hits in recent years," said McGilley, who lives in Rockport with her family. "I want what we do here to help Maine's economy. This is one of the ways we can make Maine a year-round state. This fair illustrates what all of these people are doing."

A quick visit to the festival's Web site (www.MaineFare.com) underscores a broad range of producers in Maine, from Olde Sow Farm, a pork producer in Lubec, to Robin's Chocolate Sauce in Fort Fairfield, to Rock Bay Brewing Co. in Rockland, to W.O. Hesperus Co., a winning hot sauce and fiery foods producer in Portland.

Jenkins said she hopes the fair will stimulate a new kind of tourist, too. Foodies can show up at the Camden event, spend a week eating at restaurants throughout the state, and then spend the following weekend - this year Sept. 22-24 - at the Common Ground Country Fair, a 30-year-old all-organic fair that the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association holds in Unity.

"Come to Maine to follow the food map," said Jenkins. "Then go home and tell all your friends how good life really is in Maine."

For information, schedules and tickets to Maine Fare on Sept. 15-17 in Camden, visit www.MaineFare.com or call (866) 566-1229.