To mark the anniversary of my birth this year, I envisioned a quiet celebration where my husband and I could experience the joie de vivre of sharing lovingly prepared food and fine wine with our closest friends. In my fancy, a snow-white stretch limousine whisks us over a winding country road. From our pleasant cocoon, we see the twinkling lights of a bridge emerge from the dark forest and then the dark expanse of an enormous river. Then we feel our great white beast change direction as the driver edges its nose up a steep drive to a simple farmhouse.
A pleasant man with black-rimmed glasses ushers us upstairs to a book-lined sitting room. Plates of chicken liver pate and smoked salmon adorn a coffee table. White wine chills in a bucket as six glasses stand next to the television. The wine is crisp and fruity, the pate buttery. Relaxing, we talk, our conversation flowing. Just as we finish discreetly licking the salmon from our chops, our host appears. Madame is ready to serve dinner.
He leads us downstairs through a well-stocked bar to a softly lit room in the back of the house. Racks of wine are tucked in corners. In the center of the table set with china and burgundy linens, spring flowers greet us. Herbal aromas waft through the crevices of the kitchen door.
Monsieur returns, in his arms a tray of bowls of steaming soup. Our conversation lulls as we inhale the sweet essence of fresh basil and tomatoes. Wine glasses are filled.
After the soup, plates of fresh greens, silkenly dressed with honey, sharp with mustard, and crunchy with bacon and nuts, are placed before us. More wine is opened.
The cacophony of kitchen noises reaches a crescendo. Plates mounded with garlic mashed potatoes and tenderloins of beef dripping with sauce appear. Platters of sauteed green beans arrive. A contented silence falls. Just as we are coming up for air, our plates are cleared and champagne is poured. Felicitations are shared. The birthday cake is presented. Resplendent with buttercream and shaved white chocolate, the torte’s billowy layers are filled with raspberry jam. I am sure that I have died and gone to heaven.
The most expedient way to my dining heaven (short of dying) is to follow the Penobscot River from Brewer down to Bucksport. Among the buildings on Main Street nestles a bed and breakfast that also serves dinner. A chartreuse sign flags the 158-year-old Victorian building that houses a local treasure. L’Ermitage, a 39-seat French country restaurant, is much like a truffle, just waiting to be discovered.
L’Ermitage was established in 1981 by an engineer named Richard Melsheimer and his French wife, Vernique. He designed the systems to run the front of the house, and she was the chef. The arrival of their two children made it impossible for Vernique to continue. In June 1989, Jim and Ginny Conklin abandoned their careers in Connecticut to purchase the business and fulfill their dream of living in Maine.
Jim explains that “the theory was” he could train to run the front, and Ginny, who had always loved to cook, would become the chef. So for two weeks, the Conklins lived together with the Melsheimers under one roof and learned their jobs. Then they were on their own.
Ginny confides she kept the menu the same and never varied the specials for the first year. But gradually her confidence and repertoire grew, and she started experimenting with different preparations and ingredients. As in a country restaurant in Provence, diners can enjoy the luxury of her produce hand-picked from local markets and the seasonality of her creations.
Jim oversees the two dining rooms, orders the wine and waits the tables. While not a wine drinker himself, by relying on a close friend and listening to his customers, he has assembled a noteworthy collection. Like everything else at L’Ermitage, the selection is neither overpriced nor ostentatious.
After all the diners have been served, Ginny moves from washing up the pots and pans to cleaning up the dishes. Jim closes up the front, and they retire. Mornings begin at 4:30 for Jim as he resets the tables. Ginny then prepares a full-course breakfast to meet the schedule of their overnight guests.
After two years of devoting their energies to operating the bed and breakfast, the couple returned to their former professions of law and nursing. The understanding was that the business would always come first. Impressed with all their juggling, I asked if perhaps running the restaurant was similar to raising a child. Jim quickly replied, “Oh yes! Only less stressful.”
In winter, the clientele is primarily local, hailing from Bangor, Orono, Hampden and businesspeople from out of state. Summer brings the tourists, and residents from Castine, Brooklin and Sedgwick.
Despite the time and effort involved in running the operation, it is more than a business venture. Ginny brings me to a window in the front dining room and parts the lace curtain. She gestures toward the majestic river and proclaims she loves it here. Jim revels in the slave labor of the front. “It’s the people,” he declares. “It’s like having dinner guests every night.”
As for me, I feel I’ve just discovered heaven — the gracious simplicity of French country dining at L’Ermitage.
Ginny claims the recipe for chicken liver pate is simple and has shared it with many of her friends in nursing. An option she suggests is incorporating a can of drained black olives into the mixture. I prefer it plain, served with toasted rounds of baguette.
Chicken Liver Pate
1/2 cup butter 1 pound chicken livers, halved
1/4 pound mushrooms
1/4 cup shallots, chopped
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon thyme 2 tablespoons Madeira
1/2 cup dry red wine 1 cup butter, cut into chunks
Melt 1/2 cup butter in pan. Add shallots, sliced mushrooms, thyme and salt. Saute until the onions are golden and the mushrooms cooked. Add chicken livers and cook with the Madeira and red wine until the livers are no longer red. In food processor, combine the 1 cup butter and the liver mixture. Puree until smooth. Line a glass loaf pan with plastic wrap. Pour mixture into pan. Refrigerate. Let rest at least one day before serving.
When I asked Ginny for the recipe for the tomato soup with basil, she said that in typical French country cooking, it varies every time. The following preparation may also be adapted for excess fresh ripe tomatoes in the summertime.
Fresh Tomato Soup with Basil
2 medium onions, peeled and chopped 6 cloves garlic, minced 1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup butter 2 cans (35 ounces each, Italian plum tomatoes) or 1 can plus 6 fresh, chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup dry white wine 1 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano Bunch of fresh basil, chopped, for garnish
Saute chopped onions and garlic in soup pot on medium-low heat until translucent. Add chopped green pepper and white wine and cook until pepper is soft. Add canned tomatoes and juice and herbs and simmer 15-20 minutes. Puree soup in batches in the food processor. Return soup to the pan and add chopped fresh basil. May be served with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche on top.
A selection of seasonal greens from the farmers market makes all the difference in the world in this salad.
Salad of Seasonal Greens with Honey Mustard Dressing
For the dressing: 2 cups salad oil 1 1/2 cups honey 4 tablespoons chopped, fresh chives
2/3 cup ketchup 1 cup red wine vinegar 1 1/2 tablespoons honey mustard 1 tablespoon minced garlic 1 teaspoon celery salt
Combine all ingredients in blender and mix well.
To make the salad, allow 1 cup of mixed greens, 1 tablespoon roasted, chopped walnuts and 1 tablespoon bacon bits per person. Mix greens, nuts and bacon bits in bowl. Drizzle with dressing and toss well. Serve immediately.
You need to know when not to ask for trade secrets, so I didn’t ask Ginny to divulge her recipe for the steak au poivre. The following recipe is adapted from “The French Cuisine of Your Choice.”
Steak au Poivre
Four 1-inch thick fillets of beef
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed 2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped shallots
1/4 cup Cognac 1 cup rich stock
2/3 cup heavy cream
Press the crushed black peppercorns into both sides of the steaks. Refrigerate and let stand for 60 minutes. Heat butter in saute pan and add shallots, cooking until soft. Scrape peppercorns off steaks, add to saute pan and cook for 4-5 minutes. Turn, sprinkle with salt, and cook 4-5 minutes on the other side. Cook longer for well-done meat. (Peppercorns have a tendency to jump out while cooking, so be careful.) Heat the Cognac in a small skillet. Ignite it and pour over the steaks. Let flame die down. Remove steaks to a platter, cover loosely with foil, and keep warm in a 200-degree Farenheit oven. Add stock to pan and reduce to 1/3 cup over medium-high heat, scraping up the brown cooking juices with a wooden spoon. Add cream and the scraped-off peppercorns, stirring over medium-high heat until cream thickens slightly. Add any juices that have accumulated around the steaks on the platter. Pour sauce over steaks and serve.