The Camden region of Midcoast Maine, nestled between the mountains and the sea, showcases many of the best aspects of the coveted Maine lifestyle. With a vibrant local food scene and endless outdoor recreation opportunities, from hiking the Camden Hills to paddling Megunticook Lake, there’s plenty to enjoy year-round.
We’re highlighting one place that combines food, education and the outdoors for everyone to enjoy: the Salt Water Farm Cooking School in Lincolnville, offering casual classes for home cooks of all ability levels, both in-person and remote, featuring fresh and local ingredients in a beautiful setting overlooking the Penobscot Bay. The story of the school starts with one family’s aspiration to own a coastal Maine farm, and it’s blossomed into a renowned culinary destination attracting students from across the country.
“My dad’s dream was always to buy a piece of land on the coast of Maine,” says Annemarie Ahearn, founder of the Salt Water Farm Cooking School. Her family had a blueberry farm in Dresden, where she spent her childhood picking berries with her cousins and exploring the woods.
In 1999, real estate agent George Wheelwright showed her family a long-fallowed sheep farm, a 25-acre property above the Penobscot Bay. “It was a challenging piece of land,” Ahearn says. “Wet and wooded but ruggedly charming. A lot of it was unbuildable without doing some serious drainage.” She remembers walking the untamed fields in muck boots with her family on a cold, damp spring day that year. “I could hear the ocean waves crashing before I could see them. At a clearing on the bluff, the ocean in view, my dad announced, ‘Girls, we are going to spend the rest of our lives here.’ It was raining and gray and I thought to myself, ‘Really?’”
But her parents’ vision would not be deterred by the soggy land. They bought the property and eventually were able to build a cottage and a barn.
Meanwhile, Ahearn moved to New York City for culinary school and worked in the restaurant industry for ten years. She also went to Barcelona and worked at a cooking school there, planting a seed in her mind.
“This is the perfect model for a cooking school,” she thought. Instead of being tailored for professional chefs, the Barcelona school was a “recreational” cooking school for home cooks, for ordinary people who love to eat and want to learn how to make delicious food. “At the time there were very few recreational cooking schools in the US,” Ahearn explains. There were some in Europe, like the one in Barcelona where she worked, and were mostly run by women.
Back in Lincolnville, her parents had built a gorgeous entertaining kitchen in the barn on the property, featuring a giant wood oven and a table that sat twenty people. So, inspired by her time in Barcelona and ready to move to coastal Maine, she pitched them a simple idea: to let her teach cooking classes in the barn kitchen.
It started small, mostly attended by older locals. They would pick fresh vegetables and herbs in the garden, forage for mushrooms and collect mussels from the rocky shoreline. Classes ranged from baking bread and wood-fired pizza to comforting stews.
Ahearn always loved throwing dinner parties, so she started having “Full Moon Suppers” at the farm: monthly dinners under the full moon where strangers who shared a love of food would come together, eating delicious seasonal fare overlooking the Penobscot Bay. The dinners grew in popularity, selling out months in advance. She wrote a cookbook inspired by the dinners, Full Moon Suppers at Salt Water Farm.
The media coverage picked up, attracting people to the cooking school from across the country. Salt Water Farm was featured in, among others, the Boston Globe, New York Times, Bon Appetit; even Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, goop. In 2013, Ahearn had opened a restaurant in Rockport, the Salt Water Farm Cafe & Market, but ended up deciding to pursue the cooking school full time.
To keep the food seasonal and fresh, the cooking school works with a lot of local farms. The property’s gardens are now more for educational purposes, rather than supplying the cooking school with all the produce. “For someone from a city to pull a carrot out of the ground and wash it and cook with it, is so valuable,” says Ahearn. “That’s something they’ve never done before, or only seen a carrot in a plastic container at the grocery store.” She’s even learned from the students who are lifetime perennial gardeners.
With people traveling from all over to attend her classes, Ahearn was always recommending nearby accommodations. Eventually, her family decided to complement the cooking school by offering two on-site rentals through Airbnb: the cottage and an apartment above the cooking school inside the barn.
Many of her students would fall in love with the Midcoast region and look to relocate or retire to the region. “I would obsess over the housing inventory in our area,” she says, “always with a potential new community member in mind.”
George Wheelwright, the agent who helped her parents buy the farm, later joined Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty at the Camden office. “George became a close friend to our family, connecting us with all the carpenters, masons, electricians, builders and plumbers who helped create this place. We are deeply grateful to him for many things, but most of all, for helping us find our bearings here. I learned that it just takes one person to ease a transition to a new place,” she says.
So, encouraged by her community and her family’s experience with George, she decided to become a real estate agent to complement her work at the cooking school, joining the Camden team at Legacy Properties Sotheby’s International Realty. “Many of my students have that smitten look in their eyes that says, ‘This place is magical, can we live here?’ Now I can help them do just that, find a new home, build a new life.”
In many ways, the cooking school and rental properties help sell the coveted Maine lifestyle. Guests wake up to the sound of crashing waves and vivid sunrises on the horizon, watch lobstermen tend to their traps, and enjoy fresh seafood at her table. The entire business model goes hand in hand with real estate. “We rent to people on Airbnb, who then come to the cooking school,” Ahearn explains with a smile, “and then become a client.”
Visit saltwaterfarm.com to explore the cooking school’s offerings, both in-person and remote, for 2022.