Go & Do: Maine Foodie Tours — Good food, history and fun … on the walk

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I spent one afternoon last week leisurely walking around Portland’s Old Port district with Randy Judkins. Yes, THE Randy Judkins, the well-known master clown, comedian, juggler and Maine-based entertainer. One of the hats he’s currently wearing is that of tour guide, and not just for your everyday tour.

In between his performing schedule, Randy has teamed up with Maine Foodie Tours to show folks around the Old Port on one of their new culinary tours.

Maine Foodie Tours was the brainchild of Pamela Laskey, who grew up mostly in Old Town, along with Connecticut and Massachusetts. She left a great career in the academic publishing world almost two years ago, she says. Her original plan was to come to Maine to buy a business. Instead, she ended up starting her own.

Laskey, who used to teach college courses and performed improvisational comedy in Boston in her spare time, has said her new goal in life is to bring “edutainment” to both native Mainers and tourists to the Portland area. She also aims to have as much fun as possible.

To this end, she has hired a fun, knowledgeable, entertaining crew — others who also don’t take themselves too seriously. Her tour guides come with assorted backgrounds, including culinary experts, history buffs, people in business, teachers and performance artists, as in Randy’s case. I wondered if Laskey had crossed paths with her guides in the past. She said no, she hadn’t known any of them before. “They have all found me. Word travels and I feel very fortunate to have some amazing talent!”

With Randy as our guide, 13 co-workers and I had the pleasure of sampling some simply fabulous gourmet food with a pinch of Portland history thrown in for good measure. The weather was excellent — just sunny enough, with the whisper of an ocean breeze to keep things cool. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for a walk along Portland’s cobblestoned streets for the next two to two-and-a-half hours.

We began with fresh lobster canapes on Commercial Street, followed by Duck Trap smoked trout, served across the street at Harbor Fish Market, whose home has been on the historic Portland Custom House Wharf for more than 40 years. You really know you’re in Maine when you find yourself learning how to tell a male lobster from a female, and how to measure a lobster to make sure it’s within legal guidelines. I can only wonder how many lobsters I’ve eaten all these years without knowing such details.

Randy cheerfully steered us down Commercial Street, pointing out some lovely architecture and historical fun facts along the way. He led us up India Street to a delightful bakery called Two Fat Cats, where we sampled one of Maine’s “official” desserts, the whoopie pie. In all honesty, one hardly meets a whoopie pie they don’t like, but this version just may be the best yet. And as they say, it’s all in the filling! Although I didn’t get to test out their other, more traditional pies, they looked mouth watering: thick, fat, full and very old-fashioned. Seriously, I am quite sure one of those pies lies in my future.

It was hard to tear us away from Two Fat Cats, but the lure of chocolate candy definitely helped. Up and over a few blocks, the group was ushered into the classy, high-end Dean’s Sweets. Hand-dipped and elegant, Dean’s truffles were fabulous. Or as I love to say, “deeee-lish!” The flavors pushed the creative edge, including maple, lemon, apricot, chevres and, if you can believe it, cayenne. Owner Dean Bingham has dabbled in truffles for many years, but officially opened in 2004. He was happy to point out that the chocolate confections are made in a nut-free facility, and are available to ship worldwide, with special shipping precautions taken during summer months. Yes, no one likes a melted truffle!

One of my favorite shops in the Old Port is Stonewall Kitchen. I’ve been one of its fans since it opened a store in York, and I was very happy to visit as part of the tour. We had time to shop after a special serving of scones topped with wild blueberry jam. Best new find: Butternut Squash Pasta Sauce! A huge hit with many people in our group, it is one of the most unusual and tasty sauces I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Truly original! Since the one jar of sauce I purchased is now sadly long gone, I’ll need to head back to Stonewall Kitchen soon.

OK, enough sweets! It was time to head over to the public market, where we met up with Kris Horton, owner of K. Horton Specialty Foods. Kris has a long history in the fresh food industry in Maine and is very proud to be known as running “the best cheese shop north of Boston.” She gave our group a quick overview of the Maine cheese business, and we were then treated to three fabulous organic cheese samples out of the HUGE variety they offer. The pepper-and-nutmeg-coated goat cheese from York Hill Farm seemed to be the big hit, and at least seven or eight of us placed orders to take home.

The tour ended with a lesson on beer brewing and a sample of the most recent concoctions on tap at Gritty McDuff’s. Brewmaster Ben Low showed us the ins and outs of making a Gritty’s brew, complete with a taste test of the hops and barley used to produce their award-winning ales. Most amazing is the fact that the small, classic-English-style pub brewery can keep up with customer demand, but Ben said the tap ran dry on only one ale in the last year. Apparently they’ve figured it out!

The very first foodie tours set out in the Old Port at the end of June 2009. Mostly because of the relentless “April” showers that hovered over Maine for three months, Laskey’s business got a late start that year. She expects this year’s season to really kick in. May 2010 figures surpassed her busiest month last year. With numerous cruise ships expected to drop anchor this summer in Portland Harbor, she is happy to offer Maine Foodie Tours to cruise line passengers. Just back from a cruise myself, I can definitely see the appeal of a culinary walking tour combined with taste testing for visitors to Portland.

Since this city has one of the highest concentrations of micro breweries in the country, Maine Foodie Tours has also organized a 1.5- to 2-hour Port City Beer Tour. Note to self: Some hot, sweltering day this summer, check it out! A line from the Maine Foodie Tours brochure describes one of the stops as “a beer garden deemed by Imbibe Magazine as ‘one of the 10 best places to drink a beer in America!'” Sign me up.

Tours will run full-time through October and part-time — upon demand — through December. Laskey said they operate rain or shine, with rain ponchos offered to the faint of heart. One note of caution: Because Portland streets and many of the historical buildings have uneven walking surfaces, flat, comfortable shoes are pretty much a necessity. Leave your heels in the car and swap back when you’re done. Tickets can be purchased on their website.

For those not interested in walking the Old Port (or for anyone who has already tried the Old Port Walking Tour) Laskey offers another option called the Culinary Delights Trolley Tour. With a completely different agenda, foodies get to sample fresh rock crab meat straight from the harbor, pastries baked fresh for one of Portland’s James Beard award-winning restaurants and New England seafood chowder, topped off with wild blueberry cobbler.

Last season, the options also included a dessert tour, which has so far not been offered this year. For some reason, I found this slightly shocking! I wonder if Laskey will reconsider this, since we all know more than one person who has a sweet tooth. Personally, I felt the mix of sweets and non-sweets on the walking tour was the perfect ratio , and ending with an ale topped it off just perfectly!

The walking tour, to me, was a perfect way to spend an afternoon, whether you happen to already know a lot about Portland or not. If you have out-of-town visitors this summer, this is a must-do. I know I’m going out on a limb, but I’ll venture to say that Maine Foodie Tours will show them around town much better than you! When the tour is finished, you might have the luxury to linger in the Old Port and check out one of the many eateries — there are so many to choose from. Or perhaps take a harbor cruise. The options are almost endless! And I’m quite sure your friends and relatives will thank you for the magnificent afternoon.

The best thing about the tour, I felt, was that each vendor was expecting us, with samples in hand and a short speech of sorts, telling us about what they do and how they do it. There was something really nice about being given the special attention. We learned much more than if you had just stumbled upon their establishments. Plus, it’s not every day that you go to Gritty’s and get to visit downstairs with the brewmaster.

I can attest to the fact that a lot of Portland history was shared by the delightful Randy Judkins that day, but somehow, because the gourmet samplings really did take center stage and pretty much demanded all my attention, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I cannot offer up any of those historical tidbits. Not to worry. With plans to try the Trolley Tour later this month, perhaps my memory will be refreshed!

To purchase tickets

By phone, call Zerve at 1-800- 979-3370 or online at http://www.zerve.com/MaineFoodie

Prices range from $27 to $39, with discounts offered for groups of 10 or more; private tours can be arranged.

 To contact Maine Foodie Tours directly, 207-233-7485 or [email protected]

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