This past weekend was the 10th anniversary of the Maine Grain Alliance’s Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair. I’ve always admired the local food movement that has been created in Skowhegan and have longed to attend the bread fair, but in previous years I had not been able to make it to the event. This year I had Saturday open so I invited my sister Marie, and we took ourselves over to the Skowhegan Fair Grounds where the Bread Fair was being held.
The Maine Artisan Bread Fair follows on the heels of the Kneading Conference and is sponsored by the Maine Grain Alliance. The fair is free, but there is a $3 fee to park inside the fair grounds. To save my funds, I parked in Wal-Mart’s parking lot, which is adjacent to the fair grounds, and Marie and I simply walked over.
There were a slew of vendors offering everything from pottery, paintings, hand-woven linens, beautiful wood products, cheeses, breads (of course), olive oils and balsamic vinegars, honey and more. Many of the food vendors offered free samples, yay!
We stopped first to chat with my friends Carol and Pete Vigneault of P&C Pottery who also vend at the Madison Farmers’ Market. Pete makes all of the pottery and Carol paints it; they do beautiful work and were running a raffle with proceeds to benefit the Madison Farmers’ Markets’ general fund, which helps our market pay for promotional events, market fees and such.
Venturing further into the fair, Marie and I were attracted to the fine weavings in the next tent. Anne Brooks of “Handweavings” was friendly and gracious, allowing us to touch and gush over her beautifully crafted scarves, linens, placemats and more. We chatted a little about the bread fair and I expressed my desire to participate in the actual conference, but have been deterred by the $325 price tag. Anne mentioned that the conference offers volunteers a break on the price and that there’s also scholarships available that I may qualify for thanks to my association with the Madison Farmers’ Market. You can contact Anne via firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about her fabulous hand woven linens.
From there we met Regina of ReginaSpices, who had several different spice-blends for folks to try. I really loved her “Maine-Sweet Pepper” blend─ a blend of Maine maple sugar and peppers, and her dill dip, which I don’t see listed on her website, but it was a blend of herbs mixed with sour cream that she spread on crackers for us to try. Soooo yummy!
I ran into a number of friends and acquaintences at the bread fair: Albie Barden of Madison who was there making johnny-cakes and talking about flint corn, Billie Barker of the Enchanted Kitchen at Fire Fly Farm in St. Albans selling her fish tacos, and Jen from North Star Orchards offering samples of their delicious jams.
We partook of samples from Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars─high quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a variety of infused flavors. I didn’t catch their representative’s name, but she was knowledgeable and pleasant. And naturally I had to stop to sample honey from the Clearwater Honey Company of Farmington.
I bought 3 large soft pretzels for $5 from Hootenanny Bread and stopped by the USDA stand to speak with Andrew Francis whom I had met previously while going through my ill-fated attempt to get a microloan with the Farm Service Agency.
While most of the vendors at the bread fair were pleasant and sociable, there was one vendor who completely shut down on my sister and I when she learned that we were not there to spend money. As a vendor myself, and one who likes to learn from others, I found this person’s behavior extremely rude and a bit insulting. I would never think of treating my own customers this way. If folks want to gush over the quality of my work, I’m going to accept their praise; if someone has questions on how I make my products I’m going to answer them. It shouldn’t matter if I’m there to spend money or not─just because I’m not spending money today doesn’t mean I won’t come back as a customer some day down the road, but this woman lost a customer forever because of her bad first impression. And I was so affronted by her behavior that I didn’t even get her name or the name of her business to tell you who she was!
Undeterred, Marie and I took our pretzels off to sit at a picnic table to listen to the live music of the band “Reel People” before we ventured off towards home once more.
The atmosphere at the Bread Fair was fun and light-hearted, but after years of longing to go, wanting to learn more about bread-making─specifically making sour-dough bread─and finally taking the time out of my incredibly busy schedule to go (I’m crazy-swamped with projects at Runamuk right now!)─I was a bit disappointed to find that it was more of a farmers’ market and craft fair without the veggies and meats.
I guess I was picturing something akin to the Common Ground Fair which offers more educational opportunities; I really enjoy workshops and conferences and hands-on learning. But having never been to the Bread Fair I didn’t know what to expect.
There were a few talks offered over the course of the day, as well as bread and pasta-making demonstrations geared towards kids, but all of the actual learning apparently happens during the conference itself, which takes place on Thursday and Friday and comes with a hefty registration price.
However I wouldn’t discourage folks from taking in the event. My sister and I had a good time despite my own misconceptions. We met lots of local farmers and crafters. Each of us came home with a few good eats and trinkets even with just a small amount of spending money; and we gained some good stories to share and memories to savor.
If other folks are looking to learn more about bread-making and want to participate in the Kneading Conference, but─like me─are on tight budgets, they can apply for a scholarship to help with the cost, or offer their time as a volunteer in exchange for the opportunity to participate.
Check out these links if you’d like to learn more about the Maine Grain Alliance’s annual Kneading Conference and Artisan Bread Fair.
Maine Artisan Bread Fair brings 2,500 to Skowhegan on Saturday – News posting via the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel at centralmaine.com.
The Kneading Conference Celebrates it’s 10th Anniversary -via Food Solutions New England.
Learning to make oven from clay highlights Maine Kneading Conference – from the Bangor Daily News.