|Billi Baker serves hot, ready-to-eat crepes at the Belfast and Orono Farmers' Markets. The fillings change each week, inspired by the season. Holli Cederholm photo.
By Holli Cederholm
Personal chef, artisan baker and farm-to-fork caterer Billi Barker celebrates her love of farming through her food. The Enchanted Kitchen, the business name for Barker's many culinary alchemies, is physically located at her Fire Fly Farm in St. Alban's, Maine.
Twenty-five acres, including 5 acres in fruit and another 1-1/2 in MOFGA-certified organic vegetables and flowers, stretch back from a quiet central Maine road. Barker purchased the property in 2001 and immediately went to work on the kitchen to ensure she could continue baking for the Skowhegan Farmers' Market.
"I came to grow veggies, but I had to get the baking going," said Barker.
After three months of family-aided renovation, Barker had transformed three downstairs rooms in the "shell of a house" into a functional living and working space. For years she operated out of this in-house kitchen, certified as a bakery through the Maine Department of Agriculture. Over time her weekly lineup shifted to the Bangor, Belfast and Orono Farmers' Markets.
Her bread offerings have expanded from a few types to seven, including savory and sweet, yeasted and sourdough − all featuring organic grains and made fresh the morning of market. "I think it makes a difference to have everything fresh-baked," said Barker.
Cookies as big as a child's face, crisp yet chewy biscotti, spicy-sweet ginger scones, and blueberry pies in season have become perennial favorites through the years in Barker's abundant market display. She sources certified organic and local ingredients whenever possible. Each product label lists which ingredients are organic.
During this time, Barker also held an on-site catering license, allowing her to prepare food for events, such as the annual Kneading Conference, in private kitchens.
In 2011, Barker converted a farmhouse-attached shed, previously used as a vegetable wash station and later as storage space, into a larger kitchen equipped for her evolving catering dreams. She outfitted the kitchen with used appliances, such as an upright mixer for kneading bread and blending dough and a sheet roller to press some 45 pounds of buttery, flaky pie crusts each week. For more than a decade, Barker kneaded all her bread dough by hand. The transition to select baking equipment will alleviate physical stress and allow her to keep doing her work. She calls it "sustainable baking."
|Crepes are made to order on a special crepe griddle, called a Krampouz. Holli Cederholm photo.
The kitchen's final size is a function of design: Regulations require that a three-bay washing sink, two-bay vegetable washing sink, hand-washing sink and mop sink all needed to be 3 feet apart or separated by splash-guards. A built-in walk-in cooler, using CoolBot technology in a super-insulated room, pares the working kitchen footprint from 28 by 36 feet to 20 by 28.
Barker holds two licenses for the kitchen: her original bakery license plus a catering license through the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The latter allows her to process foods that are not shelf-stable at room temperature, such as those containing meat and eggs. She has been Serve-Safe certified, now required for all caterers, for 15 years.
Fields as Muse
Barker admits that while her "passion for food is almost obsessive," she will always "want to play in the dirt." She decided early in her agricultural career that value-added production would maximize profit on her small-scale vegetable holdings. She schedules two and half days at the start of each week for farm projects – weeding, configuring a run for 41 layer hens, tending two beehives − and devotes the rest of the week to food processing and markets.
"The vegetables in the field are what I need for the kitchen and for the Fair," said Barker. Fire Fly Farm participates annually in the Common Ground Country Fair as a food vendor, serving Maine fish tacos, and in the Rose Gate Farmers' Market, crowning fairgoers with whimsical flower wreaths.
Barker did not always dedicate field space solely for The Enchanted Kitchen. She used to grow diverse produce for her senior farm-share customers and other outlets. Now rows of chili peppers for sriracha sauce frame beds of hardneck garlic, their tender scapes destined for one of Barker's signature hummus spreads. Other must-have crops at Fire Fly are kale, potatoes, tomatoes and fresh herbs.
|Barker is a farmer for 2-1/2 days a week and a baker the rest of the time. Here she weeds a garlic planting. Holli Cederholm photo.
|Fire Fly Farm's garden spaces are dedicated to producing food for The Enchanted Kitchen. Garlic is a key ingredient in Barker's hummus spreads. The 17- by 36-foot hoophouse gets planted in early season greens and summer hot crops. Holli Cederholm photo.
Tulips, sweet peas, dahlias and sunflowers grow within production gardens and as a border against the backdrop of Barker's festively painted, majestic purple and sunset-orange farmhouse. These "fun flowers" feed Barker's soul as well as her honeybees and scavenging birds in the fall.
Dried flowers, such as celosia, globe amaranth, Hopi amaranth and "every color of statice," and ornamental grasses weave in gentle curves among vegetables. These will be harvested fresh so that their stems will remain pliable for use in Fire Fly's crowns at the Fair. Of course, Barker also grows the crowns' key element, ‘Sweet Annie’ artemisia, which she calls "the scent of the Fair."
Barker has been selling flower crowns since the Fair's Windsor days. The enterprise started on a whim, bolstered by customer demand. Barker made crowns for herself and two other women with whom she was then operating a CSA, to brighten their spirits on a rainy market day. "Let's be colorful and happy in the rain," said Barker.
"The rest of the weekend people wanted to buy them off our heads," she said.
The next year, Barker streamlined her Fair booth. "We're crowning people all day long, all ages, men and women. You want to capture that expression that everybody has when they see their reflection in that mirror ... It is priceless."
With her new kitchen finalized in the fall of 2011, Barker expanded her Fair offerings by bringing The Enchanted Kitchen along. The 2014 Fair will mark her fourth year as a food vendor cooking Maine fish tacos.
"I wanted to do something that was good to eat whether it was hot or cold [weather]. If it was hot, a fish taco would be refreshing and light. If it was cold, it was still cooked and warm.”
During the three-day Fair, Barker and her seven-member team will serve nearly 550 pounds of fish harvested in the Gulf of Maine by the fishermen's cooperative Port Clyde Fresh Catch. Barker's fish choices are somewhat limited by the quantity and qualities required. She needs a fish that will remain "light, flaky, succulent and moist" after being frozen. For this she favors pollock; after a marinade and sauté, this fish has the perfect texture.
The Enchanted Kitchen also offers a vegetarian taco featuring Maine-grown beans. Either option is served in a hand-pressed gluten-free corn tortilla, topped with fresh slaw and chipotle crema (a cultured cream) made with Grassland Organic Farm's raw milk. Barker's spicy sriracha is available for diners desiring some heat.
Barker said the Fair is one of the most rewarding experiences of her year. "It is what I was building up to with the kitchen ... When I finally did the Fair, I felt like I had come home."
|Flowers abound at Fire Fly Farm. Tulips are one of Barker's favorites. Billi Barker photo.
|At three weekly farmers' markets, customers can find a full line of savory and sweet baked goods, including artisanal breads, savory hand pies, cookies, biscotti and scones. Several flavors of hummus are also available. Holli Cederholm photo.
Celebrating the Season
Barker has wanted to prepare "locavore, hot and now foods" for decades, after seeing farmers' market vendors in California showcasing the taste of the season. With her kitchen in working order, she launched a line of ready-to-eat savory hand pies for farmers' markets. She wanted to serve other foods prepared at market, using ingredients from her farm and other Maine producers. She considered paninis − the season's bounty sandwiched between two layers of her crusty artisanal bread − but wanted something that would use her hens’ eggs.
Enter the crepe, which Barker treats as a blank canvas on which to feature the ever-changing growing season. Before debuting crepes at the Orono and Belfast Farmers' Markets in 2014, Barker needed a "kitchen-on-wheels" and a mobile kitchen license.
She bought and retrofitted an open-air food wagon from another Maine farm. She also has a more portable, basic set-up including a travel-sized hand-washing sink connected to a three-bay sink. Both have on-demand hot water, enabled by a battery-powered pump. At the heart of Barker's mobile kitchen is her prized, propane-fired Krampouz, a German-made crepe griddle, which took her more than a year to source second-hand. About the size of a two-burner camp stove, this table-top range has two circular griddles, each about the size of a dinner plate.
A self-taught chef, Barker also needed to master the crepe. "I get an idea, and bing, I just go for it," she said. When asked where she learned the art of the crepe, she replies, "I watched a lot of YouTube videos."
She also honed her technique and trialed combinations via crepe-making parties with friends, requesting that each pick an ingredient from a pre-determined list. The first party lasted all day. "Ten hours of crepe making ..." said Barker; "it was awesome."
The Enchanted Kitchen's crepe selection changes weekly, highlighting Maine's fruit as it ripens, alongside such standard sweets as banana-Nutella and cinnamon-sugar. An early summer crepe paired fresh strawberries with local sheep's-milk ricotta. With the onset of autumn, a simmered apple and caramel crepe is likely. For market-goers craving a more savory combination, Barker offers a shifting array of luncheon crepes, from local tofu and farm-made kimchi to chicken and arugula pesto.
Her "build-your-own breakfast crepe" creates an even more interactive dining experience. Customers get to select fillings – including local chicken and duck eggs, Barker's own cured bacon (made from pork belly by Luce's Maine Grown Meats), Appleton Creamery chevre and Peacemeal Farm greens – and watch their delicate crepe bubbling on the hot Krampouz.
As market customers line up, Barker's assistant ticks each crepe selection on a laminated order sheet with a dry-erase marker and hands it off to Barker. Patrons cluster to watch Barker ladle and spread the batter on the Krampouz, flipping the papery thin pastry with a special tool − part spatula, part cheese curd knife. She then fills and folds the crepe, selecting ingredients from a converted salad bar, all while deftly managing ingredients needing to be reheated, such as braised greens, or cooked, such as eggs, on another flat-top griddle.
"Sometimes I don't even turn the griddle off until a half-hour after the market's ended," said Barker. She said each market day is like a party. Local, farm-fresh food is the guest of honor. Barker also acknowledges that market is a time to celebrate customers for taking a special effort to shop within their communities.
She attributes her culinary success to the fact that she lets the flavor of freshness dominate her cooking. "My motto is that I don't do anything special, I just use the best ingredients."
For more about The Enchanted Kitchen at Fire Fly Farm, visit: http://enchantedkitchen.org/. The Enchanted Kitchen serves crepes weekly at the Belfast Farmers' Market, Fridays from 9 to 1, and the Orono Farmers' Market, Saturdays from 8-12 . Barker's artisanal baked goods and hummus are available in Belfast and Orono, as well as at the Bangor Farmers' Market, Sundays from 11-2.