sheep herding, bonsai and a party mushroom platter: the common ground country fair

Every September, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (or MOFGA) throws a big shindig to which everyone is invited, known as the Common Ground Country Fair. More tattooed farmers and barefoot hippies show up to this fair than I think possible, given Maine’s relatively small population. Where do these stealthy individuals hide out during the rest of the year?

Common Ground is a living legend here in Maine. Whether you go for the sheep herding (I do), or the extensive healthy-but-still-deep-fried grazing options (I do), or the chance to buy Maine-made artisan crafts, local produce, and even composting toilets (I don’t), this isn’t a fair to miss. Especially if you’re located relatively close to the fairgrounds in Unity, Maine – and I am !

The most prominent display at Common Ground, in my mind, is the Border Collie / Sheep Herding demonstration. David Kennard, owner of Wellscroft Farm in Chesham, NH, raises and trains Border Collies for shepherding the 200 Dorset-Cross ewes on his farm. A perennial favorite at the fair, Kennard and his dogs put on several demonstrations per day, herding sheep, goats,Β  and even Indian Runner ducks.

Each dog’s personality shines through in the demonstrations, and you can’t help but pick a favorite. Will it be the aging but reliable Brit (below, bottom right), the close-working Bess, the very cute and fast Dot, the versatile Nell, or young and eager-to-please Bonnie?

There are many other animals at the fair in addition to the Border Collies, all equally deserving of attention.

Horses, cows, goats, rabbits, chickens and geese dot the landscape, each in their respective barn. The most beautiful and interesting, as well as somewhat silly, varieties of certain species can be found, proudly displayed here.

But there is much more to Common Ground than the animals. There are continual workshops on everything from winterizing your bees, to therapeutic healing with native plants. There is a dance tent, a large farmer’s market, do-it-yourself agricultural and low-impact forestry demonstrations as well as interactive sessions on fire-starting tools, timber-frame construction, and canoe building. There are scythes and portable sawmills for sale, and many tents selling unique crafts and products.

One such tent was selling bonsai trees; after much deliberation, we chose to purchase a small, relatively untrained juniper tree, which we will – with any success – turn into a veritable bonsai within the next few years. We’ve named him Skeeter Sickly; Sickly cause he’s mad dope (obviously), and Skeeter from… anyone? Anyone?

After an hour spent watching the dogs work hard and the sheep run scared, and several more spent investigating the scores of other animals, amazing handicrafts, competing vegetables and competitive hip folk, I couldn’t help but feel a might peckish. But I won’t lie to you. I had been noshing all along. With so many enthusiastic meal options, it’s hard to stay away from once-a-year treats. Luckily, Common Ground offers your pick of Maine delicacies, organic style. That means that Fried Dough isn’t your typical fried dough here: rather, the dessert was whole wheat-based, and served with maple sugar and fruit purees, rather than the typical powdered sugar.

Another fair treat, the Pie Cone, is available with any number of fillings. We went with Maine blueberry, which nicely complemented the cinnamon-flavored cone and generous dollop of whipped cream topping (below, top right). There was an enthusiastic man selling pickles, both prepackaged and by the pickle. We went with a Swicy pickle, an amazing combination of spicy sweet flavors that only became overpowering near the end (below, second from bottom). And we also enjoyed a wonderful rendition of Fish Tacos from the Enchanted Kitchen at Fire Fly Farm Stand, with a nice soft shell supporting a bed of fish and coleslaw (below, bottom).

But I have saved the best for last. My favorite food stand, and the one we visited first this year, is the Shiitake Fry, run by Toshio & Kalin Hashimoto of Rumford, Maine’s Shiitake Farm. As you can see in the picture below, they’ve been in business since 1983, growing shiitake mushrooms that they then sell, deep-fried, at Common Ground.

I’ve often boldly stated that mushrooms are my favorite food group, but I recognize that most people either love them or hate them. I also recognize that most people love foods that are deep-fried – and that the Hashimoto clan do the shiitake justice in their tried-and-true fryers. Knowing that we could either go big or go home, we ordered the Party(!)-sized platter. While waiting for our mushrooms to turn into the deep-fried goodness that has made me love everything in life from doughnuts to shrimp balls, we eyed the inoculation gun used to insert mushroom spores into logs (below, second from top on left). Handy.

When our order finished sizzling in the fryer, it was weighed out to ensure that we had precisely enough mass to guarantee ourselves a Party. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that the mushrooms, eggs and milk were organic, or that the organic flour was whole wheat, but they were. The batter also included salt, nicely labeled “Salt of the Sea” in the image below. The taste? Incomparable, really. The shiitake had a chewiness that reminded me of calamari or clams, but in an addicting way that kept me dipping into the Party platter. These were gone in no time.

If mushrooms aren’t your thing, more power to you. But if they are, and you wish to recreate this dish in your home kitchen – I know I do – see the recipe below.

Shiitake Fry {recipe available on Saveur from Toshio &Kalin Hashimoto}

Note: This recipe is supposedly for 6. If you like mushrooms, and you make this for yourself, highly doubt that you can make it stretch out to successfully serve 6 people.

For each pound of cleaned organic Shiitake mushrooms, you need:
1 egg (organic)
1 1/4 c. milk (organic)
1 c. unbleached whole wheat flour (organic)
1 tsp sea salt, + more for seasoning

Directions:

Pour vegetable oil into a cast iron (or other heavy) pot to a depth of 2″ over medium heat, until temperature registers 375ΒΊ on a candy thermometer. Trim off any tough stems from the shiitake mushrooms (which you will then proceed to eat like lozenges if you are me), then thickly slice the caps.

Whisk egg, milk, flour and salt in a large bowl until batter is smooth. Working in small batches, coat mushrooms in batter, drop them into hot oil one at a time, and deep-fry until golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Let drain on paper towels. Season with sea salt, if you like.

Catch the Hashimotos, and all the other wonderful vendors, at next year’s:

Common Ground Country Fair

Unity, Maine

Admissions:
Adults (13-64) – $10.00 daily
Elders (65+) – $8.00 daily
Children (12 and under) – free
Bike to the fair and save $2 on admission
Ride the train to the fair (the same train seen HERE!) and save $2 on admission

23 thoughts on “sheep herding, bonsai and a party mushroom platter: the common ground country fair

  1. What a fun place.
    Every time I read your posts I feel like I need to move. Or maybe I just need to venture out of my house. I feel like AZ isn’t as cool/tolerant/yummy enough.

    I’m glad there was a recipe posted with that picture. All I can think about is those fried mushrooms. I’m thinking for my New Years (which are boring and lovely), I will fry up some shrooms.

    1. Sarah, I’m sure you don’t need to move…. you just need to take more trips:D Although having never spent any time in AZ, I can’t say this with 100 % certainty. I can say that a life without a substantial ‘autumn’ would be hard for me to stomach.

      I’m going to try to be better at adding in recipes to my non-food posts. I know foodie folks like that type of thing! You’re already planning out your New Years? They can’t be boring, if so:)

  2. Your photos of Common Ground are gorgeous! I tried to play photographer when Kevin and I went down there, but I had little success. It was fun to try, though! You guys sure indulged yourselves in all sorts of tasty treats–those mushrooms look really good. I’m not much of a mushroom person, but the boyfriend would go crazy for these.

    1. Brianne, now now, I’m sure you had great photos – it’s hard not to with so many weirdos around to make for fun, artistic shots. I had to put the camera away a few times, as it kept sprinkling, but I’m glad it cleared up for most of the day.

      Indulgence is what I do best:)

  3. What an amazingly fun and colorful way to spend some time! It sounds like there was much going on in a short amount of time…looking at the animals alone would have been a great, but adding in the components of dog trials and food–well, it is almost just too much good time!!(those fish tacos looked superb–ha, ha, “Tic Tac Tacos”!)

    1. Mum: You would have luffffed watching the sheep herding. Such amazing dogs, such powerful eyes. I know I’ve raved about them to you before, but it’s just so incredibly cool to watch.

      We didn’t get our tacos from Tic Tac Tacos, but I thought that sign was too cute to pass up without a photo! So much good food there:)

  4. One pound for six people?! 75 grams each? Um, NO. Just no.

    That aside, however, this post fills my heart with happy. Pickles! Pickles and cute animals and pickles galore! While I would certainly love to attend the sheep herding trials, we all know that border collies have nothing on Aussie pigs.

    “If I had words to make a day for you, I’d sing you a morning golden and new….”

    1. I know, I saw that and I think my jaw dropped to the floor. How ridiculous, cause these things is bomb! I want at least two pounds just for myself!

      Tee hee, piggies! &, I always liked the “We carry the bloodline of the ancient Bahou” part:) Um, so do, like, pigs, really herd things??

      Pickllllessssss!!!

  5. Yum! I can only imagine how delightful fried shiitake mushrooms are when made fresh with love. I wish I could have attended the Maine County Fair with you. It was one of the gems that I truely relished while mirauding as a Black Bear. However, I’m soon to be a North Dakota resident. I’ll have to savor such items as grains, buffalo and squash. I’ve already discovered a farmer’s market, and I’m looking forward to some gourds now that the cool autumn rains have descended upon the Bismarck area.

    I hope you and Eli will have a chance to visit at some point. I can foresee myself being here for several years already. You could stay in one of my spare rooms or camp, and we could head to the ND Badlands or Montana!

    I’ve got to run, but I’m glad you’re still finding time to appreciate all Maine has to offer despite the lingering grad school time requirements.

    Martha

    1. Martha, oh how I loved receiving this comment. Oh, how I wish I could have responded promptly, but I’ve been mad busy finishing up my prereqs for attending the SAF convention. Oh, how I wish the weather wasn’t forecasting 3-6 inches of snow tomorrow night:)

      I wish you could have been here too. I sure have a lot of wishes today. But I know that you’ll discover some great treasures out there in Bismarck, and I can’t wait for the first chance we get to come visit you – because I will jump at that chance. It’s been many years since I was out that way, and already two months without you. With all good fortune we’ll be meeting up sometime soon.

      I sent you an email, but to your first class – I couldn’t remember the other address. I hope you see it! Miss you, xo.

  6. Seriously. How do you make Maine so attractive to a warm weather freak like myself? It sounds like a wild jamboree of food, animal (and poop), shows and memories. :-)

    Also: shitake? FRIED? Get in my mouth now!

    1. sophia, hah, GET IN MY MOUTH NOW! I can’t see past that part of the comment, it keeps making me laugh.

      As someone eloquently put it the other day, “Maine’s a good place to live if you have a job.” I would like to say that in this case, “Maine’s a good place to eat if you like to eat,” as that’s a bit more applicable here:)

      It wasn’t a huge jamboree of poo, but only because I chose to look the other way I guess! But yes, jamboree indeed!

  7. Emma, I left like I got to stroll along with you at the fair. Noshing along the way!

    Count me in the mushroom camp. We even tried to grow our own shitakes on a little log like the one in your photos. Much effort – no mushrooms:) But I can buy baby shitakes regularly at our market here and we scarf them down. I am going to have to try the Hashimoto’s recipe…. yum!

    -Erin

    1. Erin, I’m glad I could bring you along on a month-old nosh fest – I hope nothing was very stale!:)

      How very cool that you tried to grow your own mushrooms! …but how sad that it failed. I took a plant pathology course in college, and we got to propagate oyster and shiitake mushrooms in these bags of inoculated matter. My propagules failed, but others succeeded, and I conned them into giving their bags of mushroom gold to me.

      I was successful in obtaining one harvest, but it gave off so much of a stench that I had to bring them outside. When I went to gather a second harvest, I found that bugs had completely infested the shrooms. Bummmerrrrrrrrr.

    1. Ashley, Uh oh, pickle addict huh? The swicy pickle we had was incredibly intense – even a pickle fiend would have been challenged by it, I think. But it was quite yummy, and still pretty crunchy too!

  8. I thoroughly enjoy going to these kind of country events, but when I can’t be there in person, I do enjoy travelling there through other people photographs and your pictures have certainly succeeded in doing this. Love the look of the mushroom platter.

  9. Wow, what an awesome fair! I was going to swoon over the pie cones, but now I want the mushrooms! I adore mushrooms but haven’t actually had shiitake. Weird, right? But really, it’s hard to imagine not gobbling up any sort of fried mushrooms.

    Stunning photos as always! OH! One of my roommates just got back from Maine (like 20 min ago), but I don’t know where she was exactly. All I know so far is that there was spinning of wool. :D

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