Read Roberta's reflections on the Bar Harbor bed and breakfast experience. The following items are included in the forthcoming collection by Roberta Chester called “Be My Guest: The Inside Story of a B & B in Maine.”
“Hearts and Flowers at the Shorepath Cottage”
When my grandchildren and I have been nibbling on too many gingerbread cookies, my guests have to make do with squares of Ghirardelli chocolates. Although I sometimes find the chocolates left behind, the cookies disappear without a trace.
The history of these cookies began years ago when I first moved to Maine from urban New Jersey, years before having a bed and breakfast was even a twinkle in my eye. That first autumn when my children and I became year-round residents, I explored Bar Harbor and environs wide-eyed and full of wonder. Barely able to keep my eyes on the road, the acres and acres of virgin forests, ablaze with autumn leaves, the fields of blueberry barrens, the tiny towns that disappeared in the blink of an eye, and especially the Maine natives with their Yankee sensibility who answered my request for directions - replying either you can or can't get there from here - all captivated my imagination.
The truth is that I was a babe in the woods, unable to distinguish between a flathead and a Phillips head screwdriver, used to central heating, and unaccustomed to a climate that was inhospitably cold for much of the year. If I'd had any experience with Maine winters, I would have made a wiser purchase in Shepard's Hardware, a big, old building on the banks of the Union River at the bottom of the hill and over the bridge on Union Street in Ellsworth.
I should have been checking out the weather-stripping, the heavy plastic, caulking material and anything else that would seal the windows, so that the bitter winter wind would find no easy access at the Shorepath Cottage. But during those autumn days when the weather was still comfortable and the wind was only just whispering in the trees, I was blissfully ignorant. I hadn't yet experienced such a bitter cold that we were scraping the frost off the inside of the windows and happy that, thanks to several teenage daughters in residence, we were able to use their hair dryers to warm up the frozen pipes before they burst.
But that was several months after I found Shepard's Hardware. I can't remember why I even thought of stopping there because those days I was certainly more interested in shops and flea markets selling local crafts and antiques. With its weathered shingles and creaky steps, the store looked ancient and somewhat forbidding, not nearly as tempting as the shops up the street. Each of the aisles that seemed to extend forever was lined with endless wooden shelves of tools and supplies. It had a wonderfully musty smell, and the sunlight was playing with motes of dust on the floor. Except for the occasional clang of a vintage cash register manned by an elderly clerk, it was incredibly quiet.
Tucked among the kitchen items, I found a small, square box that tickled my fancy; it had five concentric metal hearts and a recipe in Danish, with faulty English translation, for making gingerbread cookies. The English translation listed “syrup” which I figured was the molasses, and the preparation mentioned working with the dough when it was “fit to handle.” The recipe specified incredible amounts of butter and enough other ingredients to put me in awe of the collective sweet tooth in Denmark. Having visited Elsinore Castle many years before, I remembered being amazed at the seemingly Amazonian proportions of the Danes at that time. Rationalizing a totally unnecessary purchase, I thought that the people who invented Danish pastries must surely have a talent for sweets.
Besides, I liked all those hearts tucked so neatly inside each other and the recipe was such a delightfully awkward translation. Also, gingerbread has a certain mystique reminiscent of my childhood when I listened with morbid fascination to the story of Hansel and Gretel stuffing themselves with chunks of the witch's gingerbread house.
I have a dim recollection of my first attempt to make the cookies, but the dough was not “fit to handle,” no matter what I did, and it was a disaster. Consequently, the box was put away and remained unopened for years. It was much easier to make chocolate chip cookies that didn't require so much dough and endless cutting out and could just be dripped by the spoonful onto the baking sheet.
Many years later, though, when my daughter was about to be married on the front lawn and we were cooking for the wedding, I wanted something special and thought heart-shaped gingerbread cookies would be the perfect complement to champagne. I learned from a guest that keeping the dough overnight in the frig would make it more “fit to handle,” and sure enough, it worked! The cookies and the recipe with a pound of butter and about ten cups of flour yielded enough cookies for many more guests than the 60 we were expecting.
They were such a success that since then gingerbread cookies, dusted with confectioners sugar, have been a favorite staple at the Shorepath Cottage with afternoon tea. Made with organic molasses (a great source of iron), and whole wheat flour, they are pretty healthy, especially now that I have reduced the sugar.
Shepard's Hardware is long gone (replaced by Rooster Brothers (in the same building), a very upscale store with all the latest gadgets and appliances you could possibly want for your kitchen) Probably only the old-timers even remember that Shepard's was once there, and I will soon be counting myself among them.
Next to a vase of flowers, the cookies dusted lightly with confectioners say “Welcome to the Shorepath Cottage.” When my guests leave, I might find some fallen petals, but never any gingerbread crumbs.
- Roberta Chester, Spring 2008