Rethinking pie in Portland: Diplomat-turned-baker opens Maine Pie Line
PORTLAND — It's no secret that East Bayside has become a mecca for fad-forward foodies, but the neighborhood's newest gourmet go-to spot is definitely old-school.
Maine Pie Line, Portland's only bakery dedicated exclusively to pies, was scheduled to open for business Tuesday at 200 Anderson St.
The pie bakery hopes to transform the humble dessert, more frequently associated with grandmothers than gourmands, into an art form.
"I want to bring back a tradition that's almost been lost. But I'm also trying to elevate pie to a different level, where you're getting really good ingredients and really unique flavors," founder and sole employee Briana Warner said Friday.
Warner's creations include Dave's Decadence, a chocolate ganache pie made with a salted caramel sauce and an olive oil-based crust. Another concoction is Pelkey Peach, a pie the menu describes as "apricots, peaches or nectarines poached in white wine and sage and baked in an almond pastry cream."
The menu lists 40 pies, which include a mix of seasonal flavors and 10 savory pies, such as The Portlander, which has caramelized onions, goat cheese and portobello mushrooms.
Warner said she will distribute her pies through restaurants and stores, and will take individual orders through her website, mainepieline.com. Pie purveyors can pick up their purchases at the bakery, or Warner will deliver them.
"Each of my pies has a story," she said, explaining that Dave's Decadence was inspired by a mousse she tasted while stationed in Spain as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. After devouring the delicious dessert, she went home and tried to re-create it – with a baked crust.
"(The mousse) was probably the best dessert I'd ever had," she said. After five failures, her reverse-engineering produced the right recipe. It's named after her father-in-law, an admitted "chocoholic," she said.
Pie baking may seem an unlikely occupation for a former diplomat who served in Africa, the Middle East and Europe before moving with her husband in July to Portland. But for Warner, pies had been a tool of the trade – a leave-behind gift to foreign officials after a day of negotiating international economics.
"I always had enjoyed making desserts, but I started making pies because it was just really good diplomacy," she said. "And pies are one thing America has that no one else does."
Pie, Warner explained, was used in the Middle Ages as an edible, protective "casing" for a meal. But by the 18th century, the casing had evolved into a dessert in the United States, where colonial bakers filled the pastry with the rich variety of native berries and fruit. Eventually, distinctive crusts were added, both for their taste and their aesthetic appeal, she said.
But while pie remains quintessentially American, Warner believes it's become ordinary. She wants to change that.
"Pie has been something you slap together, but it shouldn't be," she said. "It should be as if you're going out to a gorgeous dinner, and you want an equally gorgeous dessert. There's no reason pie can't be that."
While Warner hopes to create a renaissance in pie, her bakery's location is undergoing a renaissance of its own.
Maine Pie Line leases space in a former warehouse that has become a haven for artisan producers of food and drink, including Urban Farm Fermentory, which makes cider and kombucha (fermented tea). Another bakery, Bomb Diggity, has space next door to Warner.
The area around the warehouse also is home to two breweries, Rising Tide Brewing and Bunker Brewing, as well as Tandem Coffee Roasters. And one of Portland's first gourmet coffee companies, Coffee By Design, is planning to open its fifth location in November at another former warehouse, nearby on Diamond Street.
Despite the similar businesses, Warner said the area is more about collaboration than competition. In fact, she was using Bomb Diggity's freezer last week until her own was installed. And the two bakeries are planning to launch a joint subscription service, similar to a community-supported agriculture farm, later this month.
"I've fallen in love with the community here," Warner said. "You're not doing anything alone."