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Sauerkraut is king; wurst is on the menu

Email|Print| Text size + By Letitia Baldwin
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2006

NORTH WALDOBORO, Maine -- ''Kraut's ready." That cryptic notice ran in midcoast Maine newspapers every September for decades. It was enough to send locals with buckets in hand to a red, bunkerlike building here on a remote country road in northern Lincoln County.

Like migrating birds tipped off by shorter days and other autumnal signs, Mainers still make their way every fall to Morse's Sauerkraut to load up on the crisp, crunchy ''kraut" produced there since 1918. Nowadays, it is available year-round and part of the old krauthaus has been transformed into a tiny restaurant and specialty food store offering gourmet items like maple-smoked bacon and brandy-filled bonbons.

''To Mr. Virgil Morse, love your sauerkraut," ''My Three Sons" star Fred MacMurray wrote on an autographed photo displayed beside a guestbook in the entrance.

The dining room consists of four teal-colored booths. Homemade sour mustard and full-sour pickles are set out in earthenware crocks. Sauerkraut accompanies or figures in many dishes on the extensive menu. Patrons can order a classic Reuben sandwich of Swiss cheese melted over fresh sauerkraut and moist, lean pastrami or corned beef. Or they can try choucroute garni, an Alsatian dish, consisting of sauerkraut braised in wine with juniper berries and caraway seeds and topped with a smoked pork chop and bratwurst sausages. The goulash is composed of beef tenderly cooked with sauerkraut and hot and sweet paprika and served over herbed egg noodles. The restaurant is not licensed to serve beer or wine.

Early last century, Virgil L. Morse took his turn farming his family's land that fanned out from the shores of the Medomak Pond. Like many German farmers in the area, he always planted plenty of winter white cabbage -- Penn State Ballhead and Danish Baldhead -- to make sauerkraut to feed his family over the winter. In the fall of 1918, Morse cut an extra barrel of kraut for a local store. The chopped cabbage, fermented for weeks in its juices with just the right amount of salt and sugar, proved popular and has sold ever since.

Virgil Morse Jr., and later his wife, Ethelyn, carried on the tradition and produced sauerkraut for decades. Morse's eventually changed hands and is now in the caring charge of David Swetnam and Jacquelyn Sawyer. In their late 40s, the couple has enhanced the business by adding the restaurant and specialty food store that is stocked with delicacies ranging from Black Forest ham to Austrian fruit preserves. Swetnam and Sawyer, who met at a medicinal herbs and potions market in Bolivia decades ago, buy their cabbage from local farmers. They have focused on getting the centuries-old kraut recipe right. The sauerkraut is fermented in wooden barrels custom-made and imported from Austria. They also sell smaller barrels for sauerkraut hobbyists.

''We've always felt we're custodians of a museum of sorts," mused Swetnam, whose other passion is raising hairless Peruvian dogs.

While their sauerkraut and other fare are a feast for foodies, the couple has preserved the warm, welcoming atmosphere that keeps loyal German-speaking customers returning to Morse's every fall.

Contact Letitia Baldwin, style editor at the Bangor Daily News, at jbhlb@prexar.com.

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