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Making sauerkraut

W ALDOBORO, MAINE — WALDOBORO, Maine -- Just one forkful and it all becomes clear why two art dealers from Seattle, who trace their meeting to a Bolivian witch doctor, gave up their business, moved to rural Maine and spent their life savings to buy an 82-year-old sauerkraut-making business.

Or maybe not. But have another forkful of what may be the freshest, best-tasting kraut in the New World while Jacqueline Sawyer and David Swetnam tell you their story as they tend great white barrels of fermenting cabbage and a steady stream of customers.

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Sawyer and Swetnam have been in the kraut game for only four years. Before them, it was Virgil Morse, then Virgil Jr., then Virgil Jr.'s widow, Ethelyn.

If you think that Maine seems like a funny place to start a business based on one agricultural product, you'd be right. But sauerkraut was just the vegetable to sell to the folks living around the seacoast town of Waldoboro and whose ancestors came from Germany.

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Winter cabbage, as the big robust heads are called, grows well in the few short months of sunlight Mainers call summer. Besides living large, the cabbage stores well -- an essential for a long season of sauerkraut making.

The Morses never made a lot of kraut and they never advertised, unless you consider a cryptic 1-inch-by-1 inch ad in the local papers each fall that simply announced, "Kraut's ready" an advertising campaign.

Locals knew and transplants soon realized that if you wanted sauerkraut to go with sausages or hot dogs or hearty pork dishes, you had to have a stoneware crock of Morse's on the table. The attraction was as simple as the Morses' recipe: shredded winter cabbage, sugar and salt. The salt draws liquid from the cabbage and the sugar gets the liquid fermenting.

But the family line came to an end, or at least the sauerkraut-making branch did. Two outsiders briefly took turns at the helm. Neither was particularly successful.

On the West Coast, Sawyer and Swetnam were looking for a new venture. The husband and wife were filled with the entrepreneurial spirit, having been art dealers, pest controllers and plant sellers.

"We figured we were unemployable," says Swetnam, laughing.

Both had family ties to Maine. Coming east for a scouting mission, Swetnam grabbed a copy of local commercial listings, looking for a turnkey operation to buy.

"Down at the bottom of the list, being marketed very quietly, was Morse's Sauerkraut," Swetnam says.

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He called Sawyer, who didn't immediately balk.

"He's had more harebrained ideas," she says. "The draw was Maine and David always goes for the more obscure, so it was no surprise to me that he looked at Morse's."

Now in their late 40s, Sawyer and Swetnam are the kind of take-chances people many of us fantasize about being.

They met in Bolivia, when they were buying native art for their respective galleries. A local who dealt in sculpture and who was also a witch doctor pressed an amulet of a man and woman embracing into Swetnam's palm. "You will meet your wife today," she said, smiling, as she guided him to the door.

Swetnam said goodbye and spun around into Sawyer, who was the dealer's next appointment. They were engaged within 48 hours and have been married for 20 years.

When the opportunity to buy Morse's came up, the two weren't adverse to a little more adventure. Others weren't so sure.

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"My parents wondered how you could survive in the middle of nowhere on a condiment," Sawyer says.

Then there was the little matter of expertise. Sawyer and Swetnam may have bought a well-established name, a recipe and a customer list, but the truth was that was about all they got.

Sauerkraut is touchier than you might think. It involves fermentation, which is dependent on temperature and pressure and the ratio of sugar to salt.

"I would have appreciated a little more knowledge, but we figured it out and that made it even sweeter," says Swetnam, who is the master now.

In a garagelike room, Swetnam and a team of three employees build barrels of kraut. The cabbage arrives by truck from a local farmer. With large knives, Karen Hall and Darlene Harrington strip away the outer cabbage leaves until only the pure white ones remain and cut the heads in half. Then, with the help of Chip Farrington, they load the halved heads into a shredder capable of chopping 30,000 pounds an hour.

Armed with a large metal scoop, Swetnam pours a mixture of salt and sugar into a large plastic barrel. Harrington adds three pitchforks of cabbage. They continue to layer the three ingredients until the barrel is holding 340 pounds of the mixture.

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The lid is secured and weighted down with stones. Pressure speeds the process.

"There's all kind of bacteria battling for supremacy in this barrel," says Swetnam, leaning on the edge as the lid is secured. "If all goes well -- and it generally does -- 21 days later, you have sauerkraut."

In the beginning, however, it didn't always go well.

"Terrifying is the word," he says, his eyes growing large. "It's not like baking a cake. If you ruin a cake, you can bake another one right away. If you ruin a batch of sauerkraut, for us that's three weeks with no kraut to sell."

Large manufacturers use large stainless-steel fermentation vats. Before the kraut is sealed in cans, natural brine is replaced with a man-made cocktail of preservatives to prolong shelf life.

By contrast, Morse's packs to order in white plastic tubs or stoneware crocks. Because fermentation never stops, you should use it within a month or freeze it.

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"Nobody does it this way anymore," says Swetnam. "We're largely custodians of a living museum."

In the last year, the couple actually has taken what could be seen as a step backward, investing in wooden barrels from Austria to replace the plastic ones. The wooden barrels hold half of what the plastic ones do and cost hundreds more. But the owners of Morse's say the wood imparts a better flavor.

Freshly made kraut tastes more like salad than what goes on hot dogs. After a week, as fermentation continues, it develops a zesty kick.

Swetnam and Sawyer realized that they couldn't make a living on 80 tons to 100 tons of kraut alone nor could they keep good employees with just occasional work. So now they make two kinds of pickles. They'll start making kimchi, Korean pickled cabbage, later this year.

Their retail store adjacent to the manufacturing room sells the pickles and kraut plus a wide variety of German and Austrian foods to serve with them. Next to the shop is a cozy four-booth rathskeller, where the couple serves Reuben sandwiches, sausage platters, goulash and homemade pierogi.

The rathskeller walls are decorated with photos of customers -- 75 photos in all -- who have been buying Morse's kraut for more than a half century. Many of them swear that it has the power to ward off sicknesses.

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"I never drive by without buying some sauerkraut," says Gordon Falt of nearby Woolwich, who calculates those visits as being "many, many" over "years and years."

The shop and rathskeller are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sawyer and Swetnam live above the operation and haven't taken a vacation together since tying on the aprons four years ago.

"We do that out of respect for the people who come all the way out here," says Swetnam. "If we were sitting upstairs with our cups of coffee and saw cars in the lot, we just couldn't live with that."

Says Sawyer, "It's not like working in a grocery store. People are smiling and tickled and it's infectious. We feed off our customers."

And customers feed off Morse's.

Morse's Sauerkraut

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Where: 3856 Washington Road, Waldoboro, ME 04572

Phone: 866-832-5569

E-mail: Morses@mid coast.com

Price: A 3-pound bucket of kraut is $10.50 plus shipping.


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