Back in 2014, while Cody Lamontagne and her husband, James Gammon, were still in negotiations about purchasing Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro from its former owners, Jacquelyn Sawyer and David Swetnem, they were shown the holy relics of the sauerkraut trade: the original rocks that Virgil Morse used when he made his very first batch of kraut in 1910.
“It’s literally the same rocks he used to tamp the kraut down into the barrel. You can see them in the old pictures,” said Lamontagne. “The only things that’s changed about the way kraut is made is the way the cabbage is cut. It used to be with a knife, but now we use a shredder. Other than that, it’s the same.”
Lamontagne and Gammon took over Morse’s, a sauerkraut making business, German restaurant and gourmet European market, in January 2015. Though they’ve added or changed a small handful of things — among them the fact that you can now buy their tangy, crunchy, locally-made sauerkraut at Hannaford and in other stores across New England — they’ve essentially left the 99-year-old business exactly the same as its previous owners left it.
“We’ve done a few little things, like making everything in the restaurant fresh in house every day, but basically, we didn’t want to change what made it so great in the first place,” said Lamontagne. “There’s a reason it’s been here for almost 100 years.”
Before there was a German restaurant on site, before there was a dizzying array of cheeses, meats, beer, European candy and pantry items for sale in the market, before you could buy sauerkraut at your neighborhood grocery store, there was Virgil Morse, a son of one of the many families of Midcoast-based German immigrants.
In 1910, Morse delivered his first batch of pickled cabbage — a family recipe, brought over from the old country — to the general store in Waldoboro. In 1918, Morse turned his homemade sauerkraut into a full-fledged business, growing his own cabbage, tilling his fields with a horse-drawn plow, making everything by hand and selling his goods to area markets and other businesses. By 1947, his son, Virgil Jr., had joined the business, and in 1953, the business moved into its current location on Route 220 in Waldoboro.
The business was owned and operated by the Morse family (minus a brief one-year period in the late 1980s, when a local man bought it from them, found he wasn’t suited to the sauerkraut game, and sold it back) until 1991, when Leon Payne bought it; Swetnam and Sawyer bought it in 2000, and Lamontagne and Gammon bought it from them just over two years ago.
The sauerkraut recipe, which officially dates back 100 years but has roots going back centuries, was given to Lamontagne and Gammon by the previous owners. Before them, it was essentially an oral tradition.
“When Dave and Jackie took it over, they were handed a coffee can and told to use about half a coffee can of salt, and then this much cabbage, and so on,” said Lamontagne. “They did eventually write it down. But fermentation is as much an art as it is a science. The taste can change with the weather, or how wet or dry the cabbage is, or the season. It’s always a little different.”
The Morse’s Sauerkraut of 2017 is a much bigger, more diverse operation from the kraut-only business the Morse family ran for nearly 80 years. A restaurant was added in 2002 and the market was added in 2003, together turning the humble building on a windswept stretch of Route 220 into a destination for foodies from all over.
“We get people that travel from all over the state just to eat here. And we have people from all over the country and the world that seek us out,” said Jen Armstrong, a longtime waitress at Morse’s. “I don’t know of any other German restaurants around here. It’s a destination, for sure.”
The small, cozy restaurant, helmed by head chef Kyle Pendleton, offers an array of classic German and Central European fare, from lunch specialties like reubens, pierogies and sausage sandwiches, to spaetzle (house-made German egg noodles) and kraut balls (ground sauerkraut and pork, rolled in panko bread crumbs and deep-fried). There’s also a weekend brunch, with European treats like blintzes, French toast and crepes.
Heartier options include the runaway customer favorite: pork schnitzel, the classic German-Austrian dish of pork, pounded thin, breaded and fried. It’s served three different ways: Jager, topped with a mushroom and bacon cream sauce, A La Holstein, topped with a sunny side up egg, anchovies and capers, or Neat, served with just lemon and olive oil.
Naturally, sauerkraut figures prominently on the menu, whether it’s served in the aforementioned kraut balls or reuben sandwiches, atop gourmet hot dogs, or on its own, braised with onions, bacon, apple, juniper and caraway seeds.
Sauerkraut isn’t the only fermented treat on the menu, though: Morse’s pickles, which the company began to make in the early 2000s, have become an equally popular offering. Sour garlic and sour mustard pickles are included as an appetizer with every meal.
“You’ve got the kraut people, and then you’ve got the pickle people,” said Lamontagne. “We have people that were stationed in Germany with the military and miss those flavors. We have people whose families have been coming here for generations. We had a guy come in not long ago who took a bite of a pickle and said ‘The last time I had a pickle like this was with my grandfather.’ It almost made him cry. It’s really cool to think that something as simple as a pickle can bring back memories like that.”
The sauerkraut, pickles and much more can also be purchased in the market, which spans two large rooms adjacent to the restaurant, in the long, rambling building built by Virgil Morse in the 1950s.
The selection is impressive in the full-fledged European market in the middle of the Lincoln County countryside. There are hard-to-find French, Dutch and English cheeses, Bavarian sausages, a huge array of Scandinavian canned and pickled fish, and what may by the largest selection of European candies, sodas, jams, crackers, cookies and other packaged goods available in Maine.
Though Morse’s has seen three different owners since the last of the Morse’s family, Ethelyn Morse, retired for good in 1991 at age 80, there’s been one constant: the sauerkraut. Gammon and Lamontagne feel the responsibility of maintaining the classic recipe — and have also found that it’s fulfilled nearly every dream the couple has ever had.
“We love restaurants. We love beer and cheese and wine. We love living in the country. And I grew up in the woods, gardening and canning with my mom,” said Lamontagne. “Plus, to be able to be a part of something that has such an incredible history in the area is really special. We’re lucky to be the newest caretakers of Morse’s. It’s a tradition we’re pretty honored to carry on.”
Morse’s Sauerkraut is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursdays-Tuesdays; food is served in the restaurant from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each of those days. Morse’s does not take reservations, though it does offer take-out. For more information, like them on Facebook or call 832-5569.