Monday, September 29, 2014

Unexpected Treats - Dispatches from Maine

One of the things I enjoy about my regular trips to northern New England is the access to foods that are not readily available back home in Maryland, or have been so adulterated by local variations that they neither taste nor look like what I have come to expect up here. Add to this the fact that more often than not the local bastardizations are significantly more expensive.

Of course there is the ubiquitous Maine lobster which is always easy to find here in Maine and relatively inexpensive, if you buy it direct from a lobster pound along the coast (and for a few dollars more most of them will cook it for you along with a side of steamed clams and an ear of fresh Maine farm corn).  Then there are your lobster rolls, lobster stew, lobster bisque, lobster salad . . . you get the idea.  The indigenous soft-shelled clams referred to almost universally as “steamers” are normally plentiful and inexpensive during the summer months and can be a meal unto themselves.  There are  local mussels, but not to be missed are the large, sea-tangy oysters harvested from several Mid-Coast tidal rivers and estuaries.  I come from Maryland where we have long taken pride in our Chesapeake Bay oysters, but I will be the first to admit that they do not hold a candle lit on both ends to those taken from the Damariscotta River.  Finally, let us not forget Maine blueberry cobbler, early summer strawberries dipped in chocolate, and the omnipresent Whoopie Pies for dessert.  And you can wash everything down with a wide variety of local micro-brewed beers, or if you so prefer, a bottle or can of Moxie.

There are a few other unexpected treats, non-indigenous foods found from time to time in northern New England which are rare if not all together unavailable elsewhere in the United States.  One of the most common is the Québécois dish known as poutine [poo-TIN].  Regular readers of this blog have been treated to a number of postings about my particular affinity for this concoction of fried potatoes covered with melted cheese curds and thick beef gravy.  You can find genuine poutine (it must use cheese curds) in many restaurants, especially those close to the Québec border, or in areas in New England where Québec visitors tend to congregate (Old Orchard Beach, in Maine, and New Hampshire’s Hampton Beach come immediately to mind).  Cheese curds can also be found in many grocery stores so that you can make it at home.  More recently poutine has taken on a certain cachet and one can now find it elsewhere in Canada and the United States.  Québec also offers us Chinese pie (also know as pâté au chinois here in Maine and simply pâté chinois in Québec), a meat pie similar to shepherd’s pie that is often found here in our area of Maine where Quebeckers settled to work in the now defunct textile mills along the Androscoggin and Saco rivers.  Tourtières, a pork pie from Québec traditionally served around Christmas and the New Year, can also be found in the Franco-American communities in Maine and elsewhere in northern New England.  Another Québécois dish in this tradition is cretons [crew-TŌN], a pork pâté similar to the French rillette made from pork scraps left over from butchering which are then cooked in water or milk and mixed with soy, salt and pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, onion and garlic (similar to the spice mix used in tourtières). Served cold and spread over toast or an English muffin, it is a popular breakfast dish throughout La Belle Province, and if one searches in earnest, it can be found in Maine and New Hampshire.

Another treat you don’t necessarily have to cross the border for is the smoked meats often associated with, but in no way limited to, the established Jewish and Eastern European communities in Montréal, just a very few hours northwest of us here on Sabbathday Lake.  It is not uncommon to find these smoked meats in grocery stores and markets in this part of Maine with its multi-generation Franco-American communities.  I will admit that these smoked meats always taste better when acquired warm and fresh from a Montréal delicatessen, but you should not be fussy if you can find them on this side of the border.   You just have to keep your eyes peeled.  One cannot fathom the excitement when I discover a new meat emporium regardless of where it is located.

This past week I discovered two of them in the Midcoast region here in Maine, both of them less than an hour’s drive from the lake.  Talked about unexpected treats!  The first is Morse’s Kraut Haus, on State Route 220 in rural North Nobleboro; the other is Maurice Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen on Main Street In Lisbon Falls.  Morse’s has been around for almost a century, while the Sausage Kitchen was established in 1995.,
The former is a product of the central and east European settlements in Lincoln County during the 19th century; the latter inspired by Bonneau whose parents emigrated from Québec in the 1930s just a few years before he was born in Lewiston and where he was raised to become a prominent meatcutter working along side his father.

Virgil Morse began producing and selling sauerkraut in and around Waldoboro in the years leading up to the First World War, and he established Morse’s Sauerkraut, in 1918.  The operation has been in a barn at its current location just up the road in Nobleboro since 1953.  The present owners took over the business in 2000, using the Morse family recipe for sauerkraut while beginning to produce sour garlic and sour mustard pickles.  A small European-style restaurant with five high-back booths and featuring fresh-made perogies, Sauerbraten, cabbage rolls, Späetzle, schnitzels, borscht, and their signature Reuben was added in 2002.  A specialty market and delicatessen were added a year later and it sells a wide variety of cheeses and meats, local artisan breads, mustards, canned and pickled fish, and a cornucopia of spices and seasonings.  Of course, there is also their fresh homemade sauerkraut and pickles.  After lunch (a selection of wurst served on a bed of piping hot slow-cooked sauerkraut flecked with bacon, onions and juniper berries, I wandered through the market eyeing the mouth-watering display of sausages and meats.  It was a minor disappointment to learn that the charcuterie is not local; it is produced by Schaller & Weber in New York City’s Yorkville neighborhood.  Still, I had to remind myself that these first-rate meats are available in a rural barn in Maine.  Beggars need not be picky.

A couple days later we were driving through nearby Lisbon Falls when I spied Maurice  Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen.  I drive this stretch of Main Street every summer, but this is the first time I recall seeing it.  I had to stop, and I was not disappointed.  The meat counter was loaded with packages of uncooked sausages and other meat products, including ham, bacon, and Québécois-style pork pies - tourtières which are made year round but are much in demand during the Christmas season - made fresh on site by Bonneau and two of his sons.  The Sausage Kitchen is obviously proud of the quality of their meat products, using only all-natural meats (no growth hormones or antibiotics) which are vegetarian-fed and humanely raised and slaughtered.  “My Wurst is Best” claims the sign near the entrance to the shop.  There is a virtual United Nations of sausages to choose from – German Bratwurst and Mettwurst, Cajun andouille, chorizo, Spanish-Creole chaurice, Greek loukaniko, Polish kielbasa, Potuguese linguica, English bangers and so much more.  Happily I noted that Bonneau’s Québec roots are evident in his meat counter.  There are packages of Canadian-style pork breakfast link  sausage flavored with salt, white pepper, ground and rubbed sage, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, thyme, cayenne pepper and parsley with natural maple sugar added for that special flavor.  My happiest discovery was cretons; this is the first place I have found it in Maine in a long time.  Bonneau has polished up the recipe, using only lean, ground pork shoulder instead of scraps. I left the shop with some, as well as a package of trail sticks (they look like Slim Jims but taste oh so much better!), and a hunk of Landjäger (a German MRE), most of which was gone by the end of the day.

I look forward to returning to both of these establishments when we return to Maine next summer.  Thankfully Bonneau’s is not far away and I plan to visit there again next week before we head back to Maryland.  I may just take some of these unexpected treats home with me.

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