For some Americans, New Year’s Day is incomplete without a meal of pork and sauerkraut.
Eating sauerkraut brings good luck for the coming year, according to Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.
Although Vacationland is a long way from the Keystone State, at least one Maine family will partake in the tradition. Simon and Jane Frost are sauerkraut makers.
The production of sauerkraut and other fermented foods is a growing trend among farmers in Maine, according to agriculture experts. It’s a way to preserve the vegetables long after the harvest, increase their nutritional value and stretch farmers’ revenue sources into the leaner months of winter.
For seven winters, Simon Frost has been making sauerkraut, kimchi, gingered carrots, dill pickles and other products at Thirty-Acre Farm in Whitefield. He uses about 2 acres to grow vegetables for fermenting.
“For us, it’s a real good way to preserve the harvest and sell it through the year. It kind of gives us a steadier income stream,” he said.
The Frosts’ cabbages are harvested in mid- to late fall after the first hard frost, and many are put into cold storage. Then, during late fall and winter, the family makes kraut.
“Shred it, salt it, press it and wait,” Simon Frost said, describing his technique.
Although the ingredients are simple, the process that turns cabbage into kraut is complex, said David Swetnam, owner of Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro.
“Sauerkraut is not rocket science, but there is a fair amount of microbiology that goes into a successful batch of it,” he said.
Swetnam and his wife bought the company 13 years ago. Originally, the Swetnams made sauerkraut during the fall and winter, then closed the operation from April to September. As the popularity of Morse’s Sauerkraut grew, they added a year-round restaurant and a gift shop that sells specialty foods imported from Germany. Since then, the business has become an out-of-the-way destination for tourists.
On the day Swetnam bought the company, he expected to receive a secret recipe from the previous owner. Instead, he was handed an empty coffee can and was told to add a few cans full of salt and sugar to the shredded cabbage.
“As it turns out, there’s quite a bit more to assembling a barrel of sauerkraut,” he said.
Swetnam experimented for years to get it right — to learn all the variables of temperature and moisture content within the cabbage, depending on the season, and how to layer the ingredients in each batch.
Now that he has perfected his method, Swetnam has turned his focus to the continuing challenge of getting the product to market. Unlike pasteurized sauerkraut from major manufacturers, Swetnam’s sauerkraut is a living thing full of healthy bacteria and generates carbon dioxide gas. He sells his kraut to retailers in 5-gallon food-service buckets for individual packaging in deli containers by store employees.
Sometimes Swetnam provides stores with a list of instructions on how to care for the living product, which has a life span of one or two months, during which it continues to ferment and exude gas.
“If we put our sauerkraut in a bag and sealed it up — as other manufacturers do — it would inflate and explode overnight,” he said. “You can stop all that by pasteurizing it and putting all kinds of preservatives in it, but then you lose all the texture and the flavor and, of course, the health benefits, which are huge. It turns it from something you should eat every day into something you probably shouldn’t eat at all.”
For Frost, the biology of fermented vegetables is a big part of the reason for making them.
“It adds nutrition to the stuff we grow, which appeals to us. The pro-biotic nature of it gives it something that the raw vegetable doesn’t have,” he said.
The bacterium in fermented vegetables is called lactobacillus. It’s is found on the leaves of cabbage and other organic vegetables, as well as in humans’ digestive tracts, Frost said. Eating fermented vegetables can aid in digestion.
Fermented vegetables also have anti-viral properties, said Dave Colson, director of agricultural services for Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association based in Unity.
“Besides being healthy to eat and good sources of vitamins and nutrients, they can actually help ward off viruses like the common cold,” Colson said.
A century ago, before refrigeration, fermented vegetables were more common, Colson said. Fermentation was a way to preserve vegetables that otherwise would go bad in cold storage.
“Then it kind of fell out of favor,” he said.
That’s changing. Colson estimates about 20 Maine farms are involved in lacto-fermentation, and he anticipates that number will grow.
Swetnam, whose company has been making sauerkraut continuously since 1918, said he was worried initially about the increased competition.
“But we’ve found those fears to be unfounded. We sell more sauerkraut now than we ever have,” he said. “It really shows that there’s room for everybody.”
Although Swetnam doesn’t partake in the New Year’s tradition, he sees a yearly uptick in sauerkraut sales around the holidays.
It’s difficult to tell, however, whether the faraway tradition is getting a foothold in Maine.
“We certainly talk to numerous people who mention that they’re getting sauerkraut for New Year’s, and we see a significant bump in our mail order just before New Year’s; but there’s a particular focus on the Pennsylvania and Baltimore areas,” he said.
In Whitefield, the Frost family will eat their signature product to usher in 2013, but maybe not today.
“If it doesn’t happen on the first day, it usually happens on the second,” he said.
Ben McCanna — 861-9239