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Taste of Travel: Milwaukee : The German Link : Beer, brats and sauerbraten: The city's ethnic heritage is as close as its Old World restaurants, delis, bakeries and brew pubs

August 20, 1995|KITTY MORSE | Morse is a San Diego-based free-lance writer and cookbook author who attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and returns regularly to visit family and friends. and

MILWAUKEE — French croissants and Italian caffe latte may have infiltrated the Milwaukee food scene, but Wisconsin's largest city hasn't forsaken its German gastronomic tradition. The city's roots still run deep in neighborhood bars where foaming steins of beer named Blatz or Schlitz or Miller far outnumber wine glasses; in its perfect brick buildings made by precise German craftsmen; in its old-style restaurants that honor the German spirit through heaping portions of sauerbraten or rouladen ; in shops that vend the state's famous cheeses and in bakeries that produce German delicacies that never spare the butter.

The traditions are longstanding. By the mid-1800s, according to a federal census of the time, one third of Milwaukee's population was German. Whether seeking new opportunities or fleeing religious persecution in Europe, these new immigrants were lured to the area by a climate and topography similar to those they had left behind. To this day, the city's German past is perpetuated in suburbs called Germantown and New Berlin, in streets such as Teutonia Avenue, and in its food.

Visitors hungry for a taste of Milwaukee, German-style, will find that one of the easiest ways to savor the city's heritage is to stroll a renovated block of historic buildings along the Milwaukee River downtown: Old World Wisconsin at Third Street. For those willing to stray from this area, another part of that tradition and a remnant of the city's Roman Catholic heritage are Friday night fish fries that remain social events in restaurants and clubs around town.

Perhaps Milwaukee's most famous sausage manufacturer, Fred Usinger Inc. has occupied the same half block in the Old World Wisconsin district since 1880. The factory's retail store is still decorated with old-fashioned hand-painted garlands of elves spouting axioms in German and English on its walls. "WARNING: The tasty flavor of these sausages may be habit forming!" one announces. It appears to be true, since the store always seems crowded with customers buying plump links of bratwurst for grilling or, as is the local style, for poaching in simmering beer. On my way to the airport for my trip home to Southern California, I am among the many travelers who pick up a gift pack or two of garlic-scented beef summer sausage, German-style Thueringer sausage and an intensely flavored liver sausage. (Usinger products also are available by mail order.)

A few doors north, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart features Wisconsin's primary claim to fame: cheese produced by local cheese makers. Aged Cheddar and smoked Edam are best-sellers, as is brick cheese, so called because bricks originally were used as weights to compact the cheese during the manufacturing process. The Wisconsin Cheese Mart also sells its products by mail order, from Cheddar cheese spreads packaged in ceramic crocks ($13 for a 12-ounce container) to customized assortments.

Some of the same spices used in the sausages made at Usinger can be found across the street in the aromatic confines of the Spice House. Walking into the narrow, brick-lined store is like taking a fragrant excursion to the faraway lands of cassia and cloves. This is the place for German food connoisseurs to purchase freshly mixed sauerbraten spice blend, or pounds of Hungarian poppy seed to make strudel. The Wauwatosa spice--a blend of ground celery seed, gated shallot and ground green peppercorns--is named for the Milwaukee suburb where the owners grew up. Spice House customers are sprinkled around the nation, thanks to the store's thriving mail-order business.

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Nearby, a stone archway inscribed with the word willkommen (German for welcome) greets diners who enter Mader's, one of the oldest and best-known German restaurants in town, opened at this location in 1902 and still in Mader family hands. Two suits of armor on display in the dark paneled dining room cut imposing silhouettes against the restaurant's stained glass windows. Waitresses in frilly German dirndl dresses, walls lined with beer steins and a museums' worth of cuckoo clocks all contribute to the beer hall atmosphere. The extensive offering of German specialties includes savory sauerkraut balls ($3.95) made of sauerkraut and corned beef; spaetzle, spindle-shaped dumplings ($3.95); Rheinischer sauerbraten ($16.95), or Rhine sauerbraten, a hearty portion of marinated beef covered in raisins and almonds, and a German sampler for two that includes beef rouladen and sauerbraten, as well as Bavarian red cabbage ($17.95).

The German ambience extends to the collection of porcelain objects and rare beer steins housed in the adjacent building, Mader's Old World Third Street Gallery, which bills itself as the world's largest retailer of hand-signed Hummel art.

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