By Jennifer Muck-Dietrich
“The juice of the grape is the liquid quintessence of concentrated sunbeams.”
-Thomas Love Peacock
Grapes are a berry of a deciduous woody vine of the flowering plant Vitis. The name is old English and comes from the tool used to harvest them—“grap hook.” Grapes are eaten fresh, or squished for wine or juice. They are cooked for jelly, dried, or fermented. Even the seeds of the grapes are pressed for their precious oil. Cultivation of this multi-functional fruit has been traced back 8,000 years to the country Georgia. Wine and grapes are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back 5,000 years. Also significant to the Greeks, Romans, and Christians—grapes appear in the sculptures of Dionysus, the god of agriculture, Bacchus, the god of lust and wine, and represent the blood of Christ in Christian art.
There are 8,000 varieties of grapes in the world. Most are either Vitis labrusca, the wild grapes that grow in North America, or Vitis vinifera, European grapes native to to the Middle East and Mediterreanean. They produce both male and female and are self pollinating. One grapevine can reach 50 feet in length and produce up to 40 clusters. Each cluster can contain five to 40 individual grapes. They come in green, red, black, yellow, pink, and purple colors. Grapes range in size from a pea to a ping-pong ball, with seeds or seedless (actually they do have seeds, but they do not have the hard coating and are infertile).
The oldest grape vine in the United States is called the “Mothervine”. First sighted in 1584 on Roanoke Island, VA. It’s a Scuppernong grape and the two foot thick trunk from the original vine stretches along arbors for almost one acre. Early settlers planted cuttings from this vine and developed 20 different varieties of grapes.
Many varieties of grapes grow in New York, none of which lack taste like the commercially grown miniature water balloons available in the local grocery stores year round. We are all familiar with the Concord grape, that got its name from the town in which they were developed, Concord, MA. Of the table grapes, one of the best varieties to grow in our area is Seneca white. It has excellent taste and texture and ripens around the first of September, yet will keep off the vine, refrigerated until Thanksgiving. It is cold hardy and bears a heavy crop. Some other varieties worth looking out for are: New York Muscat, Buffalo Blue, Steuban, Sheridan Blue, Yates, Urbana and Golden Muscat. Each with its own unique taste.
Wine grapes, although they have a higher sugar content, have much thicker skins which makes them unpleasant to eat. The skins are what impart most of the flavor in the wine and they contain tannins which cause your tongue to feel fuzzy and dry. Wine grapes tend to have a lot more seeds and less juicy flesh as well. Their compact, dense clusters may look enticing hanging on the manicured vines, but beware!
Grape vines are prolific when happy. Good vertical support, well drained soil, full sun as well as hard pruning and lots of air circulation are the key components in successful viniculture. They are prone to mildew and pests, including birds and insects, but in general, they are easy to care for.
Raisins are sun-dried, seedless grapes. The name is from the French language where it refers to the fresh fruit. “Grappe” which comes from our word “grape,” which refers to “grappe de raisins” or bunch of grapes. The dried “currants” you enjoy in your breakfast scones are actually a dried Zante Black Corinth grape. They are not related to red or black currants which are in the Ribes family.
Grapes are 80 percent water and one cup contains about 100 calories. They are high in vitamin C, K, B and minerals such as copper, iron, and magnesium. Most of the goodness is in the skin, so it is very important to purchase organic whenever possible.
Yeast, one of the earliest domesticated microorganisms, occurs naturally on grape skins leading to the discovery of alcoholic beverages, such as wine, but that is another article.
What can you do with grapes besides pairing them with a salty, aged Gouda?
Concord Grape Pie
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll out two portions of pre-made pie pastry between sheets of wax paper large enough to cover a 9-inch pie plate. Refrigerate until ready for use.
4 cups concord grapes
1 cup sugar (white granulated is best)
2 tbsp instant tapioca
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Wash and stem grapes. Squeeze the pulp out of the skins into a sauce pan, leaving the skins in a separate bowl. Mix sugar and tapioca together in a small bowl. Cook pulp over medium-low heat until seeds are just released, stirring often. Using a spatula, press the pulp through a fine mesh colander into the bowl with the grape skins. Gently fold in the sugar, tapioca, and lemon juice. Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Pour in the filling. Get creative with the top of your pie—make a lattice crust, or cut fun shapes out of the pastry, like circles or stars. Place the pie on a foil-lined tray in the middle of the oven. Bake in preheated oven for approximately 50 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and the crust is golden. Cool completely before cutting.
Grape Avocado Salsa
1 1/2 cup chopped, seeded grapes
2 avocados, pitted and diced
1 small red onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of one lime
Salt to taste
Gently fold all ingredients together in a medium serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips, or as a side to rice and beans.
Roasted Grapes and Sweet Potatoes
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
4 cups whole, seedless grapes
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 medium red onion, cut into wedges
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Toss all ingredients together in a large bowl, coating evenly with olive oil and sprinkled with cumin, salt, and pepper. Roast for approximately 20-25 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Be sure to gently stir halfway through so ingredients roast evenly.
Illustration by Joyous Garden.