Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wild Grapes

Every year I admire the bunches of wild grapes in the woods. The vines climb trees, mostly along roadsides and field edges, and the grapes appear in small clusters, seldom very abundant. The grapes themselves are tiny, with a large seed in each one, and when you eat them the taste is very sour, with just a hint of sweetness and grapey flavor.

This year I noticed a patch of grapevines next to a wetland with quite a lot of grapes. I thought that it might be fun to try to make something out of them. My daughter was a willing partner, and on a cold and drizzly Sunday we walked down the road with a dishpan and a kitten (the kitten wasn't necessary, but wanted to come along) and picked enough grapes to fill the dishpan.

We washed them and picked all the grapes off of the stems. With my daughter's help, the task wasn't unmanageable, but it still took us over an hour. We ended up with many more grapes than I had expected - about 8 cups!

Look at that! Eight cups of wild grapes!!

With a little water added, I heated the grapes to the simmering point, crushed them with a potato masher, and left the mixture to cool overnight.

I figured that the food mill would make quick work of separating out the seeds and skins, but it didn't. The seeds were too big for the mill to pass over them easily, and they kept cracking open. I was worried that the crushed seeds would add a bad flavor to the grape juice and pulp, so I had to come up with another plan.

Did I mention what a dark purple this is? Did I mention that our hands were stained purple? Did I mention that you have to cover everything with newspapers, or else your table will be stained purple, too?

The sieve and the spatula: I put a couple of scoops of grape mixture into the sieve, pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed until all of the grape goo was through the sieve, then scraped out the seeds and skins to throw away. How many times did I go through this process? I don't know. Probably a million. That's what it felt like. It was very tedious, and I spent well over an hour, maybe even two, squishing grapes. I ended up with tendinitis in my hand.

The resulting pulpy grape juice was amazing, though. Some of it we froze as is for later use. Most of it we made into grape jam. (I'll call it jam because it wasn't made with clear juice.) I cooked it up with a little sugar, some lemon juice, and pectin (completely winging it - I am not a jam maker!).

We ended up with over 8 cups of the most spectacularly intense grapeness. This is no Welch's grape jelly; it's much more sophisticated. It captures the incredible tart flavor of wild grapes, but without the bother of spitting out the seeds (or the horror of mistakenly eating a small spider)! All in all, a very successful experiment.

I'd like to make it an annual tradition, but I'll have to think hard about that because of how labor intensive it is. And there's no way I want to injure my hand again, so I need to find a better technique for separating the seeds and skins. Maybe that's why I never hear of anyone cooking up wild grapes ...

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