About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Remembering Concord Grapes

Where we live in northern Arizona, because of our high elevation (about 6000' above sea level) we get four true seasons.  Yes that includes winter with hard freezes and sometimes snow storms that leave us with a couple feet of the white stuff to deal with.

We had our first killing frost of the season last week (running a bit late this year, it was) and while we got most of the produce out of the gardens in time I couldn't help remembering back to my family's home in CT where the first frost of the season meant we could FINALLY harvest one of my favorite things from the gardens there...
Concord Grapes!
"The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do."

Galileo Galilei

Planted along the base of the white board fencing that bordered one side of the produce gardening plots at our family's home in Cornwall Connecticut were eight Concord grape vines.  I’m not sure when my father planted them but I remember being told that they had been grown from cuttings from the vines that my grandparents had been growing long before I was born.  I do know that by the time I was getting involved in the garden that they already looked gnarled and ancient to me with their bottom trunks as big around as my arms.

We never really did very much viticultural work on the vines.  I understand that professional grape growers and vintners have quite an annual pruning and training regime to which they adhere to get their vines to produce the best grapes in the proper abundance for flavor, acidity and sugar balances.  Our regime was to, basically, ignore the vines completely until such a point we noticed that they were impossible to harvest from because of the tangle of plant matter, or until they were reaching out to take over another section of the garden, strangle a nearby tree or smother the house.  When that occurred we would brutally chop out most of the growth and allow it to come back the next year from stubs.

I know that the regular annual transformation of the plants from their matted, barren, and sinister winter form, through spring’s budding out, summers full green leafy canopy and into autumn’s crisping leaves and eventual harvest was one of the most reliable of nature’s seasonal calendars.

Having grape arbors was pretty neat growing up, not just because the dense foliage made a great place to hide out and build “forts”, or because of the myriad of birds that would be attracted as the fruit ripened in the fall, but because it was the very last thing we harvested for the year.  Sometimes some of the grapes would ripen early but they weren't the best ones, not by a long shot.  The best grapes were the ones we picked after the first hard frost of the season, one that would really wilt the leaves.  That was when the sugars really set in the fruit and that was when we went out with our baskets and picked every bunch we could find and bring them into the warmth of the kitchen to sort through.  I remember popping the occasional super-plump and juicy fruit out of its skin, into the air to be caught in our mouths and swallowed seeds and all.  The skins would stain our hands quite purple but we didn't care.
Grape jelly, Grape Juice, Grape Cobbler and Grape Pie all took turns getting made during the Concord Grape harvest but the one thing I remember most fondly is the Spiced Grape Preserves my grandmother put up every year.  Like a jam but coarser and heavily perfumed with freshly ground clove, allspice, and mace among many others, it was closer to a chutney or other sweet condiment than it was to a breakfast spread.  I remember it being served on the side with a venison dish and how that wonderful and complex taste combination awoke my budding palate.

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