The grapevine is one of the oldest plants in cultivation, and grapes are still the world’s largest fruit crop.
Much of it goes into the rich and various world of winemaking.
But, for all my delight in drinking wine, here I’m writing about the grapes that I use in the kitchen.
Luckily, the characteristics that make wine so complex — they can be tart, sweet, fresh, earthy and fruity — also come into play when cooking and baking with grapes. There are times when the distinction between wine grapes and kitchen grapes is pleasantly blurred and a recipe calls for the use of both.
Grapes don’t continue to ripen once picked, so they stay as sour or as sweet as when they’re harvested. Taste an unripe grape, and it will be mouth-puckeringly sour. Leave that same grape on the vine in the sun, and it will become incomparably sweet. The joy, though, is how much can be done with grapes in the kitchen at both ends of the spectrum, whether they’re left whole or turned into juice or syrup to be bottled.
In my test kitchen in London, I’m sadly not within reach of a plot of grapevines. I am, however, in possession of verjuice, an ingredient sold in specialty stores that is made from semi-ripe grapes.
Verjuice allows me to experience the richness of unripe grapes in a bottled form. It’s an ancient ingredient, used in the fruity, sweet-sour, spiced style of European cooking in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.
Later, when lemons, and then tomatoes, became available to add acidity to food, verjuice was rather knocked off the radar. It is now experiencing a revival in dressings and sauces, since it has the tartness of lemon juice and the acidity of vinegar without the sharpness of either.
On the other end of the spectrum are grapes at their ripest and sweetest. As with unripe grapes, these can be used in the kitchen either whole, as they are, or else juiced or turned into syrup to be bottled.
There are uses for sweet, ripe grapes: bringing a pop of juicy freshness to a chicken salad, for example, or pushed into the top of an oil-enriched bread dough. This fruit-topped bread, schiacciata, is an absolute favorite of mine and very much part of my food memory bank.
Eating it takes me straight back to family holidays in Italy, when we used to eat it for breakfast.
Ripe grapes can be roasted to concentrate their flavor. Adding sweet wine and honey to the pan, as we do here to make a topping for ice cream, adds a caramelized dimension.
Muscat wine tastes just the like the sweet and floral muscat grapes that produce it. Using it in a recipe with fresh grapes feels like ancient alchemy.
I also like to perfume the grapes with sugar, vinegar and spices before they are roasted, chargrilled or oven-dried.
Intensifying the grape’s sweetness in this way turns them into the sweet-sharp flavor bombs they are, ready for their juice to burst and stain to form another permanent memory.