by Sarah West
There is a stark contrast between supermarket grapes and those lounging on farmers market tabletops this time of year. One is ubiquitous, somewhat sweet, somewhat acidic, often watery, whose lackluster qualities have tamed our desire for musky, deeply sweet grape flavor. The other ranges from mild to disarmingly complex, depending on the variety: sometimes seedless, sometimes crunchy (don’t believe you should spit out the seeds!), skins thick with aromatic pigments, whose chewing sends up smells and sounds and fills the mouth with divine nectar.
The life of a supermarket grape is unglamorous at best. Because of the same constraints that always plague large-scale distribution of delicate produce, supermarket grapes are often picked before they are fully ripe in order to survive the shipping process and lengthy tenures in storage and on display in the produce aisle.
Most conventional grape growers treat their immature fruits with a plant hormone called gibberellic acid, which elongates each grape, increasing the cluster’s weight by up to 75%. To prevent molds from damaging the tender fruits and to keep up an appearance of freshness through weeks of cold storage, conventional grapes are often fumigated with sulfur dioxide. Overall, conventionally grown supermarket grapes are one of the most chemically treated fruits you can buy.
Though most supermarket grapes end up living in refrigerator drawers, grapes and their flavors are creatures of the sun. The original species responsible for many of our market varieties are native to the eastern United States. The fox grape (Vitis labrusca), the muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), and the river bank grape (Vitis riparia) are all deft climbers, easily scaling tall tree canopies to stake out a sunny perch without investing in widely girthed trunks of their own.
Table grapes allowed to sweeten on the vine gain more than just greater sugar content. Their dusty blue or purple skins are rich in anthocyanins (an antioxidant with potential to reverse memory-loss and inhibit cancerous tumor growth), and both their skin and seeds contain resveratrol (a lipid regulator responsible for the rumor that drinking wine could lower your chances of having a heart attack). Commercial grapes also contain some of these beneficial substances, but in much lower (and blander) concentrations.
Home grape growers experience the Vitis clan in all their wily splendor. Exuberant and untidy, grapes grow wildly in all directions if left to their own devices. A strict pruning regiment is essential, cutting back old woody growth (which will not produce grape clusters), in order to encourage buds of fresh, fruitful growth.
Home growers also get the bonus of easy access to grape leaves, an untapped Old World culinary treasure. Briny, surprisingly sweet, and meltingly tender, the young leaves of an early summer grapevine make the best dolmas you’ve ever had, or a robust substitute for spinach in anything cooked (think Greek and Turkish cuisines, which traditionally made good use of this abundantly available green).
Those who’ve eaten only supermarket grapes may be surprised at the range of flavors exhibited by what they find at the farmers market. Small farm (and garden) grown grapes have character—flavor profiles all their own—with myriad applications in both sweet and savory preparations.
Start by forgetting everything you thought you knew about grapes. Roasted alongside chicken legs or duck, their flavors intensify, creating a pan sauce with wine-like complexity. Pressed into focaccia, they are like tart, juicy raisins, savory and aromatic dressed with sea salt and rosemary. Married with salty cheese and garlic or onion, they are excellent on pizzas, galettes, and salads.
Sweet and succulent berries that they are, grapes fit easily into pastries: scones, sweet tarts, pies, cakes, or clafoutis. Their deep purple juice makes a striking sorbet, syrup, or jelly. Vitis means to wind, bend, or branch. Like the grapevine snakes its way through jungly undergrowth into the open air, grapes’ adaptability as an ingredient easily finds its way into imaginative cooking. And when there isn’t time or enticement, they always satisfy served in their majestic simplicity, as they have for millennia: unadorned, from the palm of your hand.