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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ambrosia

Today I want to get serious, friend. Forget terrorism and “weapons of mass destruction”; the real threat lies so low under the radar that we don't even have a Terror Alert Color for it. Mushroom-cloud brown? Spinach green? No, gentle reader, think purple: the color of grape.

I can hear the skeptics now: What's your problem, Slab? Grapes never did anything to me. And I like the taste! To which I say, hush wino, drop the raisin bran and get real to the facts.

An alarming 75,866 km of Earth is overrun with grapes. (That's 1 out of every 2,000 km of good solid non-grape land, or more than 3 km of grapes in Delaware alone.) And remember, grapes don't speak English; they don't pay taxes; they like to sit around and get drunk; and many hop the first bottle they can overseas, faster than you can say “Thomas B. Welch.”
All Things Grape: America's fascination knows no bounds

But really, who cares? Most folks love grapes, so maybe this “grapedemic” isn't such a bad thing. After all, as Johanna Brandt wrote in The Grape Cure (1928),
The grape is highly antiseptic and a powerful solvent of inorganic matter deposits, fatty degeneration, morbid and malignant growths. It acts as a drastic eliminator of evil while building new tissue.
Drastic eliminator of evil?

A septuagenarian later, in the Food and Agriculture Organization Report “Grape Production in the Asia-Pacific Region,” Ram B. Singh added
It is a great… privilege for me to… take this opportunity to extend… warm greetings… on… myself. Special thanks are due to… me. [Furthermore,] Grape is one of the most important fruit crops of the world.
Why?

If you believe the National Grape Cooperative, “the history of the grape is at least as old as the history of mankind.” Adaptive, diverse and curative, grapes date back to the Bronze Age (predating even old friend radish). They thrived in Asia Minor and the Caspian Sea, and were cultivated by the 4th Dynasty in Egypt. The Mesopotamians loved 'em; the Phoenicians brought 'em to the Greeks, who let 'em ferment. Vines were tended by Adam and Eve, Noah, Dionysus and Bacchus, their fruit labeled ambrosia.

Sounds great! But how do they taste? We headed to our local Greenmarket to find out.The Porkchop Express has devoted an abnormal amount of thought to grapes lately, and much of the blame falls squarely on the good shoulders of Ken and Eileen Farnan. The Farnans own Buzzard Crest Vineyards & Barrington Cellars, where they bottle everything from Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot to Riesling, Ice and Peach wines. From a region (upstate New York, near Penn Yan) ripe with wineries, they have also cornered a most delicious market: table grapes.

The Farnans have been been graping since 1971, and for the past 20-odd years they have brought boxes of their fresh-picked organic fruit to NYC, which they share every year for an all-too-brief 3-months. The good news? Those 3 months are now.
Ken Farnan, talkin' grapes

Buzzard Crest actually has buzz. Their arrival in September was met with visible excitement in Prospect Park. Because the season is so brief (Labor Day thru Thanksgiving) and the product so good, they have developed a passionate, loyal clientele. It's entertaining to watch peoples' eyes light up as they survey bins of purple and green globes. Seasoned veterans strike with hawkish precision, while eager-eyed newbies work thru indecision with impromptu samples.

What makes these grapes so different? Standard supermarket varieties tend to be somewhat non-descript: firm, sugary globes, sturdy enough to withstand cross-country shipping, and pleasant enough to pop for an instant energy fix... yet nothing to write home about.

The Farnan's fruit is an entirely different creature altogether. For one, these grapes are incredibly juicy, their flavors far more intense. In part, Ken attributes this to the topography. Buzzard Crest lies in a unique spot, on steep slopes literally perched over the y-shaped Keuka Lake. This translates into severe and surprisingly diverse growing conditions (especially for New York), a pseudo-Bermuda Triangle effect highlighted by cool, flavor-inducing nights. You can taste the difference in the final product: robust and concentrated, sweet and tart, with delicate flesh and thinner skins. Nothing to eat lightly, let alone forget.

Nor will you get bored. Eat these grapes for a few weeks straight, and you'll notice the flavors evolve. Most get sweeter as they ripen, while some succumb to adverse weather conditions. All of which makes for a pretty exciting food purchase spiked with elation (when the Concords finally made a leap to unbridled sweetness) and disappointment (when the wonderful Delawares fell victim to excessive moisture and molding).

Which brings up another point. Grapes, as natured intended, are extremely sensitive. As Ken put it, they will never look like they do upstate, unless he coddles each one in paper towel. Which leads me to think they must be drop-dead foxy on the vines, because they still look mighty fine at the markets. When purchasing, look for firm, tight clusters with little-to-no “splits.” Split skins ruin the texture, encourage mold, and impart a mildly fermented taste.
Pick 'em good!

Most of Buzzard's grapes are sold by the ton to nameless, faceless processing plants and giant companies. Yet come Fall, Ken and Eileen make the long trek to NYC (they start packing up Friday at midnight and arrive Saturday morning) to sell what amounts to a relatively small percentage of their crops at City Greenmarkets. Why, you ask? The love. Ken and company love to interact with their customers, to sell grapes directly to people who can't wait to get home to eat them. They have been trekking to Brooklyn since 1985, and aren't about to quit.

Which is great for us. Like I say, you still have a good month+ to get on the grapewagon. So to hasten you down the road to appreciation, The Porkchop Express conducted a tasting of 8 different grapes and two juices. Enjoy!
Blue seedless (above left): a “John Doe” grape which gets its generic name from circumstance. This fruit is still in a hybrid-development stage. And to be honest, it tastes a little half-done. Very distinctive, robust burst of flavor, with a notably acidic aftertaste.

Delaware seedless (not pictured): small, tightly clustered grapes with a reddish-purple hue. They look and taste like the champagne grape's older sibling. One of the first to be harvested, these are already done for the season. Too much water this year meant far too many splits. The grapes were literally bursting at the seams, which led to rotting, mold, discoloration, and a generally disappointing crop. (Tho Ms. Slab and I personally ate a few pounds, and didn't fret.)

Instead, try the Candice Seedless (above right). These are similar to the Delaware in taste and appearance, tho a bit larger and not quite as sweet.
Lakemont Seedless (above left): This green supermarket-style grape has a notably tart, concentrated flavor.

We preferred the Marquis Seedless (above right). Juicy and sweet from the start, these grapes have gotten plumper and tastier each week. Ken insists the excessive rainfall has dilluted the flavor, but we're not complaining. Look for a firm bunch with slightly yellowish skins.If you don't mind seeds, make sure to try the Caco (above left). Pronounced “Kay-koh,” this was a clear Porkchop Express favorite. As Ken described, it's an “old-time table grape,” what folks ate before the explosion of seedless hybrids. They have low acid (even when green), very sweet flesh, and a refreshingly tart skin. Can grapes have balance? This one sure does. In a word or two, it's super grapey. It imparts the essence of grapeness by using the grape's full grape-a-tude. Grapetastic! And rare. There are only 3 acres of Caco vines in the region.

Concord (above center): Pleasantly tart flesh, with a sweet skin far thinner than the globes you might find at the supermarket. These have gotten sweeter every week, and are now ready for prime time. America's #1 purple grape.

Niagara (above right): America's most plentiful green grape is also one of its most aromatic, especially when ripe. Husky, distinctive flavor with some afterburn. I saw a women nod with approval after tasting one on the spot, but it was a bit acidic for us. Look for bulging, plump yellow-tinged globes.

While you're there, grab a glass of Buzzard's fresh-pressed juice. I've never had anything like it. The red is fruitier, the white winey-er, and (like the grapes themselves) both change from week to week.

Food, health, nutritional value, inebriation; is there anything this crazy fruit can't do? Pick up one of our patent-pending Porkchop Express Quick Reference Guides (your official cheat-sheet to grapes), and head down to the market to see for yourself.

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab


Special thanks...
to Ken Farnan, and everyone at Buzzard Creek, for taking the time to talk fruit and share stories. Grab their grapes (certified organic since 1990) every Saturday at the Union Square, Borough Hall, and Prospect Park Greenmarkets from Labor Day thru Thanksgiving. You can also order their wine anytime directly online.

And some final grapetistics...
  • America is the world's largest grape importer and third largest producer in the world (behind Italy and France).
  • The grape has what “scientists” call “genetic plasticity”: it adapts well to different growing regions, climates, topographies.
  • Grapes are high in anti-oxidants, flavonoids, potassium, manganese, and Vitamins C, B1 and B6.
  • The Delano Grape Strike (1965-1970) led to the formation of the United Farm Workers of America.
  • Thomas Welch, a Jersey dentist, was the first to process and pasteurize grape juice in 1869. He used Concords from his yard.
  • The Concord “went public” in 1854, the result of Ephraim Wales Bull tinkering around his yard and cultivating a crossbreed from local Massachusetts strains. It was an instant belle of the ball, a robust flavor that took Ms. Slab several years to warm up to. Nor is she alone; the skins can be thick, the acid content high. However, these are often (as Ken noted) clones: faux Concords developed with skins thick enough to protect the delicate flesh during shipping. Of course, Buzzard sells the real deal; and you can taste the difference.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous lebertran said...

I like grapes a lot. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful information about grapes. I liked your way of presenting the ideas. Keep it up.

5:01 AM  

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