I have to admit that the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the words “Grape Harvest” isn’t the image of a bucolic Tuscan countryside of vine-covered hills; it isn’t bottles of Cabernet or Sangiovese; it isn’t even the happy thought of vineyard-hopping and wine tasting in Napa Valley, Long Island or the Finger Lakes. It’s the image of Lucy stomping grapes in a huge vat, flinging purple grape sludge at a very angry Italian woman. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get on YouTube right away and search for “I Love Lucy, Grape Stomping Episode.” You won’t be sorry, trust me.
That being said, I have an idealized vision of what life on a vineyard must be like. One of the most emotional travel experiences of my life was visiting the large farm that my great grandparents owned in Basilicata, in southern Italy. “Spogliamonaca” was pretty much in ruins when my cousins and I visited a few years ago, the beautiful stone farm buildings and houses just shells of what they had been. But the vineyards were still planted and flourishing, and gave us an impression of what it must have been like to have lived there at the turn of the last century when the farm was thriving.
In any case, I love grapes, and I love wine. I use both in my cooking and baking extensively. When autumn rolls around, and grapes become available, I buy them up and turn them into lots of different treats. One item I’m totally crazy about is “Schiacciata a l’Uva”, which is something I first tasted years ago in Tuscany and have been making ever since. It’s a kind of sweet focaccia made with wine grapes, and it’s totally fabulous. I make mine with an olive oil brioche dough, layer it with seedless green Thompson grapes, sprinkle it with vanilla sugar, fresh thyme and black pepper, and bake it on the stone floor of our bread oven. It’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and full of grapey flavor- perfect for a picnic or wine tasting, or wine –making for that matter.
Emma Munroe, barista and salesperson extraordinaire at L’Arte invited Amanda and I to a day of her family’s extended winemaking festa. Emma’s family has been making wine yearly since the prohibition! It was a fun time with a lively and very funny family in the midst of their traditional foray into the art of winemaking–punctuated, by the way, with very frequent toasts and lots of raised glasses of the the wine that they had made two years ago.
Every autumn, the Iannaccones buy grapes in crates from Corrado’s Market in Clifton, N.J. They crush them, let them ferment for 10 days, then squeeze out the juice, which is already wine, by the way (like Beaujolais Nouveau).
They then let this young wine sit in large glass jars called carboys, fermenting until the spring, when it will be bottled.
We drank wine from two years ago- it was strong, and flavorful, almost like a cross between grappa and wine. But then again, all of the homemade wine I’ve tasted in Italy is like that.
After the very hard physical work of squeezing the grapes and bottling the wine, Emma’s large extended family sits down en masse to a dinner of lasagne and sausage and peppers. It really is a wonderful tradition, rare in a world where many families (like mine) have drifted apart and moved to different corners of the country.
But back to baking and cooking with grapes and wine. Using wine as a liquid in baking adds an incredible amount of flavor, and grapes just bake really well in cakes and pies, although it’s not that common to see. We do lots of crostate at L’Arte and one of my favorites is our Harvest Crostata, which consists of a tender and crumbly pasta frolla crust filled with a sweet and juicy combination of apples, pears, plums, and grapes. I also love to use Concord grapes- their flavor is so unique, although for some people it’s hard to appreciate them because of the somewhat troublesome texture of the skin and seeds. Which is one reason why I decided to use them in a granita, that quintessientally Italian version of flavored ice. Granita is a great item to make at home because it’s a frozen dessert that doesn’t involve an ice cream or gelato machine. And it’s a refreshing way to end a big meal, maybe along with a plate of biscotti.
Concord Grape Granita
1 qt. Concord grapes, on stem
¾ cup red wine or Port
3 cups water
½ cup sugar
- In a large pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a rapid boil.
- Turn flame down to medium and allow the mixture to boil for about 20 minutes. The grapes will have turned mushy and lost a lot of their color.
- Remove the pot from the heat and strain the liquid into a large bowl or container.
- Pour the liquid into a large metal baking pan or other flat container.
- Freeze the mixture, stirring every so often.
- When the granita is completely frozen, scrape it with a metal spoon or ice cream scoop. Put back into the freezer until ready to serve.
- Serve in small glasses, garnished with fresh grapes.