Megan Saynisch is a freelance writer, cook, gardener and the creator of Brooklynfarmhouse.com.
Grapes are a special fruit. From inspiring myth (think Dionysus and Bacchus) to sustaining WWII troops in the form of raisins, grapes have been involved in so much of human history. Although I grew up eating lots of raisins and grapes, as I imagine so many American kids in the 70s and 80s did, I didn't really value the fruit until I was old enough to appreciate wine. The magic that happens between the grape harvest and the first pour into the wine glass is something thrilling -- and it's amazing to think that the beverage we let stain our teeth is (essentially) the same beverage that the ancient Persians, Romans, Greeks and Egyptians drank.
From almost the beginning of civilization, grapes have played an important role in human culture, especially that most excellent grape product, wine. The earliest evidence of wine production (so far) comes from what is now Iran: jars containing wine residues dating from 5400-5000 BCE were found there, although there is archaeological evidence that grape cultivation began even earlier, probably in eastern Turkey and Georgia.
From central Eurasia and Mesopotamia, grapes spread to Egypt and to the rest of the Mediterranean via the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The Romans took grape cultivation to a new level, creating a vast growing system that involved a lot of slaves and a lot of amphorae. (In addition to being major wine drinkers, Romans were crazy about fresh grapes, and Roman cookery frequently employed raisins in savory dishes.) The Romans spread grape cultivation throughout their empire, where the fruit became firmly entrenched in much of Mediterranean culture.
Grapes were probably also a part of Native American cuisine in North America, where there were (and are still) a number of native grapes, including the ancestor of the Concord. (There is no evidence that Native Americans fermented grapes to make wine, however.) In the 19th century, American grape varieties saved the vineyards of Europe. After an aphid-like insect, phylloxera, decimated European vineyards, growers figured out that grafting European grape varieties onto North American grape root stock prevented phylloxera destruction (North American grape varieties are resistant to the pest).
There are grape species native to Eurasia, North America and South Africa, but the Eurasian species, Vitis vinifera, is globally the most important -- most modern table (fresh) grapes, wine and raisins are produced from V. viniferacultivars. Differences in V. vinifera fruit depend upon the final product desired (wine, table grapes or raisins), although there are some wine grapes that are eaten out of hand, just as there are some table grape cultivars that are made into raisins.
Fueled in part by a rising middle class that is thirsty for wine, China's grape production has surged past former leaders Italy, the US and France. California leads the world in US grape growing and is a world leader for raisin production, surpassed only by Turkey.
Genetic diversity of V. vinifera has decreased in recent years -- as grapes have become a global commodity, certain cultivars have begun to dominate, in some cases replacing varieties bred for specific geographic conditions, such as low rainfall. Large-scale grape growing, especially in the US and in Australia, can be very water-intensive, and pesticides are also widely used, especially fungicides. In fact, grapes rank a not-so-impressive number 7 (out of 49 -- the higher the number, the more pesticide residue) on the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Pesticides in Produce. (*Check out our fruit and vegetable rule of thumb.)
Raisin production also has some negative environmental implications. Most golden raisins are exposed to sulphur dioxide to maintain their light green/yellow color -- sulphur dioxide is also known as "that gas that comes out of volcanoes" and "that gas that causes acid rain." It also has a number of negative health effects, especially for asthmatics. (The brown color of most raisins comes from the natural caramelization that occurs during sun or oven drying -- most golden and brown raisins in the US are made from the light-green Thompson Seedless variety.)
Finally, grape growing and harvesting is a very labor-intensive process, and has been associated with bad labor practices from as far back as the Romans. In 2008, terrible labor conditions for migrant workers in California came to the forefront again after a 17-year-old girl, laboring in a vineyard for hours, died of heat exposure.
In the US, most grapes are harvested in the late summer and early fall. On the East Coast, look for native varieties such as Concords and Scuppernongs in August through late September and into early October. Note that the grapes you see at grocery stores in winter often come from Chile -- and that the USDA requires all Chilean grapes to be gassed with methyl bromide, a toxic, ozone-depleting chemical, upon entry to the US as prevention for an agricultural mite.
Grapes are good sources of Vitamins C and K, but not much else. What they lack in vitamins, they make up for in containing a number of potent antioxidant compounds that may provide cardiovascular benefits, lower blood sugar and have anti-cancer properties. (It should be noted that the scientific verdict is still out on many of these claims, however.) Grapes with red or purple skins contain the most of these compounds.
Fresh grapes come in many colors, from dusky red to deep purple to bright green. Look for fresh grapes with no brown spots or significant amounts of shriveled grapes on the cluster.
Fresh grapes should be as dry as possible when stored in the refrigerator, as moisture accelerates decomposition. Fresh grapes will keep in the fridge between one and two weeks.
Although I grew up thinking that grapes and raisins were "kid" food, I've come to realize that both make pretty sophisticated additions to a whole bunch of different dishes, both savory and sweet. Fresh grapes are, of course, delicious eaten out of hand, but also make amazing additions to pastries, like this fresh grape pie or this awesome-looking grape-lavender tart. Every year I look forward to Concord grape season so I can make this super-simple Concord grape sorbetto. Also - why in the world would you eat chicken salad without grapes? It's not just the fruit that's delicious -- grape leaves are also eaten, most famously stuffed with rice and aromatics in the Greek dish (a.k.a., stuffed grape leaves). And raisins are pretty much a pantry staple for baking -- I don't ever want to live without oatmeal raisin cookies or Irish soda bread. Grapes and raisins also both pair beautifully with cheese.
To keep raisins from sticking together or sinking to the bottom of a cake or muffin tin, toss them in a little all-purpose flour before gently folding into the batter.
I bust out this recipe (originally a component of another recipe printed in Gourmet magazine) in the fall, when I'm ready to start roasting things again and when beautiful red grapes can be found at the farmers' market. Use as a quick relish for roasted chicken (reduce the sugar in the recipe), or pair with a strong, hard cheese, like cheddar. Top lemon custards, cheesecake or vanilla ice cream with them. You can also experiment by adding fresh herbs (like lemon thyme or lavender) to the grapes before roasting, or toss in a couple of tablespoons of walnuts or pinenuts.
2 cups red seedless grapes, halved
1 tablespoon melted butter
1-2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
2. Combine all ingredients in a shallow baking pan and let macerate for at least 15 minutes.
3. Roast grapes in oven for about 10 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until tender.
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Of course, the most famous way to preserve grapes is to make wine and all the various other alcoholic products derived from grapes (e.g., grappa, brandy, cognac and the like). Most of us don't have the capacity to make our own wine at home, and also most of the time homemade wine is really terrible, though this article outlines the process if you want to give it a go. Grapes also make excellent jams and jellies, especially the many varieties of grapes that are native to North America (e.g., Concords). (And check out these delicious looking Jam-Dot Cookies from Kim as a way to use what you put up!) You can even make your own raisins!
(*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them -- agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)