Real Food Encyclopedia | Grapes
Grapes are a special fruit. From inspiring myth (Dionysus and Bacchus) to sustaining WWII troops in the form of raisins, grapes have been involved in so much of human history. Grapes also are responsible for wine, of course! 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.
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 grapes, wine and raisins are produced from V. vinifera cultivars. 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.
Fun Facts about Grapes:
- 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.
- 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).
- Historically, the majority of raisin farmers in California were of Armenian descent and Armenia has a long agricultural and culinary history with the sun-dried snack.
- 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.
What to Look for When Buying Grapes
Fresh grapes come in many colors, from dusky red to deep purple to bright green. Look for fresh grapes with no brown spots, mold or significant numbers of shriveled grapes on the cluster.
Sustainability of Grapes
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 quite high (the higher the number, the more pesticide residue) on the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
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.)
Labor Issues with Grapes
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. Famously, in 1965, there was the Delano Grape Strike in which Filipino and Mexican laborers ultimately joined together to form United Farm Workers, and to start a boycott in the fields that went on to become a hugely successful consumer boycott. 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. Recently, wine country in California has been experiencing a labor shortage do to immigration crackdowns.
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.
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.
Cooking with Grapes
Grapes and raisins 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 grape-lavender tart. Every year in Concord grape season you could make this super-simple Concord grape sorbetto or this or this grape focaccia with rosemary. Then there’s chicken salad with grapes, of course.
It’s not just the fruit that’s delicious — grape leaves are also eaten, most famously stuffed with rice and aromatics in the Greek/Middle Eastern dish called dolmas (a.k.a., stuffed grape leaves). And raisins are pretty much a pantry staple for baking: 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.
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). You can also make your own raisins.
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.