When I was a child, a neighbor had a grapevine that tumbled over into our yard. The grapes started out tiny and green. Shielded by broad, sheltering leaves they transformed over the summer, ripening into deep blue clusters that hung from the vine, fat with juice. I still remember being intrigued to find that the sweet-tart skins would slip off, leaving a pale green orb in my hand. They were transparent enough to view the seeds in its center; seeds which made a crunch if I just ate the grape whole. I was disappointed that the grape wasn’t the color of jam all the way through, but that didn’t stop my brother and me from picking and eating all the grapes we could reach.
If you grew up on standard green grapes, or even red table grapes, fresh concord grapes are a completely different experience. That’s because they are completely different. Concord grapes are descended from wild North American grapes, vitus labrusca (fox grape). When we think of “grape flavor,” it is the Concord that smells and tastes that way, not the European grape varieties we use on the table or make into wine. The intense fragrance is what makes eating fresh Concords such a sensory experience.
I usually find them for a short time in late summer or early fall at independent fruit markets, but they’re also easy to grow in the backyard for many North Americans. After all they are uniquely adapted, given their lineage. Their story is a New England original:
Mr. Ephraim Wales Bull has been described by contemporaries as a bit of an eccentric. After trying out so many varieties of grapes on his farm, Bull couldn’t seem to find one hardy enough to withstand the harsh Massachusetts winters, but he kept trying. After many attempts, in the late 1840’s he started eying the wild grape vines that rambled freely about the countryside. One day he dug up a vine and transplanted it near a Catawba grape, which was a popular variety that grew on his farm. A red grape cross between wild labrusca and European grapes, the Catawba most likely pollinated Mr. Bull’s wild transplant.
Whatever the parentage, Bull collected the grapes that grew on the wild vine that season and planted them, fruit and all, then waited to see what would emerge. One of these offspring proved to be exceptional. It had lovely flavor and aroma, and was early to ripen. Bull propagated his vine and entered it into the 1853 competition at the Boston Horticultural Society, where the Concord won first place. Not only was his grape wildly popular in home gardens, it inspired a massive shift in juice and jam-making.
I didn’t tell my six year old daughter what to expect when I snipped off a little cluster of dusky grapes from the market this fall. I watched as she discovered them for herself, slip skins, seeds, and all. She experimented with crunching up the seeds at first, but soon opted to spit them out and carefully build a small stack at the side of her plate as the grapes disappeared. And then she asked for more.
Welch’s grape juice was first made in a family kitchen, the experiment of a Temperance activist and doctor, Thomas Bramwell Welch, in 1869. He wanted to create a replacement for communion wine. Welch successfully produced a non-fermenting grape juice by pasteurizing it in glass bottles on the stove top and first served it at his Methodist church.
Grape jam was first called Grapelade, made as a military ration in World War I. Even if the name didn’t stick, it became the most widely known companion to peanut butter in American sandwiches, also with a bit of help from Uncle Sam, who got American GI’s hooked on the combination during World War II.
Concord Grapes are rich in vitamin C as well as antioxidants. As a dark purple fruit, their color comes from anthocyanins, which has cardiovascular and immune supporting properties. The grapes also contain catechins (an antioxidant also found in green tea), as well as quercetin, another flavonoid with antihistamine action. The skins and seeds also contain resveratrol, which has also been studied for possible cardiovascular benefits.