Every day, I walk a loop around my neighborhood, starting on our road, which is dotted with antique homes, raised ranches, and hay fields. I walk this for about five minutes, then follow a long, occasionally narrow road called Fairfield, which is also dotted with hay fields (lovely ones, as the name suggests), Capes, ranches, and the occasional raised ranch. Next, I leave Fairfield behind and walk a little over a mile on what I consider the woodland portion of my walk.
On this road, there are horse farms, hay fields, and fields in which local hunters hunt deer, then a stretch of road lined with woods, which, in the late spring treats me (and anyone else who is paying attention) to the sight of lady slipper orchids along the roadside, jutting out from the pine needles and last autumn’s leaves.
This same stretch of road always has the potential for one to encounter a flock of turkeys (the other morning, there were ten), a deer bounding across the road, or what is now a familiar family of white and black ducks, with whom I think I’ve at least reached acquaintance status, as the drake doesn’t bother me as I pass, though if his girls are too close to the road, he will fluff up his tail feathers to let me know I’m not to bother them.
As happens when you walk (or run) the same route each day, you come to know the other people on your route, the friendly dogs lying on front lawns, the small, yippy ones bouncing up and down on their leads as you pass, and, yes, even the drake and his ducks.
I must be off schedule with the gentleman I ran into the other day during our respective walks, as I hadn’t seen him before, and given that he stopped to admire the sunchoke flowers growing among the reeds and cat o’nine tails at a bridge on Fairfield as we passed one another, and given that when next I saw him, his head was tilted back in order to suss out the Concord grape vines growing up the trees on the wooded section of the walk, I suspect this may have been his first experience with the nature walk I’ve been enjoying since the spring.
“I was wondering what that smell was,” he said as I approached.
“Oh, the grapes,” I replied.
“I didn’t realize they grew out here.”
Boy, do they grow out here. That particular vine drops grapes to the street all day long as far as I can tell from the crushed fruit staining the asphalt. At this time of year, there are many parts of this walk where the smell of ripe grapes is overwhelming – and, as far as I’m concerned, very welcome.
On Saturday, while JR and I harvested the Concord grapes growing at the end of our driveway – grapes that neither of us had planted – I said that I’d like to grow more grapes.
“That’s too bad,” he said.
There was a pause, and it didn’t seem like more information was coming. And with that, I gave him my perplexed look. It’s distinctive and includes furrowed brow and scrunched up nose, plus a little head move – a quick little move of the chin into the neck, but not as animated as a head nod. There is no up move to complement the down, and there’s also no mistaking it. I’m about to be disappointed and annoyed if I’m not already.
Sensing my impending disappointment (and the more impactful annoyance, which then affects how his day is going to go), he quickly chimed in “That’s too bad – because this place used to be overrun with grapes. There were grapes all around the corral – all around it.”
This Time of So Many Grapes, of course, was before I showed up here with my toothbrush and a suitcase. I’m not sure that I’d have been able to protect the small forest of grapes even if I’d been here at the time, and, given that our pigs live in that same corral, I’m not sure that keeping them would have done me a lot of good in the long run. Pigs, in case you aren’t aware, love grapes. Love them.
And we love this Concord grape jelly. It’s just sweet enough and just tart enough, and far more interesting than the grape jelly of our youth. If you can get your hands on Concord grapes, I highly recommend you make yourself a batch. Fairfield runs into Ash – it might not be too late to harvest that vine on the wooded section.
- 5 pounds Concord grapes, stemmed and rinsed (approximately 12 cups)
- 5 cups granulated sugar
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- Sterilize your canning jars in a boiling water bath.
- This is a two-step cooking process. You’ll need two large stockpots or saucepans, or will have to rinse (or wash) the one used for the first phase of cooking to be sure no skin bits or seeds end up in the finished jelly. Place the grapes, sugar, and lemon juice into one of those stockpots. Mash the grapes with a potato masher, or, as I did, with a clean wine bottle to break the skins (wine bottles are handy for so much more than just holding wine, though that alone is pretty good, isn’t it? I also use wine bottles to coarsely crush peppercorns and to “chop” nuts. So handy, indeed.).
- Bring the grape mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently and skimming foam as it accumulates on the top of the grapes. Many of the grape seeds will also accumulate on the top of the grape mixture during this stage, they should also be skimmed off. After so doing you’ll really, truly understand where the name “grape nuts” comes from. Someone should make a percussive instrument with those things. Perhaps they have. Let there not be waste.
- Once the fruit has started to break down, meaning you aren’t seeing whole grapes floating around, and the mixture is that characteristic grape jelly purple, remove the pot from the heat. Getting the fruit to this point should take around 20 minutes.
- Strain the fruit mixture into a large mixing bowl through a fine mesh strainer (sieve) or colander lined with 4 layers of cheesecloth, pressing gently on the solids to extract the juice.
- Pour the juice into a large stockpot or saucepan, then bring to a boil over medium-high heat once again, stirring frequently and skimming foam from the top. Once the mixture reaches 220°F on a candy thermometer, which should take 25 to 30 minutes, remove the pot from the heat, and ladle the jelly into the sterilized jars.
- Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp cloth, then place the lids on and lightly screw the bands onto the jars.
- Process the jars in a water bath to seal the jars. You’ll hear a very satisfying popping noise if they are sealed, and when pressed in the middle of the lid, there is no give. If they did not seal properly, you’ll see a convex circle in the center of the lid and will be able to press down on it, with it coming back up, which simply means that jar needs to be refrigerated and used within a month.
Equipment: 4-ounce canning jars, boiling water canner for sterilizing and sealing or a large stockpot for boiling water to sterilize the jars and seal the lids, candy thermometer. Also good to have: wide-mouth funnel, tongs, magnetic lid lifter
For more detail on canning, which I highly recommend you read if you aren’t familiar with canning basics, check out Ball’s handy overview here, visit the USDA’s site for an in-depth overview, or Food in Jars’ Canning 101.