If you live in the countryside, you’d better not be in a hurry when you leave your house in any September morning. Any other time you find yourself stuck behind a tractor bursting of ripe grapes, carrying its buzzing load to the closer cellar. Arm yourself with patience and get mesmerized by the dull sound of the tractor engine and twitching bunches of grapes, impatient to become wine… you perfectly know you’re not allowed to go anywhere but to follow sheepishly the tractor. The time has come: it is the harvest season.
There are so many traditions, legends and meanings related to this moment of the year that we decided to fully dive into this buzzing period with our monthly Italian Table Talk theme. It is a movement that from North to South touches every region of Italy, each with special recipes they call for grapes as key ingredient.
Jasmine today will tell you about a recipe that is very dear to me, the grape schiacciata, while Valeria and Emiko present recipes from Veneto: Valeria has prepared grape must puddings named sugoli and Emiko a savory dish, the risotto in cantina as described by Elizabeth David. As for me, come and see …
My first paid job required rubber boots, old tattered clothes, thick gloves, a sun hat and pruning scissors, so hard that at first I needed two hands to open and close them.
As soon as I finished my final exams at high school I went to a local winery, a few miles from home, and asked to be enrolled as grape-picker for a month, a rite of passage for many young students, a sticky September between the rigor of the high school and the anarchy of the first months of University, when everything is new and slightly confusing.
I spent the first week in silence hidden behind the leaves of the grape row, cutting grapes and listening to the old men: they were apparently frail but they could raise two of my baskets crammed with grapes and bring them whistling to the tractor. I would come home and cry for the unusual tiredness and for a kind of work I was not used to: I still had the hands of a high school student, white, soft and able to write rather than cutting grapes.
After the first week everything changed and I entered the convivial atmosphere of the harvest, finally managing to find in my experience traces of my grandma’s youth stories. Friendships and laughter developed, well protected by the grape leaves, the old men turned into masters of life and bards, a bottle of water bottle was shared among the rows, all cursed by the same relentless thirst.
In those days I learned a very important lesson: never ever eat the grapes during the harvest hoping that they would quench your thirst: you’ll feel better for a few minutes and then you’ll find yourself again with dry mouth and the thick voice.
It’s a shame that it is increasingly difficult to find wineries willing to hire young students for the harvest: now the machines do most of the work. Yet there was something epic in the descent through the rows in the early morning when the fog was still tangled among the grape vine leaves and the sun was coming out from the clouds.
In one month we had an idea of what a real job is: times to be respected and hierarchies written and unwritten. You started the harvest when the countryside was still thirsty from the August sun and finished to pick the grapes in autumn, when you could already smell in the subtle scents of the forest and the anxiety of the first university courses that would start shortly. You gained a clear perception of the passage of time and Nature’s rhythms through the gradual yellowing of the vine leaves.
Searching for an ideal recipe to describe the harvest time in Tuscany I thought it was time to make my grandma’s favourite jam, a September preserve. It is made just as it would have been done in the days when she was a child, without complications or exotic spices. It is a reassuring jam, sweet and simple as children or adults looking for the flavour of the old times would like.
You just need the fruit that ripens in September: the vine grapes – whether black or white, depending on what you have or is left over from the harvest -, freshly picked figs, sticky and sweet, and tiny wild apples, which seem to come out straight from a fairytale. Combine everything and simmer until the fruit falls apart, giving the preserve the time it needs. Then at the end add some sugar to make everything as sweet as honey and to preserve the jam for the following months in your pantry.
- 1250 g of wine grapes black and white
- 250 g of wild apples
- 1 kg of figs
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 500 g of sugar
Rinse all the fruit under running water to remove any dust or insects. Cut the apples into cubes, but do not peel or core them, it will give a good amount of pectin, useful to thicken the preserve. Separate all the grapes from the stalks and cut the figs into small cubes. Put all the fruit in a large pot and pour in the juice of a lemon.
Simmer the fruit over low heat for about 45 minutes without a lid, until the apples begin to fall apart: the other fruit is more delicate and will definitely be ready.
Pass the fruit through a sieve with a fine mesh and collect the purée in a bowl along with all the liquid. By doing so you will remove all unpleasant grape seeds: I got 1.5 kg of fruit purée.
Add sugar to the purée, pour it back into the pot and return the fruit to a gentle simmer. Let it simmer for at least 45 minutes, until it has thickened enough.
Pour the jam into sterilized jars and close tight.
Sterilization. Put the jars in a large pot and cover with water: bring to a boil. Let simmer for 20 minutes and then remove from the heat. Let the jars cool completely in the pan, then remove them from water. You can store them for several months in a dry, cool and dark place.
As for you, are there other recipes that have the grapes or the juice as the main ingredient and can describe perfectly this time of year? If you would like to share them with us we would be very happy. Not to lose a single post by the Italian Table talk girls, these are our Social Accounts:
- Emiko, her blog is Emikodavies.com, @emikodavies on Twitter, and her Pinterest
- Valeria, her blog is Life Love Food, @valerianecchio on Twitter, her FB Page and her Pinterest
- Jasmine, her blog is Labna.it, @labna on Twitter, her FB page and her Pinterest
- Juls, my twitter @Julskitchen, FB page and Pinterest
The hashtag to follow the conversation on Italian Table talk on Twitter is #ITabletalk (easy, isn’t it?). Let us hear your voice!