Saturday, October 22, 2011

Alone on the Vine

Today we are united in the conviction that we are the odd one out. In my own case, I can’t help feeling that my pleasure in composting, of seeing winter flowers and the detritus of dinner being turned to the good makes me marginal. Then there is my love of arcane cooking methods and of making things that can be readily bought - canned tomatoes and fruit preserves, which brings me to grape jelly. 
Every fall at Brock the air in residence would be filled with the smell of Concord grapes and accompanying clouds of fruit flies. When I first met them I thought these were good-for-nothing grapes. In Ontario they seldom ripen fully and so have a gelatinous centre. They have big seeds and lots of them. As students we bought them by the basketful and ate them wishing they were white and seedless.
If Concords were soldiers, they’d be infantry. If they were shoes they’d be sensible. In the years since I first met them a lot of the Niagara Peninsula’s Concord vines have been decapitated and grafted with fancy-dancy European wine producing cultivars, a Frankenstein story with a happy ending. 
My neighbors Bev and Frank re-introduced me to the Concord. Her mum still runs the family farm on Lake Erie. I am the lucky recipient of their autumn surfeit. The plentiful seeds that make it a grape best eaten out of doors are full of pectin, which is what makes jam and jellies set. To make grape jelly, as with so many things in the kitchen, you need more time than skill. 
Put two or three small plates in the fridge. Warm four cups of sugar in a 250 degree oven. Take four pounds of grapes, washed and stemmed and bring them to a boil with a little water.  Add the warm sugar a little at a time, stirring to fully dissolve it before adding more until it’s all incorporated. Reduce to a simmer, cover and let it cook for about half an hour. Drain in a strainer lined with cheese cloth and let it stand for at least three hours or overnight. Measure the resulting syrup. You want to know how much you have in excess of four cups, so you have a general idea how much to reduce it by. When you have reduced it to approximately the desired amount you can begin to test for jell point. 
The easiest way to do this is with a thermometer. Naturally, I don’t do that. I like to test for jell point by putting a few drops of the jelly syrup on one of the chilled plates. Draw your finger through the syrup. If the halves remain separate, you’re at jell point and can proceed to bottling. The grape mash, of course, goes into the compost. There, now you’re one of me.
Clear Sighted Mollie
I so enjoyed Mollie Panter-Downes Minnie’s Room, that I borrowed the copy of Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, her wartime stories, which I had given to Naomi before she had time to read it. Bad form, I know.
It’s easy when you read a lot of history to feel condescendingly towards the people who lived it. Our 20/20 hindsight must surely be superior. Panter-Downes is fully aware of the social revolution the war is fueling and in no doubt that there will be no going back. That wiped the smug smile off my face and replaced it with one of pure delight. 
Panter-Downes can break your heart with one carefully placed word, as you will see if you read It’s the Reaction. None of these stories take an obvious turn; each explores the human condition with subtlety and compassion: envy, sibling rivalry, the romanticization of war, the strain and difficulty of getting through life with generosity and grace. There are many novels that accomplish far less than these 21 graceful stories. 

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