Red table grapes, sweet as honey and shining with health, grow ten blocks away.
They’re growing up the garage fence at my favorite house. It’s a little bungalow built in 1925. The owner died many years ago. The house is deserted ever since, with the lights on 24/7 and security cameras over the doors. It’s a poignantly appealing whitewashed cottage like a villa in Tuscany, fifteen paces by fifteen paces in size, with a crumbling chimney and porch with rounded arches and charming tiny medieval windows. In my dreams I want to buy and restore it. But the entire structure, roof to windows to steps, needs replacement and probably a wrecking ball. According to the internet it’s appraised at $840,000 (up $90,000 over last year). Restoring it would cost a fortune. Besides, it’s not for sale. In this affluent all-white residential neighborhood these old houses fall every day, replaced by tall personal castles of artificial stone or cubist condominium blocks. It seems possible that the house is somebody’s good investment and nobody’s home.
Anyway. The grapes have been growing over the sidewalk for weeks.
I stop to look at them every day. Surprisingly, nobody else walking past looks twice. Finally this morning I put on a nice Sunday dress and bonnet for a more respectable air, brought scissors and paper bags, and spent half an hour very openly and conspicuously snipping grape bunches in everyone’s full view. Families with baby carriages and cell phones and dogs kept walking past. For each one I nodded and smiled, waiting for them to stop and say “Who the hell are you? Are those grapes yours?” Where I’m from, any neighbor would have marched right out and challenged me, as they should. So I was all ready to say “Take some grapes!” and to explain that autumn rainy season is forecast for this week, these grapes are perfectly ripe and about to fall, grapes on pavement create mold and a slippery fall hazard, and they attract coyotes, raccoons, rats, and wasps. I was hoping that some kiddo would be excited to learn that grapes come from vines, and that some lifelong resident would enjoy telling me stories about the house and taking some grapes home for jam. Maybe I could find out the late owner’s relatives, and could drop off a thank you note and some grape juice and offer to prune and feed the vines for next year.
For 45 minutes I stood there in plain sight, cutting down the entire 2021 bounty hanging over the property line. Not one person glanced at the lady with scissors standing in shrubbery in the drizzle. Finally I took my triple-layered paper shopping bag full of grapes and leaves and vines, and headed home.
Here is just one half of the harvest. The other half wouldn’t fit on this chair.
Home is when the real work begins. Always plan for a much bigger mess and bigger time expenditure than expected.
I put the bunches in a baking soda water bath, then swished and lifted them into plain water baths several times. I set aside five of the most attractive compact small bunches to give to a neighbor. He doesn’t even know me, but on Friday he saw me admiring his plum tree, and he rushed out to hand me a whole shopping bag of gorgeous blue-black silver-bloom Italian prune plums, perfectly ripe and sweet.
For the loose grapes I picked off and inspected every one, checking for any traces of mold or bugs or bird droppings. Fortunately, the grapes were perfectly clean and just at the peak of ripeness. One bucketful of the wash water will go on the garden (maybe the seeds will sprout!).
Next I poured the loose grapes in a pot and began to heat them. Fruit sugars will scorch in a jiffy and ruin a pot, so I watched carefully in case they needed water. But the grapes sweated juice right away and melted down to half pulp, half juice. With reluctance I brought them to a boil, and simmered for five minutes. It would have been nice to consume them raw, but who knows what critters (and their parasites) might have been in those vines. Here are the six cups of cooked pulp with seeds and juice.
Then the pulp went into a strainer. Here was a source of unexpected fuss. Grape skins completely block the strainer, so I had to both press with a potato masher, and at each stroke also scrape the skins away with a wooden ladle. (A Foley hand-crank food mill sieve would have been the perfect help.) I set the pulp aside, and strained the strained juice several times. Even that was extra bother; the strained juice is hard to strain. It’s high in… pulp? gel? pectin? and doesn’t go through mesh easily at all. To strain it several times, I had to massage it through with my fingertips. The pulp, leaves, and vines went into the garden compost, but first I simmered them to make sour soup stock for Russian borscht.
The six cups of pulp strained down to this three cups of juice below. The juice has a wonderful taste. It’s clearly very high in sugar, but it’s nothing like commercial juice; it has a strong kick and complex chimes of flavor.
Two cups of juice will go to Mr. and Mrs. Wing; they both take fruit juices and Chinese herbs, and make craft tinctures and liqueurs. One cup of juice will make a good flavoring for my windfall apples and plums and Oregon grapes. Those fruit sauces will stock the freezer this winter. More important, they’re a good gift and point of connection with neighbors who take an interest in raising and cooking with plants.
This certainly gives a new appreciation for our ancestors and how hard they worked, to put a little taste of sweetness in their lives.
Update, 2 hours later:
The neighbor who gave me the plums was at home just now. I knocked on his door and handed him a bag of grapes. He seemed fine with the discovery of a fruit-bearing total stranger alighting on his doorstep, and he gave me a whole tour of his little garden. He then sent me home with a shopping bag of plums, and he even climbed a ladder to shake down some gorgeous jumbo apples. Now on the counter I have his shopping bag of apples, plus six quarts of his plums from Friday and today. We’re going to keep visiting and swapping our grown and forage fruit, and he’s going to walk over and tour our garden strip.
Then on the way home with my apples and plums I met still another neighbor, who was planting and harvesting a rotating crop of what turned out to be buckwheat to improve the woebegone soil at our apartment complex. Naturally I gave him some apples and plums, and asked permission to come back and photograph the buckwheat, a handsome plant with pretty white flowers.
Then Mrs. Wing came outside and sent me home with more plums (just in time for the next batch of fruit stewing), cherry tomatoes, and two giant zucchini. It would serve them right if I baked some zucchini into bread and left it at their door. Hm…