Grapes. Italy is covered with them, and this is the season when they come into their own. All around Toscana and Piemonte the grapes are being harvested and turned into wine. The markets are full of plump pale green eating grapes, sweet, succulent and seedy. Delicious!
About five years ago our friends Rick and Marisa gave us a small vine of what’s called American grapes here – the sweet purple Concord grape from which grape jelly is made. Every year it grew a little more, but remained rather small. (One reason it did so is because some critter kept eating the new shoots each year.) Suddenly this year it exploded (as you can see above) threatening to engulf our terrace.
With great excitement we watched as many panicles developed little hard green orbs which gradually swelled and began to change color. There were so many! One day I hunted through the vines, mentally counting jars of jam, and, after a taste, decided that the fruit needed one more day of hot sun and then it would be perfect.
The next morning I gathered up a basket and the secators and headed down for the first ever vendemia. But wait. Where were the grapes?? With mounting horror I realized that there was not a grape to be seen. The panicles were still there, their little stems taunting me, but not a one carried a grape any more. Who was the villain? We suspect a rat, literally, as they like sweet grapes we’re told. Must have been a rat smart enough to finally figure out that waiting for the grapes in August was better than eating the new growth in May. But oh, grrrrrr. I was so annoyed.
But then I got thinking, all is not lost. We might not have grape jam this year, but the Captain makes wonderful stuffed grape leaves. So instead of harvesting grapes I harvested a couple dozen beautiful leaves and called the head chef to report what had happened. He made a detour to the local Middle Eastern food shop and picked up a kilo of of frozen lamb and that night we sat down to a delicious meal. It has always puzzled us that in this country of grapes there do not seem to be recipes for the leaves. But thank goodness other cultures have developed them, and that night we were the beneficiaries.
You can find the recipe the Captain uses here. It is taken from a book called Finest in Middle East Recipes; Exclusive ideas for Better Cooking, by Yasmine Betar.
You’ll notice from the photo that the Captain’s copy of this fine book is the New Edition – 1968 (originally published in 1957). The author is so modest she doesn’t even put her name on the cover! The title page lures one on with the promise of “Over one hundred Recipes, Simplified, With suggested menus, Their uses origin and history… Also spicelore and herbs, Some stories of folklore origin.” The inside of the book is as delightful as the outside:
The illustrations are by Leo Sarkisian, who is well-known as a collector and recorder of African Music.
Ms Betar was born and grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a Lebanese food marketer. She learned food from her father and its preparation and lore from her mother.
The Captain has altered her recipe a bit, but it is still mostly hers. If you decide to make these stuffed grape leaves you’re in for a real treat.