Saturday, November 1, 2014

What the heck is that? Concord grapes

On a recent visit to the Union Square Greenmarket, I noticed that farm stands with super-fragrant, thick-skinned and deeply purple Concord grapes attracted almost as many bees as the beekeeper who brought a huge honeycomb.

Bees aren't the only fans of the grapes. "Concord grapes make your taste buds sing!" my friend Jen says.

Concord grapes, distinguished by a complex, winy flavor and "slip skins" that separate easily from the grapes' flesh, get their name from Concord, Massachusetts. In the 19th century, Concord was home to intellectuals and free-thinkers, including Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and their grape-growing neighbor Ephraim Wales Bull, who cultivated and cross-bred species of the native grape vitis labrusca into Concord grapes. Two interesting articles about Concord grapes, He Sowed, Others Reaped: Ephraim Bull's Concord Grapes and The Syrupy Tale of How Jews Invented Kedem and Modern America, note Thoreau's August 28, 1853 journal entry about the fragrant grape crop:

I detect my neighbor’s ripening grapes by the scent twenty rods off, though they are concealed behind his house. Every passer knows of them. Perhaps he takes me to his back door a week afterward and shows me with an air of mystery his clusters concealed under the leaves, which he thinks will be ripe in a day or two—as if it were a secret. He little thinks that I smelled them before he did.

Ephraim Bull's Concord grape became very popular but - unlike today's fruit breeders and propagators, who can patent an agricultural product - Bull made little or no money from the nurseries all over the country who grew and sold Concord grapes, nor from the "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine" that Thomas Welch, a dentist/ Methodist minister, sold as non-alcoholic communion wine. (Thomas Welch's son, Charles Welch, transformed this Concord grape juice into Welch's Grape Juice and marketed it to wild success at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.)

Nowadays Concord grapes are best known for their presence in Welch's Grape Juice and the jelly in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But why aren't they also in lunchboxes?

"Americans hate seeds, regardless of how the fruit tastes," my fruit vendor buddy Osman, frequently observes. Concord grapes' thick skins are also considered a turnoff for mass marketing.  But we're lucky in New York - at least Concord grapes on our radar, especially this time of year. New York State's Finger Lakes region, about a 5 hour drive north of Manhattan, is a major producer of Concord grapes, mostly for wine production, and consequently, Concord grapes and New York City have a vivid history together that includes basement winemaking by both Italian immigrants in Williamsburg and Red Hook and Jews on the Lower East Side. (Not to mention backyards throughout the City, from my childhood next-door-neighbors' to my my sister's garden, that feature grapevines no one remembers planting.) 

And Concord grapes are not the only hardy, thick-skinned, super-fragrant grape game in town. The Greenmarket market had a variety of blue, magenta and white grapes, both seeded - Concord-style grapes have larger seeds than European varieties do - and "seedless" (i.e., containing tiny vestigial seeds).

Here's my score card:

Concord: the original and the baseline. How far can you spit the seeds?

Mars: What's not to love? Just like Concord - but seedless!

Jupiter: Seedless and more oval than Concord and Mars. Perhaps my favorite of the Concord-y family.

Caco. Red-magenta rather than purple-blue. Seeds. Good flavor.

Canadice. Basically looks like Caco only with slightly smaller grapes in slightly denser clusters. Seedless. Very tasty!

Delaware. Seedless and tasty. Could I really tell the difference between Canadice and Delaware? Yes, but only because I took careful notes!

There's another seedless red variety, Vanessa, that looks just like Delaware and Canadice. I haven't seen it this year (yet). 

And the green grapes:

Niagra. They are indeed known as "White Concord" and are the most popular of the green Concord-type grapes. Some of the wine sellers, for example, sell Niagras.  They have thick skins and seeds but a lighter scent and taste than Concords.

Marquis. Seedless, but eh. Underwhelming.

Lakemont. Seedless. My favorite of the greenies!

Himrod, another green variety, made a blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearance at the Greenmarket this year. To be honest I don't remember much about them other than that they were (1) green (2) seedless and (3) good.

Our old buddy, the Cornell University agricultural program lists many other varieties.

As you can see from the picture of the Marquis grapes, these grapes are not always picture perfect. The dense clusters sometimes promote mold and rot. There is considerable variety even within the vine, with some grapes sweeter and more flavorful than others.

I think of Concord grapes as a Northeast greenmarket kind of produce, but that's naive. Everything is grown in California -- and almost every kind of produce ends up in Chinatown.  So I shouldn't have been surprised to find a package of "Concord-Niabell Grapes" for sale at a Chinatown vendor. Wilson Brand's packaging featured Chinese writing and enthusiastic health claims about Resveratrol and Polyphenols and antioxidants.

But "Niabell"? What the heck is that? As it turns out, basically California's version of Concord grapes. So even this most seasonal - and to me, New York-centered - of grapes can be part of the Endless Summer.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Fascinating! But grapes have another drawback in addition to the annoying seeds--they're insipid. At least the ones I have encountered in supermarkets--maybe the Union Square greenmarket ones, which have a fragrance, taste better. Even an orange (which like a grape is also basically sugar water) has more flavor.