From the very old and robust grape vines that engulf the fence of our property in Kea we gather and stuff tender grape leaves in May for our trademark dolmades. But the dark grapes our vines produce late in August, although sweet, are filled with seeds and difficult to swallow. Plus we hardly ever manage to harvest them when they ripen, since wasps and all kinds of insects attack them as soon as they start to blush. Come harvest time we just find bunches of rotten half-eaten grapes.
So we decided to cut our grapes green and use them to make condiments, like the medieval verjuice or the old Persian ab-ghooreh and its Middle Eastern variations. The easiest way for us is to crush the grapes in a blender, pass the pulp through a sieve, and either use it immediately or freeze it. This freshly pressed juice is wonderfully tart, and not too sour. I often use it instead of lemon in vinaigrettes and in skordalia, the traditional garlic sauce, as a cook from the Pelion Mountain, in central Greece, suggested to me years ago.
Verjuice modern and medieval
The wine-like, clear, light-and-fruity verjuice produced now by wineries all over the world does not impress me much. It looks to me like yet one more addition to the zillion gourmet vinegar-like products. The old German Fuchs winery explains its production and recommended uses. Certainly it is "fruity" and "fresh-tasting," but so is any good fruit vinegar, like my favorite ones from the Huilerie Beaujolaise. I must confess, though, that I haven't tried verjuice as a drink with ice. Maybe it is a memorable non-alcoholic thirst-quencher.
In any case the product called "verjuice" today is certainly very different from the original medieval "green juice" implied by its name. According to various sources, the old condiment contained more than unripe grapes. Bear in mind that juices from unripe pomegranates, plums, and all kinds of other fruits, along with wine vinegar, were used since antiquity to give foods a much-loved tartness. Verjuice, though, was a more complex sour sauce: aromatic as well as medicinal herbs were mashed together with the grapes, and often complemented with sorrel or other sour greens. It could also have spices, and certainly salt to preserve it. The medieval verjuice continued to play an important role in European cuisine up until the 16th century, well after the 11th century, when Arabs introduced lemons to the Mediterranean. Gradually, of course, lemons took over and the "green sauce" was forgotten, at least in Europe.
In the Middle East, though, a sauce from unripe grapes—Iranians call it ab-ghooreh, and the Lebanese aseer hosrum—is still very much in use. It is neither green nor clear, but brownish. The artisanal "unripe grape sauce" that a friend of mine imports to Greece from Lebanon is not attractive to look at, but it is wonderful as an ingredient in artichoke, bean, or zucchini stew, and it makes delicious, deep-flavored marinades for grilled fish, chicken, and pork. I wouldn't use it in vinaigrettes for delicate salads, like tender greens; I consider pomegranate molasses—my favorite Middle Eastern sour sauce—the ideal condiment for mixed greens salad.
With the juice from our sour grapes we make the sauce following Najmieh Batmanglij's recipe from her book New Food for Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. We have also kept some juice in the freezer so that in the winter we can mix it with the island's wild and aromatic greens, and try to make our verjuice, inspired by the medieval descriptions. I will keep you posted if the result is worth mentioning.
Note: Sour grape juice is available online from Kalustyan's.
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