My grandparents were locavores long before that word existed. They raised eight kids during the Depression, well-fed on fresh and preserved produce from their backyard garden. Wild game and fresh fish were often the main dish at dinner. That carried over to our house too. Grocery money was scarce – their hunting and fishing as well as our garden supplemented the limited family food budget, and our table was always abundant.
But I was a squeamish kid. Even though my grandparents were scrupulously discreet about where they cleaned the fish and dressed the game, and made sure that I never saw anything until it turned up on the platter, I was nervous about potential encounters with slimy animal guts. So the day I came into my grandma’s kitchen and saw the jelly bag dripping a dark reddish-purple liquid into a bowl, my first thought was bloody carcass! But it was in fact the beginnings of the lunch that sustained me through childhood – peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches.
Ontario grapes are in season now and once again, as every year, I follow my grandma’s example with local grapes. My neighbour has a grape arbour, a common garden feature in Toronto. He told me, as he was cutting bunches of grapes and piling them up in my arms, that his grapes don’t make good wine. He makes his own wine using grapes he buys, not the grapes he grows. But he likes to see a vine growing in his yard, just like back home. He inhales deeply and smiles, “I like the smell.” Concord grapes are not good for eating out of hand because of their thick, tart skin and copious seeds but, because that’s where the pectin resides, those same qualities make them perfect for jelly.
Here’s what I do:
Pick or buy about 2 kg (3 litres) of Ontario grapes, which requires about 350 grams sugar.
These amounts yield approx. 3 half pint (250 mL) jars of jelly. Doesn’t seem like much, but it is intense.
Add some water to the bottom of the pot of clean, stemmed grapes and cook over a low-med heat until they are soft and give up their juices. Not that long, maybe 20 minutes. Squash them with a wooden spoon or a potato masher as they cook.
Pour the entire contents of the pot, juices and fruit pulp, into a dampened jelly bag and suspend overnight or at least for several hours. Don’t squeeze it to release more juice because it will become cloudy. Part of the joy of this jelly is it’s gloriously clear purple colour.
When ready to boil the jelly, first put a small plate in the freezer. This cold plate is for testing the jell.
Pour the strained juice into a jelly pan – a wide pot allows for quick heat and maximum evaporation. Turn it on high and bring to a vigorous boil. At the same time, heat the sugar in the oven for about 10 minutes or so at 250°. Warm sugar prevents an interruption of the boil. As the juice continues to boil, slowly add the sugar.
This jelly sets quickly so it must be stirred and monitored constantly. The drag on the spoon increases perceptibly as it begins to thicken. Also, as it boils the bubbles will become smaller and the froth will go down.
Test the jell by putting a tiny dollop onto the cold plate. Give it a few seconds to cool, then slowly pass a fingertip through it and watch the surface. If it wrinkles, it’s jelly. If not, continue to boil but keep testing frequently. Pay close attention and do not let your granddaughter distract you. If you miss the moment and cook it too long you’ll end up with a grape jelly bouncing ball which, I can tell you, is very hard to spread on toast.
– Schuster Gindin
Photos by Schuster Gindin