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August, 2013

The Champagne of Grapes
By Dennis Linden

The perfect kids’ snack that is also relished as an elegant seasonal ingredient by both home gourmets and professional chefs alike.

Champagne Grapes

One of the best things about the month of August is Champagne Grapes! These miniature dark purple clusters of tight bunches on delicate, edible stems will bring a touch of visual class to summer grape displays in upscale retail venues. However, the Champagne is not just another pretty grape face. The variety’s tiny size belies a huge flavor that can be enjoyed as the perfect kids’ snack, sized for small hands on a hot summer afternoon, which is also relished as an elegant seasonal ingredient by both home gourmets and professional chefs alike.

In spite of its name, the Champagne grape does not make into a bottle of bubbly. Actually, the moniker is a testament to the power of advertising. It was born out of a magazine ad in the 1960s promoting the grape under its historical namesake, the Black Corinth Grape. For the photo shoot, the attractive bunches were posed alongside a flute of champagne to communicate its natural elegant appearance. Repetitive exposure of this ad image stuck with the consumer and the dynamics of the marketplace soon replaced Black Corinth with the sexier, Champagne.

Actually, no matter what one chooses to call it, the provenance of this grape variety predates that infamous advertising campaign by some two-thousand years. The Black Corinth grapes are one of the oldest commercially traded fruits found referenced in written history. The grape was originally grown on the island of Zante off the coast of ancient Greece and named for the city of Corinth; in fact, the variety also has another alias that is still used in the marketplace, the Zante Currant.

The grapes grown on ancient Zante were even smaller than they are today, so they were sold only as a dried ingredient that was primarily used as a natural sweetener. There is an ancient tale that supposedly explains the how the variety’s tiny size was increased to the point that it could be traded as a whole fresh fruit. The story goes that a donkey was tied to a vine of a Black Corinth and the animal started grazing around and around the vine until the halter rope rubbed all the bark off. Instead of dying, the vine healed the wound and the next crop of grapes, which had always been minuscule, were now large enough to eat fresh rather than dried.

While this old fable can never be substantiated, there is a lot of technical truth to it. The ancient Greeks did develop a growing process called girdling, which called for stripping the bark off grape vines to increase the size of fruit. Girdling is still used today in some vineyards, though a grafted hormone has largely replaced this tedious process.

Anyway, with or without the help of a donkey, once the Greeks figured out a way to plump up Black Corinth/Zante Currant/Champagne Grapes to at least the size of a raisin, that’s exactly what they did with them – made raisins. This was a market-driven decision. The grape was still comparatively too small to compete with other, much larger, fresh grapes. Plus it was an ancient value-added characteristic, as the shelf-life of a raisin was far superior to that of a perishable fresh grape, which increased its worth as a trade commodity. As a sweet raisin, the fruit became an integral component in Greek trade relationships with the early Roman Empire and continued right into the 16th century with the English and French, who made the tiny grape/raisin popular across medieval Europe.

In spite of both ancient and modern agricultural technologies, the Champagne Grape remains the smallest of all fresh varieties in the marketplace. In fact, the grape’s stem branch system is so tender that they are completely edible! Attach to these edible stems, clumps of tiny grapes with a very high sugar content and you have the makings of a healthy fruit snack; Ma Nature’s version of the fruit energy bar!

For the home and professional chef, Champagne grapes can be used either as a beautiful edible garnish or as a flavorful sauce ingredient. The small bunches of perfectly formed mini-grapes can add a grace to any presentation with a unique grape sweetness that pairs well with beef, lamb or pork. The variety also makes an excellent base for a rich reduction sauce that is wonderful on fish or poultry; sprinkle the tiny grapes into a salad for small bursts of fresh flavor or serve them with any number of other fruits, yogurts or sorbets to create an endless array of luscious desserts. This paragraph made me hungry!

The peak of the Champagne grape season is a short one – July and August. While you can freeze this item for later use, nothing will replicate the juicy sweetness of this fresh fruit in its prime. So add these delectable morsels to your summer shopping list; the kids and your dinner guests will thank you!