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August, 2011

Don't Peel Me a Grape

By Dennis Linden

Grapes have been a part of cuisine history since the Greeks put the god Dionysus in charge of the grape harvest and the early Romans got even more role-specific appointing Bacchus the first wine sommelier!

Since this month’s Guest Chef, as well as the young culinary crew of Cookin’ with the Kids, worked with grapes in their respective kitchens, I thought it appropriate to make this feature a three-peat with more facts about this delectable fruit that has been a favorite of many cultures for centuries.

Commercially, grapes are divided into three general categories; table grapes, wine grapes and raisin grapes. They are harvested in that same order; later and later into the season, based broadly on sugar content. That sugar content changes throughout the day and, of course, matures with the harvest season. However, once off the vine, grapes will not ripen any further and the fruit’s sugar content is what it is at the moment of being picked. For this reason the decision of exactly when to harvest is very critical for both table and wine grape crops.

Organic Grapes
Table grapes destined for the fresh market are harvested by hand when their sugars have developed enough to provide a pleasing sweetness, yet still allow for shipping to, and a good shelf-life in, retail outlets. For decades, the Thompson Seedless was the king of grapes amongst consumers almost since the variety’s introduction to the marketplace in 1875. Interestingly, there is a lot of myth and misinformation about this grape’s heritage. Some extensive research for this article concludes that there was, in fact, a Mr. William Thompson growing grapes in Yuba City, California for whom the variety was named. However, the naming was done by Mr. Thompson himself, though not because he developed a new strain of seedless grape on this property. Records of an order by Thompson to a grape nursery in upstate New York in 1872 for root stock of a variety called a “Lady de Coverly” and subsequent modern botanical testing uncover that Mr. Thompson merely rechristened the variety for marketing purposes. So the Thompson Seedless was almost certainly not the first or only seedless grape, but it was the first commercially produced seedless grape. Factoid: About 90 percent of the world’s raisins are produced from Thompson Seedless grapes.
Today Red Seedless grapes have taken over the number one position for the consumer’s grape dollar by almost 55%, compared to sales of all other grape varieties in the marketplace combined. Red seedless can be a little sweeter than the green seedless. However, the reason that most fresh produce professionals at retail give for the popularity of the red seedless is eye appeal. Cosmetic flaws, like scarring and bruising, are not as apparent on a red seedless grape as the skin defects are on a green grape variety. Plus, as the apple industry will attest, the American consumer buys red, and the redder the better! This eye appeal has been tested to have less of an impact on sales late in the season when the most abundant red seedless variety, the Crimson Red, starts to pale from a vibrant, dark red to a washed out rose. Consequently new varieties that hold their bright red coloring later and longer are gradually taking hold. Take note of two new varieties in particular, the Scarlet Royal and Vintage Red, which will soon take over September’s retail displays.

Grapes are available year-round from both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere growing regions. Grapes are grown commercially in 90 countries on about 19 million acres worldwide. In Europe, average yield per acre is a little less than 4 tons since the emphasis is on wine quality. In the USA, yields are twice that of Europe due to a greater proportion of acreage used for table grapes and raisins. One way to evaluate the sweetness of grapes is by color. Green grapes should have a slight yellowish hue, red grapes should be mostly red, while purple and blue-black grapes should be deep and rich in color. The change in color that occurs as a fruit ripens is the same process as when leaves turn from green to red to yellow to brown in the fall. This color change is caused by the breakdown and disappearance of chlorophyll, which gives leaves and fruits their green shading or color.

Grapes tend to spoil and ferment at room temperature; so they should always be stored in the refrigerator. Wrap unwashed grapes in a paper towel and place them in a plastic bag. This way, they will keep fresh for several days as the paper towel absorbs excessive moisture. Wash the grapes just before consuming or using in a recipe, and not prior to storing in your crisper, as the extra moister will promote decay. While freezing grapes definitely takes away much of the fruit’s flavor, who would deny the childhood experience of frozen grapes as a refreshing summertime snack! Spreading grapes out on a cookie sheet, placing them in the freezer and then the long wait for them to freeze was one of my first culinary adventures. The sound of frozen grapes rolling off a cookie sheet and into a plastic bag is something all kids should hear!

In a 1933 movie it was the infamous Mae West you uttered those immortal words: “Peel me a grape.” It was very bad nutritional advice since most all the vitamins and beneficial nutrients are in the grape skin and not the fruit itself. Skimming right through the science of it all for brevity’s sake, suffice to say that grape skins and seeds contain nutrient compounds called flavonoids. These compounds reduce platelet clumping and prevent harmful blood clots; they also protect LDL cholesterol from the free radical damage that initiates LDL’s artery-damaging actions. The high consumption of grapes and products made from grapes, such as wine and grape juice, is believed to be a major key to protecting the French people from the collateral heart and artery damage from a cultural diet that is loaded with saturated fats like butter and lard. So the rumor is true that a few glasses of wine is just what the doctor ordered and, actually, is way more efficient than just drinking grape juice. A recent study found that six glasses of grape juice produced the same beneficial effect as two glasses of red wine in reducing platelet aggregation, the clumping that leads to blood clots, heart attacks and strokes.

Lastly, can you really hear anything through a grapevine? The phrase has its roots (no pun) in the civil war term “grapevine telegraph” referring to a word-of-mouth covert news delivery system used by the slave community in the South to disseminate sensitive information. The phrase was probably coined from “bush telegraph” which the English and Australians used to describe the verbal “pass it on” type of communication that occurred between African or Aboriginal tribes over long distances.

No matter, it is very acceptable to whistle the tune made famous by a bunch of dancing raisins as you choose from the array of grape varieties that are available in abundance for the next two months at supermarkets across the country. Try not to dance in the aisle, though, they just won’t understand!