When we think of grapes, it is often of the bunches that are reliably available in supermarkets day in, day out. They are pretty and plump, and they don't have seeds or a season. Something else they lack? Flavor, unless plain sugar counts. That's why we look forward to the very end of summer: As goldenrod and asters begin to bloom and as ragweed makes us sneeze, a famously fragrant native American grape is being harvested and brought to market. The musky Concord grape is the harbinger of fall. And it is a grape with a story. It's more than just jelly.
The Origin Story
The parent vine of the Concord is the northern fox grape, an American vine called Vitis labrusca. It rambles and sprawls over trees in forests and on woodland edges in eastern North America. Its small fruit ripen in fall. In the mid-1800s, a wild fox grape grew at the bottom of the Concord, Massachusetts, garden of Ephraim Wales Bull, a persistent hobby horticulturist with a passion for grape breeding. Bull had already developed the cultivars "Isabella," "Catawba," and "Sweetwater," but he wanted a hardier and earlier-ripening grape—that's when he turned to the native vine for its parentage. After six years of trials and cross pollination, he harvested his first successful bunch in 1849. Three years later the ripe fruit was exhibited at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society where it was pronounced not only "the earliest grape we have, but also one of the most delicious, having in place of the musky flavor of Isabella, the rich aroma of the Catawba, with which, probably its parent was somewhat fertilized," by Hovey's Magazine of Horticulture.
Hovey and Company were a seed store and nursery, and Bull authorized them to act as agents on his behalf and to sell his entire stock. They called it 'Concord' and offered it for sale in 1854. Despite the subsequent success of the Concord grape in the nursery trade (where it was propagated by others), Bull died virtually penniless. He was buried beneath an epitaph that famously reads, "He Sowed; Other Reaped." So spare him a thought when you pop one of his dark blue grapes into your mouth and taste its distinctive juice.
What Do Concord Grapes Look Like?
The ripe berries of Concord are dark blue to purple, and covered in a faint white bloom. They are known as slip-skins for the characteristic way their skin slides from the pale green flesh when squeezed. They have seeds, but these are easily swallowed. Their flavor is musky and fragrant, underscored by sweetness, with a pleasant tartness close to the skin.
What Are the Best Ways to Eat Concord Grapes?
One way is to squeeze and suck, discarding the skins in a neat heap. But since the dark grape skins are packed with healthy antioxidants like resveratrol, why not eat the whole fruit? Fresh Concord juice (versus the notoriously sweet commercial juices) is refreshing and easily extracted in a simple food mill, or else strained after food processing. Mix it with a dash of seltzer or shake it up with lime juice and white rum.
A Concord grape granita is as simple as the frozen, fresh juice, kept granular by regular scraping with fork as it freezes. Make a syrup for sorbet by cooking the grapes and straining (try this Concord Grape and Lavender Sorbet recipe). Halved, seeded Concords create gorgeous tarts and pies. They also star in simple cakes, like the Pistachio Brown-Butter Cake with Concord Grapes that's shown above. Seedless cultivars of the grape have been developed; added whole to savory cooked dishes, they add luscious seasonal complexity (working especially well with the pan juices of roasted or sautéed chicken or pork), but you can also use them to top an autumnal and traditionally Italian schiacciata.
One thing to remember? The Concord grape season is fleeting, so catch them while you can.