Eat Drink Local Profile #38: The Concord Grape

Eileen Farnan, Greenmarket farmer and grower of some damn fine Finger Lakes concords.

The Ingredient:

Concord grapes, our fifth of the 11 Ingredients of the Day, a seeded species totally indigenous to our region, a sweet part of our State’s history, a powerhouse to this day in terms of agricultural production for jelly and juice and even wine, and a fruit so damn flavorful it’s basically an edible example of the word “purple.” Which came first, the flavor or the grape? It was the Concord, with a bullet.

Why They’re Important

Unlike wine grapes, which are Vitis vinifera, Concords belong to the family of table grapes: Vitis labrusca. As you can probably tell from its name, the cold-hardy grape was first cultivated from wild seeds in Massachusetts. That was in 1849 by a Concord grower named Ephraim Wales Bull, who played with more than 20,000 seedlings at his Concord, Massachusetts home (which still stands, along with the original grape vines) till he perfected those perfectly purple orbs we can find in city Greenmarkets today. Bull planted seeds from wild Vitis labrusca and evaluated over 22,000 seedlings before finding what he considered the perfect grape that thrived where European cuttings failed, the original vine of which still grows at his former home.

The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt, an illustration from the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association

But Concords grew all along that part of the Northeast — Horace Greeley reportedly called them “the grape for the millions” — and there quickly became a growing Concord Grape Belt: A very narrow 60 mile stretch of land along Lake Erie along the border of Pennsylvania and New York. Reportedly more Concords were sold in the following century in the States than all other types of grapes combined. That area is still home to six major juice and wine producers as well as 30,000 vineyard acres of Concords grown mainly for juice and concentrate (thanks to those seeds) by 800 farm families, and, according to last economic impact statement produced by the Lake Erie Concord Grape Heritage Association, is responsible for pushing more than $340 million into the regional economy.

The heart of the belt is Westfield, N.Y., home to the company that that produces juice and grape concentrate for Welch’s and the Grape Discovery Center at  8305 Route 20 West. That’s the centerpiece of the Heritage Association, a cooperative effort by local growers and municipalities to encourage agricultural tourism, regional growth and perhaps one day, a label of origin for grapes grown in the region. The Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt Area, by the

A postcard scene of Concord grape harvests past.

way, was designated by Heritage Area “with unique qualities of geography, history, and culture that create a distinctive identity” in 2006 by Pataki, and was the very first to focus on agriculture.

Why We Love Them

Even if Concords weren’t an economical and historical giant in our state, we’d still freak out over these little bruise-colored majesties. They’re deeply, beautifully dark blue-black, and, if you’re lucky to get them fresh from the farmer, still dusty with what’s known in the fruit world as the bloom. And if you’ve never tasted them before — perhaps you’re a southerner, where Scuppernongs are more your indigenous grape style — get ready to have your mind blown. These are the essence of grapeity-goodness, a tiny taste of what you probably thought was chemistry lab fakery if you didn’t grow up with these guys in your backyard.

Actually speaking of Scuppernongs, Concords are also a table grape variety with thick skins that are known as “slipskins,” meaning they pop off easily. Most folks slurp them down almost like oysters, popping them into their mouths from the skins and spitting out the seeds. Or they they skin and seed them and turn them into jelly or jam (check our editor-in-chief’s recipe for easy Sunday jam here) or grape pie, a specialty of Naples, N.Y. where they hold a grape festival every fall that’s home to the World’s Greatest Grape Pie Contest.

Or they squeeze them into juice (these days often for cocktails, such as the one on the menu each fall at Gramercy Tavern), following the lead of Dr. Charles Welch, from Vineland, N.J. who learned how to preserve his juiced grapes in a corked bottle he boiled to prevent fermentation and was processing 300 tons of Concords by the late 1800s. (Many of his early orders, the story goes, were from churches for communion.) He then moved his business to upstate New York, first  to Watkins Glen, then to Westfield, where his little juice business continues to this day.

Where to Find Them

Until around Thanksgiving, you should be able to find Concords at many local Greenmarkets. But our favorite grape farmers are Ken and Eileen Farnan, who bring their grapes all the way from the Finger Lakes to Union Square, Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Brooklyn’s Borough Hall on Saturdays and whose grape goodness we profiled in the current issue of Edible Manhattan. But thanks to many of our Eat Drink Local week restaurant partners, you can also taste the grapes all over town tonight in a slew of amazing dishes listed below that would no doubt have Dr. Welch and Mr. Bull high-fiving in grapey glee.

The short list: At Braeburn, lobster with roasted squash and concord grape ver jus; at DB Bistro Moderne, peanut sable with vanilla bavarois and concord grape sorbet; at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, chocolate peanut butter crisp with Concord grape ice cream;  at Esca, Concord grape tart with buttermilk gelati and a Concord Cosmo; at Jimmy’s No. 43 concord grapes with duck confit; at Mas, Concord grape and peanut frangipane torte and Concord sorbet and buttermilk emulsion; at the North Fork Table and Inn, Catapano yogurt panna cotta with poached figs and grape syrup; at Radish, grape hand pies; and at Rye, Concord grape cobbler with mascarpone ice cream.

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