Greenmarket groupies love to debate which farmer has the plushest plums, the hottest habaneros or the finest fennel. But when it comes to grapes, there’s no contest: The Blue Ribbon goes to Ken and Eileen Farnan of Buzzard Crest Vineyards, who grow grapes and grapes alone on their 37 acres way north in the Finger Lakes, bringing nearly a dozen varieties to Union Square Greenmarket from Labor Day until Thanksgiving.
(In our opinion, the three shortest months of the year.)
True, plenty of stands will put out a few quarts of plump green Niagaras (which still trump any supermarket Thompson seedless nonsense hands down) or dusty bunches of dark Concords, that powerhouse that evokes Welch’s, the company to which so many of them are sold. But for more than 30 years this grape-growing pair (Eileen was raised on a farm upstate; while Ken’s a Brooklyn boy) have focused on the vine and with very fine results: Blue Hill, Gramercy Tavern and Back Forty chefs are just a few of those who swear by the Farnans’ fruit. While all the other stands’ grapes look limp as the weeks go by, those at Buzzard Crest stay stellar well into November, thanks to the exacting care with which the Farnans pick and store their harvest haul. (Extra impressive when you consider that 200-mile trip to town gives them one of the longest drives of any farmer at city markets.)
Their stand offers a wondrous assortment of the fruit of the vine, all certified organic, and the lineup of varieties rotates as they ripen on the farm’s steep slopes near Keuka Lake. Some types are bound for Barrington Cellars, the Farnans’ tiny winery, some get squeezed into the best juice you’ve ever tasted, and the rest are sold for snacking or, better still, for a fall afternoon of making grape jelly. Favorites include those famous Concords, as well as Jupiter and Mars, all three deep-blue and delicious; the pale-green and perfectly tart Niagara; the hard-to-find amber Cacos, grown on just a few acres; crisp green Lakemonts; tiny deep-red Delawares; the green Marquis; and the red, semi-spicy seedless Canadice, a native of New York State.
While we’re on the subject of seeds: The Farnans offer grapes with them and without, and all are fantastic, but please bear in mind that most seedless varieties were bred for that convenience, not flavor; the ones with seeds often offer the greater taste sensations. Spitting might not be pretty, but for three months of the year, your manners-minded friends will just have to look the other way.
Sunday Afternoon Lazy Concord Grape Jam
Makes about six 1/2-pint jars
From Edible Manhattan editor-in-chief Gabrielle Langholtz, who made this lazy jam recipe—lazy as in it’s made to be eaten right away–for deputy editor Rachel Wharton when Langholtz was working for the Greenmarkets and Wharton was working for the New York Daily News. Because Concords are very sweet, she recommends less sugar than many recipes; you may want to use even less if you don’t like your jam supersweet. But if you’re really canning, however, most experts recommend an equal ratio of sugar to grapes.
7 C. Concord grapes (from about 3 1/2 pounds)
3 C. sugar
Juice from 1 lemon, squeezed just before use
Mix grapes and sugar in a heavy, wide pot, and bring to a boil. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring constantly with a spatula or square-tipped wooden spoon to keep mixture from sticking to bottom. If using a thermometer, turn off the heat when the mixture reaches 220 degrees. Otherwise, turn off heat when it begins to drip from the stirrer in sheets, rather than in dribbles. (Or drop a bit on a cold plate, touch it with a finger. If the hole stays clear, it’s done; if it fills in, cook a few more minutes.) Add lemon juice and (in batches) push mixture through a sieve into a bowl. Spoon into jars. Refrigerate and use within a few weeks.
Photo credit: Max Flatow