For most Americans, the flavor of grapes is Concord. Granted, there’s no Concord flavor in the ever expanding selection of seedless grapes we eat for snacks and desserts. However, the deep-purple grape juice so prevalent for decades in grocery stores is Concord grape juice. What’s more, grape jelly is Concord, and all those artificially-flavored grape food products — candy, ice pops, gum, and so on — are supposed to taste like Concord grapes.
Concord grapes are strictly American. According to the Concord Grape Association (www.concordgrape.org), a farmer near Concord, Mass., bred thousands of seedlings from native American grape plants and, in 1849, produced what he named the Concord Grape. It was instantly popular. Today, Pennsylvania is among the top five Concord grape producing states in the US.
One local Concord grape enthusiast owns a vineyard on Route 147 that has been in operation for 62 years. Doug Mertz grows Concord and Niagara grape vines, and a much smaller number of seedless grape plants.
Mertz’s great-grandfather owned 200 acres of land in Northumberland until the railroad forced him out. He bought farmland north along the river and managed a farm stand next to the road. Mertz’s grandfather and siblings divided up the farm among themselves, and eventually Mertz’s father bought out other family members for control of the farm and farm market.
As a boy, Mertz wasn’t happy about working the farm. "I’d rather have been fishing," he admitted. "And at 14 I learned what a woman was." Still, Mertz now manages the grape vines his predecessors planted, and he has added additional plants.
Mertz works full time as a trucker, making deliveries in state. He gets Wednesdays off so he can sell grapes at the Lewisburg Farmers’ Market which he does only during the harvest and until the grapes are gone. He has been selling at the market for 44 years and remembers when his family would make two trips each Wednesday — in the morning before the market opened, and again afternoon to reload the truck.
In an unlikely twist, Mertz’s vineyard is on the path the Route 15 bypass will take, should it ever get built. The government has acquired some of his land where the bridge from Winfield will cross, fortunately not displacing the grape vines.
Asked how he uses grapes, Mertz jokes, "To attract deer and turkeys." He lost his entire crop of seedless grapes to deer this spring. He explained how he makes grape juice concentrate (below) and recalls grape pie as a family tradition, though he has no recipe for the pie. The grape pie recipe accompanying this article is a departure from tradition that makes the pie’s "grapiness" less overwhelming.
Grape Juice Concentrate
Grapes and water
Start with a quart of grape bunches for a small batch for immediate use, but scale up if you’re going to can the finished concentrate. Wash and stem the grapes and put them in a stock pot. Add just enough water to float the grapes. Bring the water to a boil and let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, then let it cool.
Strain out the solids, store the concentrate in your refrigerator, and use it within three days to make grape drink (mix it with water and sugar to taste). You can preserve the concentrate in canning jars, but make sure you understand proper home canning methods before you do. The USDA publishes detailed instructions for boiling water bath canning. Once you know how, hot pack the concentrate in jars and process them in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Concord Grape Filled Cheese Pie
(Developed by Daniel Gasteiger)
Ingredients for grape filling:
¾ of the grapes from a quart basket
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
Ingredients for the base:
One raw 9-inch pie shell (10 inch, if available)
Two 8 oz. blocks cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Procedure for filling:
Wash grapes and squeeze each one out of its skin into a sauce pot; save the skins. Mash the skinless grapes to release juice, and then bring the mash to boil; continue cooking about three minutes.
Chop the reserved skins into bits and transfer them to a small mixing bowl. Use a spoon to smash the cooked pulp through a strainer onto the chopped skins. This removes the seeds which you can discard. Measure the sugar into a small bowl and stir in the flour, then stir this dry mixture into the grapes. Also stir in the lemon juice. Set the filling aside.
Procedure for base:
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
Beat the cream cheese and sugar until smooth. Add the eggs, vanilla, cream, and lemon juice and continue mixing until the batter is light and creamy. Use this to fill an unbaked pie shell about two-thirds of the way; there should be some batter left over.
Stir a half cup of the cheese batter into the grape mixture until smooth. Set the cheese-filled pie on a pizza pan or jelly roll pan and transfer it to an oven rack. Level the surface of the cheese batter and then spread the grape filling evenly on top. There may be too much filling for a 9-inch shell; consider mixing excess grape filling with excess cheese base and baking it in a greased ramekin.
Slide the pie into the oven and bake it for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 and continue baking until the filling sets — about 45 minutes. The filling will inflate dramatically but should hold together and collapse gracefully as the pie cools. Serve chilled or at room temperature.
Daniel Gasteiger of Lewisburg is the author of "Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too," a book about preserving produce. He blogs about gardening at http://www.smallkitchengarden.net and invites readers to introduce themselves on Twitter where he goes by the name @cityslipper.