Vonderful vendage

Mark takes us on a little memory trip from spending hot summers picking grapes in France when he was younger, (and more gingery) to making jelly from his own vineyard.

Words & Pictures: Mark Diacono

A long while ago, when idleness and Guinness were uppermost in my mind, I took a combination of trains and ferries to the south of France to pick grapes. I spent a week or so in a youth hostel – along with dozens of others there for the grape picking – playing table tennis and drinking Orangina by day and stubbies by night. Without notice, but always in late afternoon, the vineyard owners arrived and took us off in many small vans. Once at the vineyard, dorm beds chosen, we were fed ’til we burst, wined until we wobbled and told to expect the call for breakfast at 5.30am.

Picking grapes is a good way of finding out how flexible your back is. In the Lyon area and on the slopes of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the grapes are grown low – shuffle along on your backside or bend almost double – either way is a lesson in discomfort.

When I planted a vineyard a few years ago, I set the buggers higher – the fruiting zone starts at a very civilised 1m above ground – which makes picking much more pleasant, especially as the weather can be a little grim at harvest. In southern France, we picked around the second week of September; in the UK, it’s a full month later when most grapes are picked. Picked, crated, driven to the winery and pressed the same day, our grapes are fermenting as I write. The leaves have dropped and the last bunches – either under-ripe at harvest or hidden from the hands of the picker – have been cut and I’m making them into grape jelly.

Jelly is often treated like posh jam – ie something to do to fruit you’ve either got too much of, or that doesn’t taste so special: grape jelly is an exception. Easy to make, it is delicious with cheese, cold meats and goose especially.

Jelly japes: how to make grape jelly

Wash, de-stalk and de-leaf the grapes. Place them in a pan, cover in water and bring slowly to the boil. Simmer for 15 minutes or so. When the fruit starts to soften, you can use a potato masher to carefully encourage the fruit into a good mashed consistency.

  • Scoop the pulp into a muslin – suspend it from the legs of an upturned chair or similar – and allow it to drip into a large bowl overnight.
  • Don’t squeeze the pulp through the muslin as this makes the liquid cloudy – just let it drip.
  • To every 600ml of this liquid, add 450g of caster sugar. Then boil it until the setting point is reached (105°C on a jam thermometer) and pour into sterilised jars. It’s gurt lush.