Victoire’s Verjus

All of the lovely grapes on my vine were at the perfect stage to produce my own verjus, that sour condiment made from the juice of unripe grapes. Verjus is a byproduct of the wine industry, usually made from the unripe grapes cut when thinning the crop. Due to the cool northern English climate, my vines were never intended to produce grapes for wine – although they are a cabernet variety. They never fully ripen. In the past, I waited until they turned colour before juicing, boiling down the must and producing a thickened syrup called πετιμέζι (petimezi) in Greece and pekmez in Turkey, a grape “molasses” used in sweets and biscuit making. It is very similar to Italian vincotto. However, given the low sugar content of my grapes, the resulting syrup was always a bit sour. It was time to try something else – hence the verjus (also spelled verjuice).

verjus_unripe_grapes_onvine

How does one make verjus? Well, the answer isn’t a simple one. My head was spinning after only a little bit of research. It seems there are as many recipes and techniques out there as there are web sites. I know that’s an exaggeration, but I hope you will excuse the hyperbole as I was feeling a tiny bit jaded after looking at umpteen recipes – from medieval to modern – for verjus. Some were basic – crush and squeeze the grapes to extract the juice. Some added chemicals to stabilise the juice, some added other flavour ingredients, and yet others cooked or boiled the grapes/juice. Some said to clean the grapes throughly, others said to leave the skins “as is” – these opinions also differed in whether verjus should be alcoholic or not as the natural yeast is in the unwashed skins aid fermentation. Some said to refrigerate, others to freeze in order to store the short-lived finished product. Some weren’t even based on unripe grapes, but used sour crabapples (but that’s another story). And, in a recent post, Hilda @ Along the Grapevine has been inventive and made verjus with unripe blueberries!

In the end, I fell back on tradition – one I stumbled upon in a book I’ve been reading, When French Women Cook by the great chef and culinary teacher, Madeleine Kamman, originally published in 1976. The chapters in the book are about individual women in different regions of France and their food that were influences on Kamman from 1934 to 1970. By the by, this is a book for Francesca @ Almost Italian whose taste in cookbooks seems similar to mine. I’ll be getting into more detail on this book in a later post.

But, before I completely veer off course, I should be getting back to the subject at hand: verjus. One chapter in Kamman’s book is devoted to Victoire, a spry older woman who lived in the Auvergne region of France, spoke the ancient Occitan language, aided the resistance during WWII, cooked robust country food – much of it grown, foraged or produced by her or her family – and died a very old woman late in the 1940s. Madeleine Kamman describes her eloquently at their meeting at the train station in Langeac in 1939:

I was swept off my feet by a little, old Arab-looking woman with a hooked nose, two piercing, flaming eyes, and a few wisps of gray hair peeking from under her immaculate white muslin coif.

I seduced by this description alone, but was completely enamoured when I found Victoire’s traditional recipe for verjus.

verjus_feature

Victoire’s Verjus
I’ve based this on Victoire’s old French recipe and have included the Armagnac which she added to her unripe grape juice. This high-proof brandy was produced by Victoire’s family, so she had an abundant and inexpensive supply. Kamman indicates that the Amagnac gave Victoire’s verjus a distinctive flavour, but also says that Italian grappa or eau de vie can be substituted for the more expensive liquor. I expect that an equivalent such as French marc, Greek raki (tsikoudia) or any other grape-based spirit (generically known as pomance brandy) could also be used. The choice is yours. An advantage of this recipe – whatever alcohol base – is its preserving quality, a quality of necessity in the days before freezers or, indeed, wide-spread refrigeration. The verjus needs to sit for a few months to mature, but will last for a long period of time if stored in a cool place.

  • 750g to 1 kg. unsprayed (pesticide free), unripe grapes – as juicy as possible, but still sour – to produce 250ml of juice
  • 50g (1/4 cup) castor sugar
  • 500ml Armagnac (or other grape-based spirit)
  • 100ml (approximately 1/2 cup) white wine vinegar

Rinse the grapes and remove them from their stems before weighing. Select an additional 30 nice sized grapes and set them aside. Coarsely chop the rest in the food processor. Line a colander with a damp cheesecloth or muslin and set over a large bowl. Pour the chopped grape fragments into the colander. Because a metal blade was used in cutting them, the grape pieces quickly turned colour from bright green to something a bit duller. So, don’t worry if this happens.

verjus_prep1

Lift the four corners of the muslin up and seal in a ball, extracting the juice by squeezing the cloth. You may wish to wear rubber gloves since the liquid is highly acidic.

Take the reserved grapes and prick them all over. Put them into the bottom of a sterilized jar that will hold at least 1 litre.

verjus_prep3

Measure your sour grape juice and pour into another bowl. Dissolve the sugar in the juice and then add the Armagnac (or substitute spirit) and white wine vinegar.

verjus_prep2

Stir and then pour into the jar over the pierced grapes.

verjus_prep4

Store the jar in a cool place and let it sit for 2 months before decanting into a bottle (including the grapes if possible). It will last for years if properly kept. It is said to be particularly good with chicken dishes and Kamman includes one of Victoire’s chicken with verjuice recipes later in the chapter. Verjus, she says, can also be drunk in small quantities as a digestivo – not surprising with all that Armagnac!

Postscript: In my internet researches, I ran across a variation of this verjus with Armagnac that substitutes sherry vinegar and honey for my wine vinegar and sugar – so experimenting with different vinegars and sweeteners might be something to try next year. And, since I had plenty of unripe grape juice but not enough Armagnac, I made a second batch of this recipe with Greek raki (tsipouro). My husband closely guards his supply of grappa and there was no chance that I could get my hands on that. The remainder was frozen as raw sour grape juice in ice cube bags (which is close to Maggie Beer’s simple style of verjuice). I was also aware of another traditional verjus preparation, mentioned by Elizabeth David in French Provincial Cooking that partly ferments the juice and then salts it to preserve it, but decided against attempting this as it seemed a bit too tricky – hit or miss whether the juice would ferment correctly. Although the three that I did make will be different in taste, I suspect that each will be be good with specific types types of food. Taste testing in two months time.

November 2014
 
Update on Victoire’s Verjus
 
Both the Armagnac and Tiskoudia versions of Victoire’s verjus have now been tested with great success.

 

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28 comments

  1. I sincerley admire your exploration of food preservation Deb! Maggie Beer has done a lot to locally promote verjuice in cooking, she sloshes it into nearly everything, both sweet and savoury. The verjuice bearing her name has a very gentle acidity, but is quite fruity. I often use it in place of white wine in cooking. My husband wouldn’t let me near his grappa to cook with either…

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    • I’ve been seriously tempted to get Maggie Beer’s cooking with verjuice book and know that she was behind the revival of its use. Her story is quite interesting. However, I was interested in more traditional ways it was produced (without going back to the middle ages where they sometimes add sorrel or just use sorrel on its own as verjus). That is partly out of necessity – I have so little freezer space. Also, commercial verjus is very expensive as it is a trendy ingredient. My husband treats his grappa like precious single malts – and some of the are wonderfully aged like a good whisky. He’s looking forward to extending his collection when we’re in Italy.

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  2. Great thorough research and work once again KW! Love verjuice, maybe you will Maggie Beer a run for her money? I did see that someone in the UK is producing verjuice from apples or crab apples as well. I saw it on Paul Hollywoods Pies and Puds TV show. It was Perton’s apple verjuice, you can google it. I am really looking forward to your results reveal. 🙂

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    • Thanks for the tip about Perton’s apple verjuice! I do have a crab apple tree, but it is like sleeping beauty – nestled in the neglected side garden rampant with brambles. I have been a bad gardener! Well, maybe the thought of making apple verjuice might tempt me to get those garden gloves and secateurs out.

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      • You a bad gardener! No way, if you are I don’t know what that makes me..your crab apple tree sounds like it’s in a ‘secret garden’ part of your garden. Quite romantic and mysterious!

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    • That’s very interesting, Fae. I ran across references to Persian verjus ab-ghooreh (Arabic husroum), but could not find any information on traditional processing techniques and, more importantly, any information on how it was preserved. As fresh pressed unripe grape juice, it has a very short “shelf-life”, needs to be refrigerated, but it can be preserved for longer periods of time when frozen – all modern techniques.

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  3. Very interesting post! I love verjuice but had no idea that it was possible to make it at home. I’ll look forward to reading your tasting notes in two months! One of my favourite ways to use verjuice is diluting it with fizzy mineral water as a drink – quite handy for those occasional times when I’m trying to cut down on my wine consumption.

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    • It really is easy to do. However, deciding on what method to use was the tricky thing. If you like Maggie Beer’s verjuice, then the simple pressing is the best, but it needs to be frozen in order to be preserved. I solved that problem by freezing some of mine in ice cube bags – or you can use ice cube trays if you have them. I’ve also read somewhere that grape varieties will each taste different and some are better for this sort of thing than others. That certainly makes sense. I may try the fizzy water trick. Sounds like it would taste nice!

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  4. What a lovely surprise. We were driving back from a boring shopping expedition when I read your post. Thank you kindly for the mention. You are right, we do share similar tastes in books and so I have ordered a copy already. I can just see Victoire. Perhaps I saw women like her many years ago in Languedoc. With vivid tales like this prefacing the recipes., I know I am in for a treat.
    Your research is very thorough. I am keen to know how different this is from Maggie Beer’s version, which is a commercial preparation available here. You must do a taste test comparison. If it’s good, I’ll make some next autumn, and ‘acquire’ some grappa.

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    • As soon as I picked up my copy of this book, I thought of you. It is very well written with quite a bit of text on each woman – plus the recipes are stunning. The book is going with me on holiday and I hope to write up a fuller post on it. I am also anxious to try these different verjus variations and I can tell that the Armagnac one might be best with poultry, game, blue cheeses, robust sweet-sour sorts of things. Things that go well with Armagnac or Cognac. I’ll have a think about what the others might be good with. This will need to wait until they’ve matured. Good luck acquiring that grappa – not something that would happen here. It is too closely monitored. However, people often bring us tsipouro from Greece (often homemade, decanted into plastic lemonade bottles) and we usually have a glut of it.

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  5. I’ve read around on Verjuice, and this is the best thing I’ve read because it allows in the thought that there is not one codified thing that is “Verjuice” but a range of approaches which serve that gentle acidity function in food you speak of… (and just to add, I’ve also seen crabapples talked about as a good verjuice fruit.)

    Last year with my unripe grapes I made (hope it’s ok to link) a Persian souring ingredient http://kitchencounterculture121.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/sour-grapes/

    This year thanks to this inspiration you’ve just provided, I’m going to make what I think is a version of verjuice, one of those “wild vinegars” — and even, from your Elizabeth David reference, salt it a little to see what happens– I think of all these things as on a kind of continuum of folk food/ culinary tradition/ kitchen/ garden economy and thrift…. and more… http://kitchencounterculture121.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/scrap-vinegars/

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    • The link to the your Persian unripe grape juice answered one of my questions! I had wondered how the juice (a kind of verjuice called ab-ghooreh) was preserved – salt. If you think about it, salt, acids (i.e. vinegars), smothering in oil or smoking are the traditional ways of preserving. I may try to make a crab apple verjuice if I can get to my crab apples in time. Did you see Hilda’s post on verjuice with unripe blueberries? I’d like to try some of that. I like thriftiness and tradition. They do go hand in hand!

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  6. This is a great post. Thanks for doing all that research – I found all the information on verjus really overwhelming. I am working on another version of my green blueberries which, if it works, will post soon.

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    • Green blueberries? Is this some variety? I know of pink ones – all the garden centres were selling them these past few years. I do wish I had room for more blueberry plants. They are one of my favourite fruits. Your verjuice must be fantastic.

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    • I had time – or at least the amount of time it took the grapes to grow – to do a bit of research. I wouldn’t say that I was exhaustive; rather I seemed to skim the surface. Had great fun making it and the clock is ticking, waiting until I can use it.

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