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