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How to Catch a Concord Grape

September 6, 2010

To catch a Concord grape, first follow your nose. Then, follow the deer. Finally, pick your way through the heavy undergrowth of brambles and clamber over deadfalls and nurse logs until  you’ve reached a spot where you can climb up a tree and out on a limb to get to the high grapes gone wild. Your reward is a tart and sweet blast of intense flavor that makes an afternoon of pulling thorns out of your clothes and hair and skin all the more enjoyable.

The nose knows, with a little training, where all sorts of different grasses, trees, and fruits are found. The more you work it, the more it will work for you. I’m not even going to get into using the schnoz as a fish-finder, but you’ll have to trust me that it is an indispensable surf-fishing tool. In the woodlands, the fragrance of cider alerts the hiker to the presence of ripe apples. The stronger the scent, the more apples have avoided your chutney by falling to the ground to rot. The same holds true for Concord grapes. A sweet, light perfume of grapes will steer you to an early harvest of firm fruits still clinging to the vine. In another week or so, the fragrance will be overpowering, with an undertone of fermentation that makes the woods smell of wine.

This week I was on the overripe side of things. I found a sunny spot in the forest with a tremendous volume of falling-off-the-vine-ripe Concords. I smelled them first and followed the sweetness wafting toward me on the breeze, until I spied cluster after royal purple cluster hanging from the locust trees. I found an opening in the undergrowth and waded in amongst rose thorn thickets and blackberry canes; bear briar and locust sapling. I thought I must be following a trail made by other hikers, but I had a hard time imagining who would take such a scratchy trail. (Possibly someone like myself who goes berserk when they find wild food.)

Then I looked closely at the sodden ground. Deep hoof prints lead the way. A fur coat makes traveling through brush a walk in the park. I followed the deer’s trail and soon came upon fallen fruit. Looking up I saw bunches of grapes almost within reach. All the grapes from the lower vines had already been scoffed up. Climbing onto a fallen locust tree, I pulled down vines and broke off bunches, tucking them in my t-shirt. I needed a bag or basket, as it was hard to hold the shirt with one hand and pull and pick with the other, but I made it work and came home with a few pounds of grapes.

Planting our own would make picking easier, and I did put in a half-dozen plants back in 2003, but the few that remain struggle to survive being constantly eaten down by deer. This year my goats found them and almost finished them off. I’ll keep roughing it for grapes until I develop a better plan – and besides, it’s fun.

I need a few more pounds and will probably plunge deeper into the thicket to get to more grapes, and I will definitely wear something more substantial than linen shorts, a tee and sandals. What to do with this harvest? Jelly is an obvious choice, or maybe Concord grape preserve which incorporates more than just the juice in the finished product. But I’m tempted to make spiced jelly, otherwise known as Venison Jelly. A bit of clove, a touch of cinnamon and a smattering of vinegar turn ordinary grape jelly into a condiment befitting wild game. Something about eating a creature dressed with what it ate in life appeals to me. It’s not that venison carries any of the flavor of the Concord grapes white-tailed deer eat, but it’s the idea that some aspect of those fruits helped that game grow. Also, as the ancient Egyptians entombed their dead with fruits and bread to nourish them in the afterlife, it’s like I’m burying the deer with his favorite treat – in my mouth. I think that works out nicely for us both.

So there you have it – my recipe for catching Concord grapes. If you read those ingredients closely, I think you might also find a recipe for catching a white-tailed deer. If you’re really lucky, you can catch both and eat them together.

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