Grape Freezer Jam, September 30
The Grape September Relay
How do you get jam from 66 pounds of grapes? With the help of the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project, we tackled the challenge in a vine-to-jar relay this harvest season.
First up, the backyard grower. These local grapes were grown by octogenarian Iris, a neighbour from around 17th Avenue and Cambie Street. She told us they were a little like Concord grapes, but not quite as sweet, and perfect for jam-making.
Second, the harvesting team. The grapes were picked at the peak of ripeness by volunteers for Vancouver Fruit Tree Project. In total, they harvested 170 pounds of grapes from Iris' vines. Apparently this summer's hot, dry weather led to a bumper crop of grapes. A few weeks earlier, we heard about a 300 pound harvest, all from the same backyard.
Third, a few sets of helping hands. When these table grapes arrived for us at Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood House, we couldn't help sampling them. They were tart, a little bitter, seedy, juicy, and delicious.
We would need to preserve the grapes until our workshop. This meant rinsing them and picking them off the stems, rinsing them again, and packing them into large bags. Then downstairs they went, into the freezer for a couple of weeks. With three of us handling the task together, the work was done before two hours had passed.
Fourth, all hands on deck. On the day of the workshop, we noticed the juice from the defrosted grapes smelled a bit like wine. Iris had said they'd be good for that too. We weighed the grapes in empty ice cream buckets, dividing them into two even batches. Then we portioned out the right amount of sugar (a lot!) for each batch.
Most recipes suggest removing the skins from the grapes, and separating the seeds by passing the flesh of the fruit through a strainer. Since we were making 30 litres of jam, we didn't have that kind of time. We thought that liquifying the grapes would be a good idea. The right tool for the job was a commercial hand blender that looked like something straight out of TV's "Tool Time" -- any Home Improvement fans out there? We took turns pulverizing the fruit, watching with fascination as it transformed into a deep fuschia smoothie, flecked by the indigo of grape skins.
The seeds were surprisingly resilient, and most of them stayed whole. We tried straining them out, but the grape skins kept clogging the strainer. We needed to keep the skins for boiling so they would release pectin to help set the jam. So we decided to leave the seeds in, giving people the option to strain them out at home. Even before we added the sugar, our grape smoothie was tasting fabulous.
While, the soon-to-be jam heated up on the stove, Rosalind told us about the Vancouver Fruit Tree Project (VFTP). Established fourteen years ago, they're a non-profit society that deploys volunteers to harvest extra fruit from backyard trees and bushes, and redistribute it to groups who will use it. VFTP has picked more than 24 tons of fruit for community centres, neighbourhood houses, daycares and other community groups. We were grape-ful for Rosalind's good-natured presence, and her wealth of fruity puns.
We were nearing the finish line for the night, and we still needed way more boiling time to get the jam-like consistency we wanted. We would have to start ladling it into jars even if our jam was still a syrupy liquid. But as Rosalind would say, "Even if your jam isn't pear-fect, don't be afraid to try again."
Folks started sharing ideas for what to do with our syrup once we got it home. We could use it as syrup for pancakes or ice cream. We could add chia seeds, which would absorb liquid and help the jam set into a jelly-like consistency, while bringing vital nutrients into the mix. Or we could boil it again in smaller batches. If we added in some vinegar, we'd get grape cordial.
Once our jars were full, we still had 20 litres left to hand off to the folks attending the Queen Alexandra Garden harvest dinner the following week, thus completing our Grape September Relay. At the end of the day, we think everyone apple-reciated the experience, even if it didn't go quite as planned.