Timothy Gardner Cookery
The feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord is a fairly recent addition to the Western calendar. Its popularity started to grow in the eleventh century and it was added to the Roman Calendar in 1457 to commemorate the victory over the Ottomans at Belgrade. Before that, the feast was widespread in the East, and it is from the East that the feast’s culinary associations come. The Transfiguration is traditionally associated with grapes, coming in the middle of the Mediterranean grape harvest. On the feast, the Pope presses a bunch of ripe grapes into the wine at Mass or uses new wine. In Rome, raisins are blessed on this day, and the Greek and Russian Church conducts a special ceremony for blessing grapes and other fruits.
Grapes have never loomed large in the cuisine of our own, chillier climes, and our use of them in their dried form is somewhat scant beyond Christmas Pudding and Spotted Dick. The British devoured raisins in the Middle Ages, but somehow later lost their taste for them. Now we have imported grapes all year round, Californian raisins and wine in abundance. But in past times it must have been rather difficult to understand the parables of a Saviour who was forever using figures of grapes, vineyards and vine dressers.
Grapes probably came from what is now Iran, where cultivation began around 6000 BC and spread slowly eastwards. In the last 2,000 years the need for wine for the Mass was a great impetus for the spread of viticulture, and the arrival of grapes in the New World was largely due, I am pleased to recount, to the efforts of Dominican and Franciscan friars. There are some 60 species of grapes now grown on 25 million acres worldwide, mostly for wine. Nearly all the wine made in the world comes from varieties of a single European species, Vitis vinifera, as do such table grapes as Tokay, Ribier, Emperor, Muscat and Thompson seedless.
The greatest variety of grapes I have ever seen in one place was to be found in a small market stall in Kabul, near the thoroughfare fondly known as “Chicken Street”. There were small, sweet, almost white ones called kishmishi; huge green ones nearly as large as plums (ghola don); elongated, sweet ones known as Husseini; exuberant, sharp purple ones from Kandahar; tiny, perfectly round red ones, and many more besides. It was a beautiful sight, but I was glad not to have been there three months later when the President of Afghanistan was strung up on a lamppost just across the street.
Part of the problem in cooking with grapes is that recipes tend to call for them to be peeled and pitted. I once peeled a bunch of grapes and extracted their seeds with a hairgrip to make the Moroccan dish Saman bil Einab (quails buried in grapes). It was delicious but a dreadful chore to prepare. I made it again without peeling the grapes and, of course, it tasted just as good. Luckily, cooking with dried vine fruits is much easier, because they do not need to be peeled and are either seedless or come ready pitted. The main varieties (currants, golden raisins or sultanas, seedless raisins and pitted raisins) are widely available, but if you buy your dried fruit from your local Asian grocer you will find more varieties for less money. If you are ever in the vicinity of Borough Market in Southwark, there is an Iranian dried fruit seller who can offer you more varieties of dried grapes than you ever knew existed (and more than 100 other kinds of dried fruits and nuts).
Apart from their use in sweets, grapes and raisins have an affinity with poultry, and raisins are used frequently in wheat or rice pilaffs and pilaus from Morocco to Bangladesh. Another happy marriage is that between raisins and carrots, where the sweetness of the fruit brings out the flavour of the vegetable.