Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Short Visit to Cognac...and how to make grape jelly

We recently spent a lovely late afternoon and evening at Cognac, about an hour's drive from our home.  We arrived early for our dinner rendezvous with friends so we could explore a bit.  The Charente river with its banks lined with weeping trees and gracefully spanned with stone, arched bridges lend a relaxing, dreamy quality to that part of town.

Several French friends including Madame M who was born in Cognac, have said oh, Cognac, those people keep to themselves.  No one actually said anything unpleasant, but the repetition of that predictable sentiment made me wonder.  Once we left a busy square with its statute and restaurants, I was fascinated with what I perceived as a town imbued with a confident satisfaction.  The narrowness of the cobblestoned streets along with a stunning late-afternoon blue sky with billowing clouds encouraged me to focus my camera at the intersection between the roofs and the sky.

Cognac's early wealth first came from producing salt; it was somewhat later when the wine growers, faced with an overly abundant grape harvest, decided to distil wine into brandy.  Foreigners then moved into Cognac, especially from Ireland (Hennessy), to give their expertise on distilling.  Though Cognac is well loved by French people as a summer vacation spot, the streets were all wonderfully quiet.

In France, a half-timbered house is called une maison à Colombages.  The one below dates from the 15th century and originally was the home of  le lieutenant général de Cognac, Pierre de Lacombe.

Maison de la Lieutenance

I love to find visual vignettes when I am walking through French towns--little scenes potently complete in their beauty.  In Cognac, they were hard to find, it was as if the old quartier was one complete visual image with its cream stone houses, white shutters, ironwork, elegant house numbering, winding streets, and roofs intimately aware of the sky.  I was spellbound.

Back at the potager, I was delighted to see the starlings were not able to eat most of the grapes as was their habit in past seasons, especially the purple ones which I wanted to use for jelly making.  Dayo sporadically checked to see if the horticultural fleece I clipped onto the grape vines to protect them against the starlings was in good shape.

The Chasselas grapes are really luscious, nearly golden with bronze highlights with an intense, sparkling flavour when fully ripe.

I make jelly from our Muscat de Hambourg grapes.

They resemble blueberries!

Before making grape jelly, please read my general approach to jam making here.  I keep it as simple as I can, with a minimum of specialized equipment,  technique, and ingredients while producing a jam safe for consumption.  My jams though sweet have a depth of flavour because garden-fresh fruit is used, but they are usually a little less thick than commercial versions because I do not use additional pectin.  My jams soak a bit into the bread instead of slithering on it like some commercial products.  Grape juice and jelly is very staining, so wear old clothes.  Non-plastic utensils are best as they resist staining.  The dishwasher, better known as The Calm One, has reported that our beige plastic ladle is now a dull green.

Purple Grape Jelly
(Makes about a quart)

  • Purple grapes, washed and de-stemmed, 4 lbs
  • Water, 3/4 cup*
  • Grape juice (extracted from the 4 lbs of de-stemmed grapes), 5 3/4 cups*
  • Sugar, 3 1/2 cups*
  • lemon juice, freshly squeezed from one lemon
 *Cups are based on the American measure, 8 oz

Place grapes and water into a non-aluminium pot big enough for the contents to take up just one-third of the pot.  Bring to a boil and then simmer for ten minutes, mashing the grapes well.

Put the contents of the pot into a Foley Mill to extract the juice.

Place the grape juice, lemon juice, and sugar into the cleaned pot.

Bring to a rolling boil for about 15 to 18 minutes.  I use the sheeting test to determine the jellying point.

Skim off the foam and pour into recycled, clean jars.  Screw on caps tightly while carefully protecting your hands with oven mitts/potholders, and turn the jars upside down until cool.  They will keep in the fridge for a year.

I ladle hot jelly into the metal gravy boat which is used to pour jelly safely into jars

The jelly can be spread on bread of course, especially a rustic loaf; it will soak well into its crevices.  However, if I feel extravagant I will take advantage of its more fluid nature when still slightly warm and use it as a thick desert sauce on yogurt which is topped with crème fraîche.  In other words, an instant parfait. Spooning through the tepid, gooey jelly to the cold, dense, rich crème fraîche to the lighter, pudding-like texture of the mild yogurt is a delight.