The Sad Tale of a Grape Discovery

Remember that quintessential grape flavor found in ultra-soft chunks of bubble gum? Turns out, that taste — which can only accurately be described as “purple” — can be found in nature: it’s called the Concord grape.

Concord grapes, which are in season now, constitute a significant portion of New York’s fall harvest, making the state the third leading producer of wine and grape juice. WNYC’s Amy Eddings spoke with photographer Diana Pappas and chef Jamie Paxton, authors of the blog Eat More Butter, about the history of Concord grapes and how best to deal with the fruits’ thick skin and seeds.

“The first thing that you’ll notice is that the grape comes right out of the skin very easily, leaving the skin behind,” Pappas says. Paxton notes, however, that the skin is a particularly nutritious portion of the grape and adds deeper flavor when cooked. When baking with them, Paxton recommends separating the grapes from their skins and setting the skins aside. Then, she cooks the grape flesh down, strains out the seeds, and recombines the remaining pulp with the skins for baking.

Pappas also shares the tragic story of Ephraim Wales Bull, the creator of the Concord grape. “Grape production in the US had not been successful," she explains. "Early frosts would kill off the grape." Wales Bull moved from Boston to Concord, Mass. for health reasons, where the amateur horticulturalist took it upon himself to develop a delicious grape suitable to the cold Northeast climate. A neighbor to the Alcott family and Henry David Thoreau, Wales Bull experimented with thousands of grapes before he finally developed the Concord grape.

“When he takes it to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1853, it wins first prize — runaway success,” says Pappas. “He makes $3,200 the first year, selling at $5 a pop.” To Wales Bull’s great misfortune, however, plant patent laws had not yet come into existence. While the Concord grape grew in popularity, the creator eventually died penniless and alone. His tombstone reads: “He sowed — others reaped.”

Though Wales Bull met a tragic end, those in the Northeast continue to enjoy the fruits of his labors (literally). Paxton's recipe for Concord grape tart with hazelnut crust crème fraiche is a particularly good way to use the fruit while it's still in season.

Concord Grape Tart with Hazelnut Crust and Crème FraicheConcord grape tart
by Jamie Paxton (photographed by Diana Pappas)
Serves 8

For the Hazelnut Shortbread Crust

  • 9 tbsp unsalted butter, soft
  • ½ cup confectioners sugar
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup roasted, peeled and finely ground hazelnuts
  • 1¼ cups all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, cream the butter, sugar and salt; the butter should be soft enough that you can do this by hand with a wooden spoon. Add the egg yolk and incorporate fully. Stir in the lemon zest and ground hazelnuts and mix well. Add the flour all at once and mix slowly, just to combine; be sure to incorporate all of the flour but do not work the dough any more than necessary at this stage.

Chill dough for at least an hour in the refrigerator and then roll out between sheets of wax paper to 1/8” thick. Fit into a buttered 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom, trimming off any extra that hangs over the edge. Rest crust in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lay a piece of parchment paper or aluminum foil on top of the crust and weight with pie weights or baking beans. Blind bake the crust for 25-28 minutes, removing the parchement and weights after 20 minutes. Remove the crust from the oven when it is dry to the touch and has just barely started to pick up some color. Transfer the crust (still in its pan) to a cooling rack and let cool before filling.

For the Concord Grape Filling

  • 1 ½ lbs concord grapes (or enough for 3 cups stemmed)
  • 2 oz. St. Germain or other Elderflower Liqueur
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp flour

Wash, drain and de-stem grapes. Separate the flesh from the skins by pinching the grapes between your thumb and forefinger. Reserve the skins and all juice. The grapes and skins should total approximately 3 cups.

Combine the grape flesh and all accumulated juice with the St. Germain and lemon juice in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and then simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. When cooled, push the grapes through a fine sieve, discarding the seeds.

Combine the grapes with the reserved skins, sugar and flour and pour into the cooled crust.

Bake at 375°F for 45-55 minutes until the filling is thick and bubbling. Transfer tart to a cooling rack and cool completely before removing from pan and cutting.

Serve the tart at room temperature with crème fraiche to garnish.