Most of the grapes our vines produce hardly manage to ripen; wasps and all kinds of insects attack them as soon as they start to blush. Until this year, come harvest time, we just find a few bunches of rotten, half-eaten grapes which are sweet but filled with seeds and difficult to swallow.
Early this August, as we finished harvesting the almonds, we noticed quite a few nice bunches of grapes hanging from the old, robust vines that engulf the southern fence of our property, behind the lemon trees. From these vines we mainly gather the tender grape leaves early in May, to stuff and make our trademark dolmades.
Usually the grapes our vines produce hardly manage to ripen; wasps and all kinds of insects attack them as soon as they start to blush. Come harvest time, we just find a few bunches of rotten, half-eaten grapes which are sweet but filled with seeds and difficult to swallow.
These vines are probably a remnant of the old vineyards our little valley was famous for; the dark grapes used to produce quite good wine in the old days, as I discovered researching the paper I wrote for the 2017 Oxford Symposium:
“…Kea was once famous for its red wine.” British traveler and writer James T. Bent in his 1885 book ‘Cyclades, or Life among the insular Greeks,’ mentions that the island had extensive vineyards, many on terraced corridors in its northern slopes. Considerable amounts of wine were being produced throughout the island’s history. There was enough wine for local consumption, and until the early twentieth century some was also exported. Bent writes that Michael Psellos –the eleventh century monk, scholar, and politician– describes Kea’s wine as “sweet to the scent, and black in color,” and “much sought after in Constantinople. […] The wine of Keos is still of great repute,” […]
Photographs taken at the end of the nineteenth c. and beginning of the twentieth c. bear witness to serious wine-producing activity, especially in the northern part, where we live. The old abandoned, overgrown winepress I see from my office window, half-way up the terraced hill, is proof that vines must have been cultivated on the grounds around our house. There are many old wine presses all over the island, indicating extensive vineyards. These precious old presses –some in covered stone shacks, others very simple open-air cisterns carved in rock, or built with stones and plastered– are the sole remnants of the once thriving viticulture. Santorini, and other Cycladic islands never gave up on their vineyards, and managed to revive their unique grape varietals, putting their local, exquisite wine production on the international map. Kea doesen’t even manage to produce enough decent wine for local consumption these days; and the same is true for the island’s once plentiful cheese production. Bent playfully remarks that, unlike other islanders, Keans, complacent with their beautiful and relatively fertile island, are “not an ambitious race…”
When we bought our piece of land, the previous owner had planted lots of olive trees –too close together, unfortunately—uprooting the old vines. Only the ones on the fence survived, plus one more, frail but persistent, at the edge of the olive grove next to our eastern veranda.
A few years ago I decided to use the green, unripe grapes to make a Sour Grape Condiment as people still do in the Middle East, and in some Balkan countries.
The two baskets of ripe grapes we gathered now were too few for wine and too seedy to eat; so Costas and I decided to press them and take the juice to drink, freeze some to make granita, and certainly make moustalevria, the traditional grape must jelly our mothers used to make each year. It was a lengthy, painstaking process with our grapes. But if you use the usual seedless grapes one gets this time of year, moustalevria is the easiest and most delicious summer treat, we feel.
The old Greek recipes ask for a complicated process of simmering the grape must with wood ash to to clarify it, a step I always skip. I much prefer a fruity-tasting moustalevria, so I briefly boil the juice with cornstarch just until it thickens, much like I do when I make my Orange ‘Cream’ in the winter.
RECIPE: Moustalevria: Grape Must Jelly