Picking green grapes for making vertjus; Tacuinum Sanitatis
I have a secret ingredient. It’s called Verjus (from Middle French vertjus "green juice"). Prized for a thousand years, you can buy it today fairly easily but I have a recipe that is the BEST EVER and I’d like to share it with you. It comes from Madeleine Kamman’s In Madeleine's Kitchen (you need to buy her books!!). It is a little expensive to make and takes a few months to be brilliant but verily I say unto you… your patience will be rewarded! After two months it is delicious, in a year it is insanely good… if you can leave some for a few years it will take your breath away.
Verjus has its roots in the wonderful idea that nothing should go to waste. Unripe grapes (left after the harvest) or sour crab apples (common in England) would be used to make this vinegar-like liquid.
The 14th century cookbook, Le Menagier de Paris’ recipe made Verjus with sour grapes and sorrel. Later recipes ask for sour grapes with salt to act as a preservative. In the Middle Ages oil was precious and this would often be the only thing that would go on salads and greens for flavoring. Called husroum or ab-ghooreh in the Middle East, it is still used in Arab/Persian and Syrian cooking. It is somewhere between a vinegar and a wine (my version still has a bit of alcohol in it!).
I had a small portion that I had stored for 7 years quite by accident (a gift that never got given!). I used it last summer with hazelnut oil on a salad and the result was transporting. Gossamer light, complex yet subtle, it is Aristocratic vinegar, if you will.
Carolyn at 18th Century Cuisine shared a slightly different version of Kamman’s recipe on her wonderful blog. Kamman recommends a version with yeast in it in her latest cookbook. My particular recipe uses Armagnac and honey with the strong savor of the flowers the bees dined upon (thyme, heather, acacia)* to anchor the sherry vinegar and tart grapes. The use of Armagnac was a happy accident the first time I made it many years ago… an accident that I now repeat every time I make it.
Perigord Verjus from Amazon
If you don’t have the time or the inclination, the store bought variety can be amended with the addition of some of these elements. Good honey* and sherry vinegar with a small shot of a good brandy will give a purchased verjus some of that quality I love in Kamman’s recipe. I really recommend taking the trouble. Use it with a nut oil on butter lettuce or baby greens and you will see salad in a new light. It is also wonderful on mangoes and tomatoes or even avocado. It gives a delicately nuanced brightness to the fruit. I can’t lie… I have taken small glasses of it!
I usually halve this recipe (Armagnac is pricey!).
30 large green grapes (unwashed organic)
1 quart grape juice (crushed and strained) from sour grapes (or the hardest green grapes you can find---I have always used market grapes myself)
2/3 c Honey (thyme, acacia, heather, evergreen etc.)*
2 Quarts 90 proof alcohol (I used 750 ml bottles) of Armagnac (or brandy, vodka)
2 c sherry vinegar
Prick the grapes with a needle, and place in the bottom of a ½ gallon jar. Filter the grape juice through a coffee filter (this was tough… in the end I used a fine sieve) and pour over the grapes. Add the honey and stir until dissolved then add the alcohol and vinegar. Seal the jar with several layers of cheesecloth (I used a snap lid jar and put the lid down but not snapped over the cheesecloth). Do not disturb for at least 2 months… it is ready to use when the berries have fallen to the bottom and the liquid has clarified, although there will be a fine layer of sediment at the bottom. I poured off the liquid into a bottle and left the grapes in the sediment. They are delicious. (9 months old, this batch is unbelievably good!!)
*** I imagine you could try this with crab apples if you have a tree!
I’ve used this bottle for nearly 20 years. I keep adding new Verjus as they do with the solera system for Sherry in Spain (it’s called in perpetuum in Sicily and used to make marsala) leaving a little from the old batch to enrich the new batch!