What We Do with Grapes

It is harvest time, and all those lovely grapes in the vineyards around Zagreb are being picked. Yes, most of it will be turned to wine, but what happens to those whose final destination is different?

Not all grape varieties are destined to become wine. Table grapes are bigger, meant to be eaten on their own, as fruit. One of the most common varieties in this category is the fragrant, sweet izabela. From then on, they could be dried or candied, even pickled or preserved as condiment, but somehow we don't do that here. Table grapes are very versatile in the kitchen. They can be combined and easily used in both desserts and main courses with meat. In our local cuisine, they tend to be used in simple desserts, mostly.

“Come in and help yourself to some fine grapes.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

If we go back to grapes suitable for wine production, there is one step between harvesting and fermentation that does play a certain part in our tradition. Before wine, there is must – or mošt, as it is called here. It is actually just pressed grape juice, consisting of water, sugars and acids, not turned to alcohol yet. By default it's homemade, you can't buy it in shops. Its life span is very short so timing is everything. But when you hit that perfect must, not too sour, not to sweet, not unripe and not starting to ferment yet, it's a delicious and harmonious drink that engages all of your senses. I know people who buy bunches of grapes just to make must, not even remotely interested in making or drinking wine. Must is traditionally paired with roast chestnuts, it's one of the favourite combinations of my childhood. In many villages around Zagreb you can find little local festivals celebrating autumn and chestnuts – usually called kestenijada – where you can try this match made in heaven. For example, the village of Buševec in Turopolje is one of those places.

“And so it begins...” Image credit: Zagreb County Tourist Board FB

Give it some time, let nature do its job, with a little assistance, of course, and must will start turning into young wine. This takes us to early November and the celebration of St. Martin's day, when young wine is baptized and a big party is thrown to wish the new vintage a happy life. It is a big deal in continental Croatia and regions where wine is deeply rooted in the local culture and tradition. Also, on no other day will you see that many traffic police patrols on the roads. Welcoming and enjoying young wine, especially Portugizac from Plešivica region, is an old custom still very alive in Zagreb. We take pride in it, as much as the French take part in their Beaujolais ritual. Again, young wine will pair nicely with roast chestnut, but also with local dishes typical for cold autumn days (Portugizac arrives in late October and early November), such as blood sausages or pork chops with sauerkraut.

“Pork chops with grapes – it can’t get more seasonal.” Image credit: Prigorski dvori restaurant FB

When it comes to cooking with table grapes, kotlet s trsja is one of rare local recipes that we have, but it's a real ode to the harvest season. The name literally means „pork chops from the grapevine“. The meat is fried and then sautéed in an aromatic sauce with root vegetables, prunes, red grapes and wine. And the perfect Zagreb style dessert to go with it would be the filling and comforting baked pancakes with cottage cheese. Of course, with extra sour cream on top. True, they use raisins and not fresh grapes, but this family favourite is one of the most successful incorporations of grapes of any kind in Zagreb cuisine.

“Portugizac young wine is your best autumn companion.” Image credit: Portugizac Plešivica

Header image credit: Taste of Croatia

Author: Taste of Croatia, Morana Zibar