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Despite that deeply disturbing color, it’s not toxic. But it’s also not completely drinkable: It’s verjus.

Sour Grapes

How to make and justify verjus

This past weekend, I learned about verjus. And I even made some.

In this article I will tell you what verjus is and even explain in detail how to make it. If you read very closely, you might also learn why you might not want to bother.

History Lesson

Verjus (literally “green juice” from the French vert and jus) is, according to random websites I found when searching for information on this stuff, an ancient tart liquid. Some say that it was the original form of lemon juice, before lemons became popular and people realized they should probably use lemons for something with “lemon” in the name. In any case, it’s what people used when they needed something sour.

Verjus is made from grapes that are not quite ripe, and are thus not sweet enough to pick, or to eat, or to provide an actual enjoyable juice. So you can pick them anyway and create a juice that is… not quite ready. It can be used as a substitute for lemon juice, in an alternate reality where lemons do not exist. If you have access to lemons, it is not obvious why you also need verjus, unless you are simply trying to spark some kind of jealousy on the part of the citrus.

Or maybe you have a lot of unripe grapes. Which was the situation I was in.

The Problem

I have a patio which bakes in the hot California sun. Years ago, I built a wooden trellis over the patio. But a trellis is not enough; you really need something to cover the trellis to provide actual shade, to drop that temperature from a hellish 100+ degrees Fahrenheit down to a more moderate ~99.

So I planted two grape vines. These vines crawl up the trellis on either side of the patio and meet in the middle, covering the trellis with woody branches, new green growth, and lovely, large leaves. It’s perfect for shading the patio and life is good out there. Until the fruit arrives.

After the first couple of years, when the vines had spread from either side, they started to fruit, producing a surprisingly large number of exciting grape bunches. The fruit are green for a few weeks, eventually ripening into large, tantalizing, purple fruit. When they are deep purple, you know that they are optimally sweet and ready for eating.

And so do the birds.

Right around the time that they are ready to pick and enjoy (actually, a few days before I’d pick them), the birds get the same memo. They know, just as they know that screaming outside your window at 6am is the best way to attract a mate, that purple is the color of perfect, and they make regular forays onto the trellis to make (a) a meal out of the grapes and (b) a toilet out of the patio.

At this time of year, our patio becomes a minefield of sticky, fallen fruit and bird, ahem, leavings. It’s like a campground where the rangers forgot to provide trash cans and porta potties, and then sprayed everything with a sugar glaze for kicks. It converts a pleasant patio into a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit.

So this year, I got even.

The Fix is In

Some of the grapes started turning light purple in the past few days. That’s a long ways from edible… for us. But for the birds, it’s like ringing a dinner bell. We’d already started to see (and feel) torn and sticky fruit littering the patio, even though 90% of the grapes are still green enough to pass for lime jelly beans.

It was time for the grapes to go.

This year, we decided to take a stand. No longer would we put up with birds taking our fruit and leaving their… deposits. No longer would we cede our patio territory to these loiterers and toileters. No longer would we be forced to clean up that sticky mess, like some second grader’s birthday party, whenever we ventured outside.

No, this year, we would remove the source of the problem, picking all of the grapes, before they were ripe, to protect the patio at the unfortunate cost of the entire harvest of grapes.

Harvest Time

So I did that this past weekend: I painstakingly cut down all of the troublesome grape bunches. And there I was with a bushel full of unripe and mostly inedible grapes.

So the question was: now what? I hate wasting food, and it seemed like I should be able to do something with the large amount of almost-food.

One quick web search later, I had learned two things:

  1. Grapes do not continue to ripen after they have been picked.
  2. Unripened grapes can be juiced to create verjus.

Having no other options (since the fruit was already picked) and being obsessively inclined to never waste food, I decided to give this verjus thing a try.

The Recipe

Fortunately, making verjus is incredibly easy (though very time-consuming and messy). I’m used to recipes which call for ingredients which I can’t even spell much less find at my local grocery store. So to read a recipe as simple and plain as verjus was a dream.

The thing about verjus is that it’s not a complicated food source that you need to acquire the right ingredients for. Instead, it’s the realization that you have a bunch of stuff you probably shouldn’t have (Whoops! That fruit isn’t ripe! I shouldn’t have picked it!) and you have to do something with it.

This recipe dates back many centuries. From one article, it’s clear that it was invented in a simpler time: “Before lemons were imported into Northern Europe after the crusades….” This is before lemons, before grocery stores, before refrigeration, before the complexities of modern ingredients: it dated from a time when you had the thing you had to make food from… and that’s it. The recipe is therefore wholly uncomplicated. It goes like this:

  1. Juice the grapes

… and that’s it. All you have to do is juice the grapes, and then you have the result: juice from the grapes. No sugar, no riboflavin, no MSG, no dash of this and pinch of that: you just juice the grapes and you’re done.

Of course, juicing the grapes isn’t exactly a quick process, but if you were living on a mediaeval farm without internet and cell data, maybe you welcomed the diversion of mashing a bushel full of grapes to take up the long, dull afternoons as you waited for the Renaissance to finally arrive.

In practice, there were a few steps involved:

  1. Rinsing
    This ends up being pretty tedious especially with all of the dried leaves, dried vines, bugs, and general detritus that accompanies bunches of grapes that have been hanging around outside for several months. And with the volume we’re talking about, it took a while to rinse and sort them all to produce bunches of grapes I’d feel comfortable eating (or drinking).
  2. Mashing
    This step entailed crushing the grapes… a bit. This wasn’t about producing juice, but more about making them suffer slightly before their final judgement.
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For this step, I put bunches of grapes into a large bowl and mashed them with a smaller bowl. (At this point, I should point out that I got a BA in Mathematics years ago, and I therefore recognized that a smaller bowl could be used to press the grapes in the large bowl because these bowls were the same shape, but different sizes. Genius.).

3. Juicing
Once the grapes were “mashed” it was time to juice them.

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This being the 21st century, the age of technological enlightenment, when the only thing we seem to have absolutely no solution for is a global health crisis, I figured there would be a fancy and simple way to juice grapes. I mean, all you need to do is smash them, right?

Apparently, the approved (and only?) way to do this is by hand. Unless you are making wine, in which case you use your feet. So after thousands of years of human evolution and refinement of wine production, the best way we can come up with for producing juice from grapes is by using our appendages to smash them individually. Like we’re not so much making juice as we are teaching them an important lesson based on lethal and personal revenge.

So I did as instructed, squeezing bunch after bunch, filtering the result so that we could drink the fruit of the vines and not the vines themselves. Besides the filtered juice, I also produced a large amount of sticky compost.

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Yes, I know there are many un-mashed grapes here. You try smashing this many and see how you do. Also, I found that the more unripe they are, the harder they are to smash, which means that by sticking mainly to the ones that were easier to squish, I was probably getting sweeter juice from riper grapes. Also, I was tired.

4. Et Voilà
Now you have juice. You pour it into a pitcher, into a glass, into the drain; whatever you think is the best place for it.

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Oh, yum, an entire half-gallon of verjus,most of which is still in my fridge.

And so?

So the real question you might be asking is: How is it? Is it a food that you absolutely must have on your shelf, in your fridge, and in your life? Was it, in fact, a smashing success?

Well, let me put it this way:
You know what grapes taste like when they are almost ripe, both very sweet, and yet too tart to actually enjoy?

That’s, unsurprisingly, exactly what verjus tastes like. It has the flavor of fruit picked just a little too early, and now you all you have to show for your effort is a half gallon of a liquid in your house that everyone politely declines.

Should you make it? Well, do you need sour liquid and you can’t find a lemon or lime anywhere, but somehow have bunches of unripe grapes on hand? Or do you have fruitful grape vines, but hate the idea of allowing the fruit to ripen to an edible and enjoyable state? Then this is a perfect recipe for you. Enjoy!

When life gives you lemons… you don’t need verjus.

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