Successive researchers have found that the nutrient values and the tastes of our foods have deteriorated commensurately with the lessening number of food retailers. The reasons are many and include - breeding for yield and shelf-life, irrigating before harvest and the supermarkets inability to deal with short shelf-life produce. Fresh produce deteriorates quickly and the extra journeys and the knockabout which results from central distribution, cosmetic 'cleaning’ and pre-packaging add to its suffering. A whole generation has experienced only that which has been on offer and cannot make comparisons with that which they have never had. But those of us who can, did not treasure what we had until it was gone! And there are now very few outlets where fine fruit is to be had in successive variety and in season. If you press a fruit manager on flavour, you will be told that taste is ‘subjective’. The truth is that commerce is terrified that ‘flavour’ may offend dulled palates. Better avoid the hazard with, either, bland ‘tastes’ or by cauterising the palate with chillies.
Seedless grapes lend a classic example of the deterioration in our food's quality. The luscious scented varieties are gone, which you crushed between tongue and palate to savour vinous or Muscat-laced juices and then the long flavour tail! And what has resulted from 'More Choice'? Invariably, almost white Thompson's Seedless or black Flame, both sugar-sweet, vapid and crunchy, their signal assets being the ability to survive assault in transit and to have a potential for extended shelf life - more grapeshot than grape.
Seedless grapes are deficient in the oils, esters and tannins, which leach their qualities from the seed to the flesh as a seeded berry grows and matures. Being without these substances, seedless varieties cannot offer similar nuances, and they are generally less succulent, but when home-grown and picked at perfection, they can be most pleasing. Wines, too, can be most pleasing, but they never taste as do their unfermented grapes, other than in the case of Muscats. They are described as tasting of black currant, cherry, melon, plum, almost any fruit but grape and similarly, seedless grape, except in the case of muscats. I began growing grapes in 1971. 1 disliked ‘bought' seedless but it was not until I tasted other gardeners' enjoyable examples that I began a seedless collection in 2000. I wish that it had been earlier!
There are two forms of seedlessness - parthenocarpic (with virgin fruit) when the seeds are not fertilised and fail to develop. Most parthenogenic varieties are of no use to the gardener, for their tiny berries require treatment with a growth regulator, such as gibberelin, which encourages cells to elongate. The mass of the cells is not affected and so the taste is diluted. Stenospermocarpic varieties (with contracted seeds) set seed, but they fail to develop fully. The seeds may be tiny and unnoticeable or small and hollow, or fully grown but soft. Most garden varieties fall into this category.
Most seedless varieties are late to harvest and my practice is to grow them under unheated glass. Alternatively they may be grown under large cloches or a 'Curate's vinery' or against a south wall. Many growers succeed with them in the open and no doubt, the further south or west is your site from East Suffolk - where we can enjoy a chilly northerly, even in the summer - then the more likely is your success!
All seedless grapes are for dessert and cooking only, they are incapable of making worthwhile wines, although this does not deter the makers of bulk low quality wines which may include either Thompson's or Flame anonymously. These grapes are both relatively high in sugars and ferment to high alcohol levels. They are totally devoid of taste or aroma or character of any kind and are used to ‘improve’ lower alcohol wines.
As with all fruits, the enjoyment of fresh grapes lies in their being of the best varieties grown to perfection and eaten as fresh as is possible. Cosmetics and presentation should not have taken precedence. Ergo: grow your own!
I include here the varieties that I have grown and notes from Brian Edwards (B.E.) on growing outdoors. Brian has a fine collection in Herefordshire and is always willing to offer expertise and he sells fine reliable stock. (http/vinenursery.netfirms.com)
Varieties grown under cold glass in Suffolk
Dawn (Goff X lona): late. Very large berried golden grape with a fine strong fruity favour. (B.E. - too late for outdoors).
Exalta (Muscat Hamburg X Perlette): excellent quality. It is surprisingly juicy and has a pronounced muscat flavour. (B.E. - needs a warm wall outdoors).
Fantasy (complex mixed parentage): very late variety with unusually large, black oval berries in open bunches. It is sweetly sub-acid. (B.E. - too late for outdoors).
Flame (complex mixed parentage): home-grown, the very crunchy berries are darker and smaller but the sweet taste is more intense than in commercial samples. It is not of the best. I found it to be over vigorous and that bunches shattered easily as they became fit to eat - so it is gone! (B.E. - will ripen outdoors, but disease prone; poor crops).
Glenora (Ontario X Russian Seedless): very powerful taste. Unpleasantly like wintergreen before ripe but very agreeably of black currant when fully ripe; Oregon grower, Lon Rombough, says 'of blueberry’. A restaurateur friend of mine has as many as I can allow him and makes an excellent ice-cream. (B.E. - good outside).
Himrod ( Ontario X Sultanina): very early; quite large bunches. The taste is sweet and fruity, reminiscent of sultana and it makes good sultanas. The bunches fall apart easily, which is a useful trait for drying, but needs to be watched for on the vine. (B.E. - good outside).
Interlaken: a sibling of Himrod and Lakemont. It is a little earlier and has a strong strawberry taste. Makes good sultanas. (B.E. - good outside) .
Lakemont: later than its sibling Himrod and the most productive of the three, and similarly, good for sultanas. Pleasantly sub-acid and fruity. (B.E. - good outside).
Kings Ruby (Emperor X Pirovano75): said to be a well flavoured grape but it would not ripen for me and so it has gone. It could succeed, I believe, given late heat, for I have learned that it does well in Oregon on a south wall. (B.E. - useless outside).
Thompson's Seedless (syn. Sultana, Sultanina, Kismis and others): standard 'sultana' grape and, when matured on the vine in the Middle East or California and dried in the sun, the best. When it is grown for dessert under cold glass it has smaller berries than commercial samples, but bunches can be very long and weighing a couple of kilos. The sugar and acid balance is better, but it remains, not of the best flavour here. It makes good sultanas. (B.E. - too late outside).
Venus (Alden X New York 46000): can have quite large and not necessarily soft seeds. Besides being unreliably seedless its taste is somewhere between being unpleasantly 'foxy' and vaguely muscat. (B.E. - will ripen outside; curious flavour).
Varieties recommended by others
Bronx (Goff X Iona): big pink bunches. Deliciously strawberry flavour. (B.E. - needs good site to ripen outdoors).
Delight: sibling of Perlette. It is earlier and sweeter and with a hint of muscat and is a better variety.
Mars (Island Belle X Arkansas 1339): blue grape; said to have the largest berries of all seedless grapes. Strongly acid-strawberry flavoured and soft. Best eaten the day after picking when some acidity has faded. (B.E. - ripens well outside).
Perlette (Queen of the Vineyards X Thompson's): good desert variety. Tastes a little floral. (B.E. - early but needs shelter).
Suffolk: firm red berries in loose bunches with a strawberry taste. Makes good raisins.
Alan Rowe*Photograph taken from Successful Grape Growing for Eating and Wine -Making by Alan Rowe, 3rd edition 2006, published by Groundnut Publishing
Published: 29 Jul 07
Author: Alan Rowe
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