A giant strawberry tucked into a tiny grape; round, and immensely juicy, bursting with the dual flavor of both fruits! That is what it feels like when you taste a single berry of Uça Urzeni. I’m sure even devotees of this fruit won’t recognize the name except a few elderly in the villages of the eastern Black Sea region in Turkey who still know the Laz language, a Kartvelian language spoken by indigenous inhabitants of the area. “Uça” means black, “Urzeni” means grape, the exact translation “Kara Üzüm” being its usual Turkish name in the same region. Outside its natural habitat, people who are not familiar with the grape started to call it with other descriptive names such as fragrant grape (kokulu üzüm) or strawberry-scented grape (çilek kokulu üzüm) or more chic with its common European name Isabel or Isabella.
I usually describe it as the grape that thinks itself as a wild strawberry. My first encounter with the grape was in Venice. It was a wildly crazy period for me, studying stone conservation during days, and bar hopping at nights, mingling with Venetians. Soon I was introduced to a dubious unlabeled bottle from under the counter, and I was hooked. It was a love affair in the first sip. The foxy seductive liquid was Fragolino, a slightly fizzy red wine, which was the secret underground treasure of Venice bar life.
The epithet foxy is just right as the taste is often described as “foxy” in wine parlance, a musty odor that is usually considered undesirable but totally desirable in my case, apparently the same for many in the Veneto region all the way up to south Austria, Südburgenland where a similar rosé or even a refreshing white wine is made under the name Uhudler.
The reason why my first bottle was a no-label was the grape is not from the Vitis vinifera family, but from Vitis labrusca, which is not considered as a proper wine grape fit for making fine wine, thus often ends up in unregistered production, according to regulations it cannot be legally processed into wine. But of course, anyone who has had a chance of diving into the drinking scene in Venice knows that there is always a bottle of fragolino under the counter for locals. The name Fragolino refers to the wild strawberry taste, hence also the name of the grape “Uva Fragola,” strawberry grape.
The grape is recognized with several other names such as Alexander, Catawba, Concord, etc., the latter being the most commonly known in the U.S., used for making the ubiquitous grape jelly used popularly in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. In Turkey, in its natural habitat, the grape is wildly loved for its unusual taste, enjoyed mostly fresh, but also processed into molasses as winter approaches.
After my first sip, I kept searching desperately for the grape in Turkey, and one day in September, out of pure serendipity, I was offered a plateful by a waiter in the Prince’s Islands in Istanbul, and that is how I learned the Laz language version and the Black Sea connection. The waiter, recognizable by his majestic nose, was from the region, and he proudly told me that every single family that is originally from the Black Sea has at least one vine planted in their gardens. That vine represents homeland to them, a taste unmistakably homely. In Turkey, in order to taste the wild strawberry tasting grape, you do not necessarily have to head for the Black Sea region, search for it in the local neighborhood markets of the Asian side, especially Beykoz, or on the European side you might find that one man who brings a basketful every day in front of the fish market in Beşiktaş. Hurry up before the season is over!
Fork of the Week: Café Fernando is back and hits the bookshelves and pretty tables once again, empowered with new recipes included in the second edition. Written by Cenk Sönmezsoy, the self-confessing obsessive baker, and the amazing eye behind the impeccable photographs, the book is a glimpse of heaven for sweet-loving aficionados of fine patisserie. He is also an obsessive fan of the grape, featuring three recipes, his Isabel grape sorbet with vodka is out of this world, the ice-cream with kefir is strikingly delicious and the jelly is fit for a royal pantry, wonderful with scones and jelly rolls. The book is available in English as “The Artful Baker: Extraordinary Desserts From an Obsessive Home Baker by Cenk Sönmezsoy” (Abrams). Check out his award-winning blog www.cafefernando.com as well.
Cork of the Week: We are already deep in the grape harvest season, just the time when good news gives courage and power to wineries. I was supposed to be one of the jury members for Concours Mondial de Brussels 2020, held in Brno, Czech Republic, this year, but unfortunately, my participation was canceled this year due to restrictions on travel from Turkey with COVID-19 precautions. Turkey was represented by jury member Serhat Narsap who could luckily attend as he is a resident in the U.K. There were six Gold and 12 Silver medals from Turkey.