The virgin grape

The virgin grape

Aylin Öney Tan -
The virgin grape The first taste of a grape is unforgettable, especially if it is a fragrant, aromatic one ripened to honeydew sweetness under the scorching summer sun. The ambrosial experience of such a grape is unmatched, more so if that particular single grape comes from a bunch that is meant to end up in a bottle. The thrill of imagining the wine that bunch is destined for must be beyond compare. 

Officially the grape season has just started. The first picking of grapes are now allowed; the vineyards can be exploited without a trace of guilt. Of course local grapes started to appear on our tables way earlier this season, not to mention the year-round available imported ones; but once upon a time, in this land of grapes, it was a sin to pick and taste a single grape berry before mid-August. There were no legal measures about the grape picking calendar, but culturally or religiously Anatolian vineyards always had an unwritten code of rules. There was logic in this custom, as grapes would not be ripened enough before a certain date, without having the full exposure to the blasts of summer heat. The first ever viticulture laws were written by the Hittites about four millennia ago. The code of ethics about tending a vineyard and not harming others were strictly followed; harming a single vine would result in heavy penalties. The impulses of gluttony, however, had to be controlled by religion. 

The grape has always been of utmost importance in Anatolian economy and sustenance. It is not only important as a fruit or wine, but the fruit itself is a source of winter provision providing sweetness in the form of dried sultanas and grapes of all kinds, as molasses, or fruit leather, or dried grape juice-based sweet meats and nibbles. Every single grape berry is turned into either a drink in the form of wine, rakı, şıra, or a food item boosted with energy and power. That needs to be celebrated. Aug. 15 is the Surp Asdvadzadzin Day of Armenians. This is the day when the Virgin Mary is believed to have risen to God’s presence, and also the day when grapes would be blessed to her honor. No grapes are eaten from the carnival days of Pun Paregentan up until this day. The grape season opens after the blessing of the grapes at the church. The grape honoring this day has to be seedless, just as pure and “seedless” as the Virgin Mary, giving birth to baby Jesus without a father. 

For Anatolian Greeks, this is the second most important feast day after Easter, called Koimisi tis Tehotokou, joyously celebrated at the Panaghia, Virgin Mary church in Büyükada. However, for the Greeks the first taste of the grape is a week before, on Aug. 6, when the Hristos Day of Greeks is reserved for the blessing of grapes. In the old days, the church on Hristos Hill at Burgazada was always crowded with visitors. Early on in the day, priests and bellboys would walk up to the hill with donkeys loaded with baskets of grapes to be blessed and distributed at church. The day would also be celebrated at the Hristos Monastery and Church at Büyükada, at the upper end of the Kadıyoran ascent. In earlier times, the Hristu Sotiros Festival would be set up near the monastery, abounding with entertainment. Unfortunately the Istanbul islands no longer host vineyards, but the communities that celebrate the grape keep the tradition of grape blessing in churches, especially in Kınalıada Surp Krikor Lusavoriç, where loads of grapes are distributed to masses Sunday Mass, just as they did yesterday. Enjoy, cherish and bless the grape; now it’s the right time!

Bite of the Week

Fork of the Week: This salad is so refreshing for a summer supper. With a glass of crisp wine or cool icy rakı it would be hard to beat. Have a bunch of long white grapes, preferably crisp and aromatic Misket (Muscat), better if chilled. You must have about 2 cups of grape berries; cube 250g salty, briny white cheese, preferably Ezine type from sheep or goat’s milk; combine the grapes and white cheese cubes in a salad bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of nigella seeds, grated peel and the juice of half a lemon, and 2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Toss and serve well chilled. A few rounds of freshly milled black pepper will add an extra depth. Bliss!

Cork of the Week: The Vinolus winery is a lonely star in the midst of Anatolia, close to Kayseri and Cappadocia, keen on organic farming and winemaking in one of the most conservative regions of Anatolia. Owned by Oluş Molu, a courageous woman, award-winning Vinolus wines are crafted with great personality and originality. Unfortunately, just before the start of the harvest season, part of her winery had a devastating fire two weeks ago, and some of her precious wines were wasted. The fire was a suspected arson attack and the investigation is carrying on. Now it is not only the time to celebrate the grape, but to support it! Buy Vinolus wines wherever you find a bottle, regardless of its grape variety, vintage, whatever… They are all so good anyway, you won’t regret it. But if you find that elusive Chardonnay 2009 or 2011, tell me where you spotted it!