When I was little we spent a lovely, if not sweltering, holiday in an old stone farmhouse just outside Lucca. The house was set in sprawling vineyards; acres upon acres of beautiful twisted and gnarled vines, weighed down by huge bunches of sangiovese grapes slowly swelling through the summer, turning from green to inky black under the Tuscan sun.
When we arrived another family was already staying there and, in an attempt to be friendly, me and my sister invited the son to join in our games. He quickly suggested we should go down to the vineyards to eat some grapes; food and illicit excitement all at once, what could be better? Of course we should have spotted the fact that he wasn't quite as keen to sample them, and our excitement in picking the fruity contraband quickly turned to disappointment as we grimaced and crunched our way through the tannic, bitter, seeded grapes that made our gums pucker and tongues feel like shrivelled leather in our mouths. (I got my revenge later by 'accidently' pushing him into the swimming pool.)
Years later and I found a intriguing recipe for 'wine grape pie' while looking through Jacob Kennedy's rather lovely Bocca cookbook; he describes it thus; 'around grape harvest-time, almost every bakery in Tuscany will have a rectangular tray of a low, slightly sinister but delicious-looking cake, studded with purple-black grapes. It is one of those things you see and immediately decide to eat a slice of, even if you have just had breakfast, or are groaning after an epic lunch. Schiacciata ('crushed') is only slightly sweet, as it is made from a plain (and characteristically saltless) bread dough, the grapes providing the same balance as they might in a fine bottle of Chianti - round, ripe, tannic, earthy, fruity. Their prolific seeds give a tremendous crunch, one that will even please some of those who normally spit grape seeds out.'
With such a beautiful description of the dish, illustrated with a glistening tray of glorious looking, grape-studded bread, I finally thought it was time to overcome my distrust of wine grapes (except as a beverage, of course). Sadly I was a little too early for the harvest when I was in Tuscany for my sister's wedding earlier this year, but I was determined to try and recreate it when I got back home.
The first problem was finding the tiny, tannic grapes that would be traditionally used in this dish. The Chiltern Hills is clearly not the place to source such things, and eventually I had to settle for a mixture of red and black seedless varieties. Turns out wine grapes are far less juicy than the table grapes; and while I used the full kilo specified in the recipe, next time I would reduce that down by half (or befriend someone with some vines in their garden). I also quite like the idea of using the same dough, with the fennel seeds and olive oil, and using a handful of dried fruit instead of the fresh grapes.
I must to confess that, quelle surprise, I didn't read the recipe quite as carefully as I might have; instead of putting a third of the grapes on the top layer of dough, I crammed them all inside the pie. While this made for a very pretty cut through, the crispy bronzed top with a vivid purple filling, the bottom crust became rather leaden and soggy, especially considering the juicy table grapes I had used).
Despite the improvisation and lack of attention to detail I really loved the simplicity of this recipe. It's still rather unusual to find grape-flavoured dishes this side of the pond (I still have a soft spot for the American Jolly Rancher candy and lurid, artificial grape bubble gum), but I found the combination of the plain dough, fennel seeds, olive oil and juicy, sweet grapes simple, yet delicious. Perhaps my creation was not how the dish was originally intended, but it still a perfect breakfast or mid-morning snack to enjoy with a cup of strong Italian coffee, and maybe a little snifter of grappa.
Wine Grape Pie
(adapted from the Bocca cookbook by Jacob Kennedy)
10g dried yeast, or 20g fresh
260ml tepid water
400g bread flour
1kg red wine grapes (or 500g red/black table grapes), picked from their stems, washed and dried
100g caster sugar
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra to grease the pan
1 teaspoon aniseed or fennel seeds (optional)
Disperse the yeast in the water, then add the flour to make a dough, kneading it very well until it becomes smooth and highly elastic - a good 10/15 minutes. Leave to rise, covered, until doubled in bulk - 2 hours or so in the airing cupboard or any gentle warmth.
Divide the dough into two equal parts. Find a baking sheet about the size of an a4 sheet of paper Roll one lump of dough out until quite thin, and about10cm wider and longer than the baking sheet. Lay it on the tray, so the excess comes up the side. Fill the base of this lined tray with two-thirds of the grapes, and sprinkle over them one-third of each of the sugar, oil, and aniseed (if using).
Roll the second part of the dough out, the same size as the baking sheet and lay it over the top, completely enclosing the grapes beneath. Press down slightly, so it snuggles on to the grapes, and fold the loose edges of the lower tray of dough inwards, towards the centre of the pie, to seal it. Dot the remaining grapes evenly over the top. Sprinkle the top of the schiacciata with the remaining sugar, oil and aniseed.
Leave it to rise for about an hour until it looks a little puffy (with the weight of the grapes, it won't rise a great deal), then bake at 200c degrees F for 1 hour, until the crust on top is an even and deep gold. Let it cool for at least 2 hours before serving.