I often think about what seasonality means to me.
Back in Italy, I thought I knew very clearly what eating seasonally meant, and I behaved accordingly. If we pay the smallest attention, we will see how traditional Italian recipes reflects this pure and simple concepts. But now that I live in London, seasonal food is different from what I was used to, or it simply comes at a different time. For instance, in Italy I was used to eating figs at the end of August, while here they are still tough and green, staring at me from the branches with stone-like attitude.
September, in my mind, is the month of grape harvest. In Italian, we have a specific name for the harvest of grapes, which is different from other kinds of harvests: vendemmiare. This is why we chose it for this month’s theme of Italian Table Talk: it is a key moment in the Italian cycle of seasonal food, and it carries a good deal of history and local traditions, but also interesting recipes with grapes and must. This time of the year, everywhere in Italy you can find festivals that celebrate the harvest and the end of the Summer season: from North to South, the end of the vendemmia is a feast worth remembering with good food and, of course, wine.
Alas, the UK is not big at viticulture. What I thought was an easy task –getting some wine grapes such as Concord/Fox grape, or Merlot Grape, or Muscat Grape for my recipe– revealed being pretty challenging. All I could find was seedless table grapes from Chile. I finally spotted a little store who had only a few clusters of Muscat Grapes imported from France, and I jumped on them, despite their hard-to-justify price. This is when I started to reflect on the relativity of seasonality: never take anything for granted. What is cibo dei poveri (food of the poor) here, is a luxury good there.
And to think that in Italy, especially in the past, wine grapes were the only ones, for the rich and the poor. Seasonal workers would have been enrolled in the harvest and surely, some grapes would have been taken home, perhaps the damaged ones, to eat and cook. In Veneto, women made a sweet pudding with grape must, a thick and energetic sweet treat, perfect to give some calories to keep going in the vineyards. Sugoi, or sùgoli, was indeed a sweet of the poor, as it was made with the simplest, available ingredients and didn’t require much sugar –the sweetness from the grapes was enough. Some women would make giant pots of sùgoli and sell them in town, where people were waiting with a bowl in hands, ready to welcome a generous scoop of that purple red delight. In my family, sùgoli have been made through generations, passing from grandma to mum to daughter. My mum made them for us sometimes, but my memory of it is far and vague –all I remember is that I didn’t particularly like them as a child.
I haven’t eaten them since then. But this month’s theme was the perfect occasion to rediscover this family recipe, this local tradition linked to this specific time of the year. I bought my grapes, a masher, and got started.
The name sùgoli is somehow related to the word “sugo”, juice. It is, indeed, nothing more than a grape juice pudding. You can make it starting from the must, but if you only have the grapes like me, you have to extract the juice before getting into the thickening part. The recipe, of course, is as easy as it sounds. Just grapes, flour and, perhaps, some sugar. Additional toppings include cinnamon or dark cocoa powder, but none of them have ever been used in my family.
Wash grapes and place them in a large saucepan over a low heat with 1/4 cup water. Bring to a boil and simmer until grapes have busted, about 5 minutes. Using a masher or a strainer, separate the juice (must) from seeds and skins. Let the juice cool. Put the juice back in the saucepan over low heat and add the flour (and, if used, the sugar), whisking energetically to avoid lumps. Bring to a simmer, and cook for about ten minutes, until the sauce becomes thick and dense. Remove from heat and pour into serving cups. Let cool, then store in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Serve cold.