Moldy Grapes!

We had a nice conversation with BoingBoing blogger and Make Magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder about how important mistakes are in the DIY life, so here’s two more recent blunders for ya’ll, courtesy of Mrs. Homegrown Evolution.

Recent failure #1: Inedible Pickled Grape Leaves

We have grape leaves. Lots of them. Our two table grape vines are a little hesitant to really bust out, but our native grape (Vitus californica) has taken over the entire south facing wall of our garden, and is threatening the neighbor’s house. The chickens like grape leaves, fortunately, so I have something to do with the prunings, but I wanted to do more.

I’m a big fan of dolmas, so thought I’d try to pickle some grape leaves. Skimming the internet for recipes, I saw, as usual, many contradictions [Mr. Homegrown's editorial note here--first mistake--internet recipes are notoriously unreliable. I know this because I've promulgated bad recipes myself!]. I found a recipe attributed to Sally Fallon which called for no pre-cooking at all, just pickling in whey and salt. I saw others that recommended pressure canning and I don’t have a pressure canner.

What I ended up doing was blanching the grape leaves before I pickled them, hoping that would soften them up some, but not so much that they would disintegrate when rolled. I was sure to only pick the youngest, freshest leaves.

I should have done a small test batch, but went nuts and filled a half-gallon jar with many rolled up bundles of leaves, and covered it in a brine and whey pickling solution. A week later I tasted the leaves. They looked right, they tasted right, but no matter how much I chewed, the leaves didn’t break down. I ended up with a mouthful of cud.

Now the question is whether wild grape leaves simply aren’t edible, or if I should try it again, and this time boil the beejeezus out them. I think I’ll do a beejeezus test run, and report back.

Has anyone out there done this successfully?

A second level of grape leaf failure:

While fermenting, a mold developed at the top of the jar, because a couple of the rolls crested the surface of the brine. One way to keep veggies below the brine is to weight them down somehow. In this case, I had a baggy full of salt water (salt water so that if it leaked, it wouldn’t dilute the brine) sitting at the top of the jar. But I didn’t pay attention to the jar during the fermentation, and a couple of the rolls popped up at the sides and mold set in––a kind of fluffy, spider-webby black mold that crept from the exposed bundles up the sides of the jar.

The lesson to be learned here is to pay some minimal amount of attention to your pickles while they’re fermenting. But notice, the mold didn’t keep me off trying the leaves. I just extracted the bad bundles, cleaned the sides of the jar, and sampled leaves that were not touched by mold.

By the way, I don’t always weight down my pickling veggies. For quick ferments, like the daikon radish pickles which I make all the time, I just turn the jar on end every day, sometimes more than once a day, for the 5 days or so it takes to pickle. I just leave them out where I can see them so I don’t forget to turn them. After they go in the fridge, mold doesn’t seem to be a problem. But for a longer ferment, like sauerkraut, you really do have to keep the food below the brine with weight.

Recent Failure #2: Moldy Chamomile Tea

We had a bumper crop of chamomile this year, due to generous volunteerism on its part. Several large plants sprung up in unlikely spots and thrived with no help at all. I harvested lots of the flowers so I could have chamomile tea in the cupboard until next spring.

The mistake I made in this case was not drying the flowers enough before I transferred them to a jar. I thought they were dry, but they weren’t, and they went off in storage. I noticed the flowers looked a little strangely colored, and one whiff in the jar told me all I needed to know. Mold had set in. A jar of chamomile should smell like heaven.

This was another pantry disappointment, similar to, but not nearly as devastating, or disgusting, as the loss of our sun-dried tomatoes to pantry moths.

Like the moldy grape leaves, this was really a matter of not paying attention. Mold in general is a certain sign of not paying attention. I am also guilty of rushing. Certainly, you don’t want to leave your drying herbs out for so long that they lose flavor. Storage in glass, in the dark, is essential for protecting those volatile oils, but the herbs really have to be crumbly dry before they go in jars.

By the way, the secret to a good chamomile harvest is constant picking. Don’t be afraid to pick the flowers. The more you pick, the faster it will make more flowers. Like, overnight. I swear. Just pinch the heads off. And you use the whole flower, dry or fresh, to make tea. If a little stem gets in there too, it’s not going to hurt anything.

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13 Comments

  1. I’m hoping you get a good recommendation for bringing grape leaves. I’ve got some myself and would like to know how to proceed. Good to hear that chickens like them too though!

    P.S. My verification word for this comment is “omfgz.” It was good for a laugh this morning.

  2. Just curious re the pantry moths in the sun dried tomatoes: It looked from the image like the tomatoes were in a sealed jar. How’d the moths get in?

    And thanks for the info re chamomile. I’ve got my first flowers growing, and I’m heading out to pinch them off. :)

  3. Hi! I just found your website via Boing Boing and I wanted to let you know how completely in love with y’all I am now.

    I’m just starting out with the whole homegrown thing (for myself, that is. I grew up in Alabama with parents who grew a luscious garden and orchard and even had a few chickens who regularly terrorized me and now even raise a cow. Hippies).

    I live in Massachusetts now in a not-so-friendly to alternative bedding plants (“but I think eggplants are beautiful!”) condo. I’ve put out a few raised beds, am growing six potted of tomatoes and a squash, and snuck a bunch of herbs and shallots in among my irises, so I’m fighting the good fight. I am, however, giving up on my potatoes as they have weed-whacked them three times as of yesterday.

    Anywho, just wanted to say thanks for the wonderful, inspirational website!

  4. I too found your site through Boing Boing, and I’m so glad I did!

    Re: grape leaves, in the cookbook, “The Joy of Pickling” Linda Zeidrich has a recipe for brined grape leaves that looks pretty fool proof — she parboils the leaves for 30 seconds only, stacks & rolls the leaves, puts them into a jar and covers it all with hot brine.

    That cookbook has over 200 pickle recipes for everything under the sun — I highly recommend it!

  5. love the site. also a dolmas fan. English is not my main language so i don’t know if i’m saying everything right but i hope this helps.
    the brine for the grape leaves is just water with enough salt (well dissolved) to float a fresh egg. if all goes well there should be no mold in the jar even if some leaves remain above the brine but the top leaves will get darker. when removed from the jar the leaves must first be desalted, as removing the salt will soften the leaves a bit. place them in water for about an hour, change the water and repeat 2-3 times. next they should be kept for about 2-3 minutes in boiling water. adding a tablespoon of pork lard (yes) will soften the leaves. vegetable oil can be used but is said not to be as effective.
    grape leaves can also be stored in a freezer, in a plastic bag. dipping them briefly in boiling water will soften them just so they take less space in the freezer.
    another way to keep leaves for long is to simply put them in a plastic container (no brine or other treatment) and leave them in a cellar or basement, somewhere bellow ground level with no heat source and no moisture. works great in a humid continental climate, can’t guess about California though.
    wish you good luck!

  6. also found your website thru boingboing. im just gettin started on the journey towards DIY (being hugely inspired by the book Omnivores Dilemna and the rest of the brave world to which my eyes were opened). in that same vein i salute you and wish you the utmost.

  7. I don’t know what its like in California, but in Pennsylvania (where I used to make dolmas from the wild grape leaves) you can only eat them in spring time. By June 14th, they’re “woody” (inedible.)

  8. I live in western New York, and I just made some stuffed grape leaves from wild grape vines. I followed the instructions in the book The Foraging Gourmetm boiling them with equal amounts water, vinegar, and salt for 5 minutes. Then I left them overnight in the brine, rinsed them off, and made the dolmas. They’re still a bit “wild-tasting,” meaning just a tad bitter. Maybe it’s because it’s so late in the season.

    Euell Gibbons in ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus” says you can just layer them with a lot of salt in between to preserve them. I’m trying that now.

  9. eco101,

    An alert reader sent me an email noting that it would probably not be a good idea to top the brine with olive oil due to the risk of botulism that can develop in anaerobic (oxygen free) environments. I’m not overly concerned about botulism risk with brined or lacto-fermented foods. Using olive oil to preserve things is a different matter. There have been some cases of botulism in garlic cloves kept in olive oil.

    That being said, while I can’t back this up with science, I think the risk of botulism is much lower than the risk of colon cancer from not eating enough fermented foods.

  10. god i love the internet! i just stumbled upon your blog (like a lot of others, apparently) and you guys are a huge inspiration to me.

    Re: Grape leaves. I just brined mine, and they softened very, very nicely. Per the recommendation of Loba at the Anima Center in New Mexico, I picked leaves the size of my hand, rinsed em off, and dropped em in a gallon size container of water – 4 tbsp salt to a quart of water, I believe, and this is for use within a month or two. Elsewise, double the amount of salt. She recommends weighing them down with a clean stone. When I used some of the grape leaves a few days later, they were nice and soft. I’ve only had them in a jar for a few weeks now, so no mold or problems yet, but I highly trust Loba’s methods of primitive food preservation, as they live on a wilderness reserve with little power (solar only).

  11. I too have California native grapes and wish to preserve some leaves in brine. I was going to use the recipe from “Keeping Foods Fresh: Old World Techniques & Recipes by the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante” with foreword by Eliot Coleman (pg. 124). It calls for two parts coarse salt to one part water for the brine, which I thought was very high, but what do I know! I was hoping to learn if I could preserve them in plastic containers, and think I can after googling. That’s how I read your post.

    The Grape Leaves recipe: Make a brine of the salt & water; bring to a boil. Scald the grape leaves, ten at a time. Roll them up & pack them tightly in a glass jar. Pour in the brine & cover the jar, using the inverted bottom of a Camembert box(or another thin wooden box) that has been well covered with brine. Use the leaves as you need them:; rinse with water to remove the excess salt. (from Anne-Marie Arouye, Aix-en-Provence)

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