My grape jelly doesn't win any prizes at the county fair. It's too good.
That's not sour grapes but the facts of life, as explained to me one summer by a couple of ladies I accosted as they bore away their blue ribbons.
Competition jelly is made of juice thinned for color and jazzed up with aromatics and enhancers, they said. I sniffed and tasted several of their prizewinners, which looked great, and sought inoffensive words to describe my reaction.
"Oh, this is not eating," one of them laughed. "I wouldn't put it on the table. This is county fair jelly; you have to kind of snap the judges' heads around, because they're going down all these long rows and tasting one jar after another. Anything mild gets passed over."
They tasted mine, made from wild and wine grapes, and said it was fine. They must have meant it, because they asked lots of questions about how it was made, and one took notes.
So I have retired from competition and just putter around my humble kitchen, making the grape, elderberry and wild cherry jellies my children choose over anything from the store.
I got into making real-life jelly right after I got out of winemaking, which requires altogether too much tending of both the vines and the wines to be anything but a part-time business or a full-time hobby. Wine grapevines are as overbred and sensitive as racehorses. They are subject to mildew, black rot and a zillion other diseases and are under constant attack from raccoons, little boys, bugs and birds. I have more than once suffered curiously conflicting emotions when adding new birds to my life or seasonal lists while watching flocks of the little rascals eat my grapes.
After several years of putting out the virtually round-the-clock care required to bring a crop through the last few weeks when the grapes are approaching the full and perfect maturity necessary for winemaking, I said the hell with it. Now I go on vacation during the critical period and make the year's supply of jelly from whatever's left when I get back.
Jellymaking is quick and easy, assuming you use powdered fruit pectin rather than the old boil-down method, which amounts to egregiously overcooking your juice while evaporating it to achieve the proper sugar concentration. I don't care what granny says, use pectin and add sugar. She only does it her way because they didn't have pectin in the old days.
The trick is to study the directions in the package and then carefully not quite follow them. It says you want fully ripe grapes; nah, what you want is slightly underripe, tart ones. Where it says simmer the crushed grapes, what you really want is a nonbubbling pot just a little too hot to stick a finger in. There's no need to be meticulous about the odd shriveled berry or piece of stem, it'll all come out in the strainer.
The strained -- not more than lightly pressed -- juice should be cooled and then allowed to stand in jars in the refrigerator for several days to settle. If the yield of juice is too low, make up the volume with cheap bottled apple juice. When the refrigerated juice is absolutely clear, with a sharp sediment line, the supernatent liquid will pour off easily and produce absolutely clear jelly.
If it says add some lemon juice, use lime, and a little more than it says. If it doesn't say add lemon juice, add some lime juice anyway. "Don't double the batch," it will say. Nonsense (but don't try tripling it). Use slightly less sugar than it says, and don't worry if the batch doesn't jell right away, it may take weeks of standing quietly in a cool dark place, but who cares? If it doesn't jell by Christmas, call it syrup and tell your friends to pour it over pancakes or ice cream. They'll love it, and think you did it on purpose.
The only hard part, if you have no backyard vineyard, is getting the grapes. Concords and scuppernongs are fine, but all other table varieties available in stores are too pallid by half. Ditto for bottled grape juice. Frozen concentrated grape juice works pretty well if diluted about one-third less than the can calls for. It works even better when used to stretch "real" grape juice.
Wild grapes are best of all, but good luck finding them in sufficient quantity (and then when you do the vines will be draped over branches a mile in the air). Some of the wineries that have sprung up in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs may be willing to sell a few bunches of grapes (a dozen pounds of grapes will make a lot of jelly). If you catch them at crushing time they may be happy to give away underripe bunches or other culls; icky grapes are fine for jelly, since they'll be thoroughly cooked and all the frass will settle out.