On a hot, still night in Mildura some years ago, I prepared dinner in a shed for 100 people. Some fabulous women with Sicilian and Calabrian backgrounds joined me in cooking their traditional dishes, so it was a memorable evening on the food front. But it was the setting that made the night quite extraordinary: guests were seated in the vineyard at white-linen-covered trestle tables set on the red-clay earth underneath a canopy of grapevines.
And these were not just any old grapevines, but the vines of Elina and Gino Garreffa, owners of Tabletop Grapes. The Garreffas have been growing export-quality grapes in the Mildura region since the '80s, and they train their vines along high pergola trellising to form low green canopies, as is traditional in southern Italy where Gino grew up. You could, at a crouch, walk underneath the canopy, pluck a fat, ripe grape from the vine and toss the delicious fruit straight in your mouth. Magical.
Grapes are at the peak of their season in February and March, and there are many ways they can be enjoyed. Fresh red grapes can be made into a delicious simple salad with rocket leaves, roasted hazelnuts, basil and chives. I have this salad with sourdough - toasted and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil - and a thick slice of young goat's cheese or marinated feta.
A dish I like to serve for lunch in autumn is ricotta baked in the oven with red grapes. I especially enjoy the fresh ricotta made by Georgio Linguanti from La Latteria. Cut the ricotta into fat wedges, place them on an oven tray with a bunch of red grapes, drizzle everything generously with the best extra-virgin olive oil and salt flakes and bake. Served warm with crusty white bread, the combination of the subtle, creamy and slightly caramelised ricotta along with the savoury bread, sharp olive oil and intensely sweet fruit, makes a delicious dish.
Grapes are also really good with any kind of poultry. To make a sauce, cut the grapes in half and throw them in a pan that's been used to sauté chicken, then add verjuice and a touch of cold butter, or lightly warm them on the barbecue before serving them with marinated quail that's been wrapped in vine leaves and grilled.
Fresh grapes can be lovely cut and added to sugar syrup to pour over desserts: I make one with autumn royal or crimson seedless grapes, vanilla and honey to serve with a yoghurt panna cotta.
As well as fresh grapes, the Garreffas also produce very special dried fruit. I've been serving their dried clusters of muscats and raisins with cheese ever since that wonderful evening under their vines. The flame raisins are my favourite; they have a rich sweetness and lightly caramelised flavour.
I remember when I visited the Garreffas' farm in Mildura being struck by the sight of hundreds of rickety wooden drying racks alongside the roads. But when you learn that the surrounding regions of Sunraysia, the Riverina and the Riverland are home to some of the largest producers of dried sultanas, raisins and currants in Australia, it's not surprising.
Maybe I've been spoiled, but I have to say that for me, the majority of dried fruit produced in Australia is not as good as it could be. But I recently found an excellent producer of dried raisins and sultanas at my local farmers' market - the flavour, texture and richness of the fruit are exceptional. As are the sultanas made by Demeter Biodynamic - possibly the best I've tried. All the producers I've mentioned dry their fruit naturally, without the use of any chemicals or preservatives.
The grapevine truly is an extraordinary plant and its uses in the kitchen are many and varied. Young vine leaves can be used to wrap sardines, quail or salmon before barbecuing, while mature vine leaves can be pickled and make excellent wrappers for dolmades. The vine cuttings, too, once dried, make a very nice source of fragrant wood for grilling or smoking fish. And verjuice, the juice of unripe grapes, is yet another wonderful grape product. The juice is tart and can be used like vinegar, but it's more gentle and less acidic. Verjuice is very nice splashed in a pan that has just been used to sauté veal fillets or chicken (or any kind of poultry in fact), as it makes a great deglazing sauce. And of course, all of these dishes can only be bettered with a glass of wine. Enjoy.