It looked like a bloodbath outside the back door and inside the kitchen was no better. There were gory pools of liquid spreading slowly across the paving stones and suspicious stains on the worktops.
Had Him Outdoors finally cracked and run amok with the Japanese razor hoe? He could probably claim provocation. But no, we were treading grapes and it was a messy job.
We could have done it more prosaically with a potato masher, but as Brits we don’t get many opportunities like this, so we rolled up our trouser legs and got to work.
It was enormously good fun. There’s something about squishing grapes between your toes that brings out your inner three year old.
Luckily this is a recipe that involves a considerable amount of cooking, otherwise no-one would want to eat it, although I promise you we’d washed our feet beforehand.
The aim was to make vino cotto, an Italian, in this case Sicilian, recipe for grape must syrup. (Like most things it sounds better in Italian.)
My sister in law Mandy has a huge grapevine at the back of her house in London, and this year it was absolutely dripping with small, sweet, juicy black grapes.
She arrived at our home with a laundry basket full. She couldn’t be bothered to make wine, she said, and thought vino cotto would be easier.
But the Grapes of Sloth is a bit of a misnomer. A traditionalist would gather the vine cuttings, burn them to ash, sieve the ash and use that to purify the grape must, after having pressed the juice out of the fruit etc etc.
Mandy, however, rather carelessly left the twigs at home (phew), so we skipped that bit. Actually, although it’s not hard work making vino cotto, or as it’s also known, mosto cotto or saba, it is time consuming.
There are various recipes available on the internet, all of them different, so I went to our friend Matthew Locricchio for advice. He’s a Sicilian American, an award-winning cookery writer and one of the best chefs I know.
I got a long and enthusiastic email back.
“My Sicilian grandmother, Anna, made this. As kids we went gaga crazy for it and for good reason. It is sweet and tangy all at the same time, and it’s the perfect dipper for the fried bread my grandmother would make us on her bread baking days,” he told me.
“It keeps beautifully and it is dazzling on French toast, poured into cake batters, or just straight out of the jar for 2 a.m. refrigerator raids. Oh, and it makes the best grape pop you ever had. My only advice is patience.”
Oh, yes, how true. This isn’t something you’d want to make if you needed to leave the kitchen for any length of time. You have to simmer the grapes, with their seeds and skin, for at least a couple of hours, mashing and stirring frequently and skimming off any scum that comes to the surface.
Then you strain out the pips and skins, squashing down to extract as much of the juice and natural pectin as possible, and put the juice back into the cleaned pan.
Then, as Matthew says: “The fun continues. Once you have the strained liquid, bring it to a boil. Reduce and simmer until thickened. How thick? Well, like maple syrup, only purple.
“Taste your reduction periodically and add sugar if needed. But too much will make it overbearing. You want those taste buds to twitch not cloy.”
Did I mention how fond I am of Matthew?
I put very little sugar in as the grapes were very sweet. I did get a bit distracted at the last minute, leading to an over-reduction of the vino cotto.
Its final consistency was less maple syrup, more golden syrup. We started with about 20 pounds (9 kilos) of grapes and ended up with around 1.8 litres of vino cotto.
But my word, it tastes amazing: essence of grape, deeply fruity, almost plummy, and still refreshingly tart but with a welcome touch of sweetness.
I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have a sister in law with a giant grapevine and a generous streak, but you can buy vino cotto commercially, although I haven’t tried it. Have a look at the Melbury and Appleton website if you’re interested.
My imagination is running wild with ways to use it (it’d be fabulous with duck) but for my first attempt I cooked wild rabbit in a sauce of vino cotto.
I based this on a recipe from Fabrizia Lanza’s lovely book, Coming Home to Sicily. Her recipe used too much oil for my taste, and I was using wild rabbit rather than farmed, so I took the liberty of adjusting both quantities and cooking times. Um, and the method, a bit. But do please read her book for the original and for many more interesting and delicious-looking recipes. It’s my bedtime reading this week and as it’s a fairly hefty hardback I don’t recommend falling asleep holding it close to your nose.
Wild Rabbit with Vino Cotto
1 rabbit, jointed
1 medium red onion, peeled and chopped
3/4 US cup (180 ml) vino cotto
3 sprigs of rosemary
1 US cup (240 ml) warm water
Olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Put 2 tbsp olive oil in a deep frying pan and saute the rabbit until golden brown all over. Remove and keep warm.
Fry the onions in the remaining oil until golden brown. Put the rabbit back in the pan and add the rest of the ingredients, stirring well to mix the vino cotto and water.
Put a lid on the pan and cook at 400F/200C/Gas Mark 6 for half an hour then reduce the temperature to about 300F/150F/Gas Mark 2 and cook until the rabbit is tender.
Add more water if the sauce dries out too much. You want to end up with a luscious sauce thick enough to coat the rabbit nicely.
Because my vino cotto was thicker than it should have been, we ended up with a sticky, almost barbecue-style sauce. Delicious, if possibly inauthentic. It would be terrific with polenta; being English we served it with mashed potato …