Yes, I’m doing a LOT of reading for my new historical recipes project. But while I research and refine and generally faff about, I don’t want to leave you all hanging, so today’s recipe is for a medieval staple, verjuice.
Verjuice (from the French, jus vert or green juice) was what the medieval cook commonly used instead of lemon juice or vinegar. Made from unripe grapes, crab apples or even sorrel, it is less acidic than either and is a lovely ingredient for dressings, marinades, soups and sauces or even in a cocktail.
Its earliest mention here, as far as I know, was in the 1300s and it continued to be used at least until the 18th century. It’s still widely used in Middle Eastern cuisine today, where’s it’s known as husroum (or ab-ghooreh if you’re in Iran). Elsewhere it was pioneered as a modern commercial product by the legendary Australian cook and food writer Maggie Beer. Tony Cozzi of the UK’s Verjuice Ltd says when his dad had a vineyard in Queensland, he used to make verjuice for her, in company with just about every other winemaker in the region.
Tony now has 24 thousand vines of his own in Sussex, producing about 40 tonnes of grapes annually, and buys in more or less the same amount again to make his product. He makes no wines, just a rather elegant verjuice. A lot of it goes to cocktail bars.
“We assumed it would be a gourmet food market,” he told me. “But people are using it as a non-alcoholic alternative to vermouth in cocktails.” He says Seedlip use his verjuice in their Nogroni, an alcohol-free Negroni mix.
The vinous version of verjuice (say that after a few drinks) normally uses grape thinnings gleaned when some of the crop is removed early to allow the rest of the fruit to ripen properly. Many winemakers just leave it to rot on the ground, which seems like a missed opportunity to me.
We don’t have any vines but we do have a lot of windfall crab apples from a self-sown tree which has been showering us with little green fruits. The 1769 cookery book The British Jewel tells you to “lay them in a heap to sweat then pick from them the stalks and rottenness”. Lovely. If we’d left ours lying around much longer we’d have had a fly-blown apple puree, so we borrowed a fruit crusher and cider press from our friends Simon and Karon and set to work. Be aware, you will be extremely popular with the neighbourhood wasps.
If you don’t have cider-making friends to borrow kit from, you can pulp the apples in a food processor and press them by hand through a fine mesh sieve. You could also (I haven’t tested this) try an electric juicer. It really depends on how many crab apples you have. We had about 8 kilos of prepared fruit, which I think will eventually render about three, maybe four litres of verjuice after further straining and bottling.
Verjuice doesn’t keep forever. Untreated it should be okay in the fridge for a month or two. If you add some Campden tablet (sodium metabisulphate) as I did, it should keep for some months more. A bit vague, I know, but opinions differ. I will report back.
There are various recipes online. This outlines how we made ours. Tony was generous with advice but obviously uses professional wine-making methods, whereas ours is home DIY. And while fans of lacto-fermentation will no doubt have their own preferences and methods, ours is an unfermented verjuice.
As you’ll hopefully be able to see from the strips in the picture below, its pH is pretty much the same as the two commercially-made versions I bought, one of which came from Verjuice Ltd and the other, made from apples, from Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.
NOTE: Since I published this I’ve had an email from the Wildlife Trust telling me they pasteurise theirs for 20 minutes at 72C, which helps preserve it until opened. After that they recommend using it within three days. I’m hoping mine will be usable for longer as I would have to bathe in the stuff to use it in that time!
A quantity of crab apples
Optionally: Campden tablets (I used 1, crushed, divided between two large jugs. Check the instructions on your packet.)
Please read at least the second half of my introduction before starting and sterilise all your equipment thoroughly.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and blanch the crab apples, in batches if necessary, for a minute. This helps to kill off any bacteria and enzymes on the skin which might lead to fermentation.
Roughly chop or halve the apples, remove their stalks and cut away any bad parts. Drop them into a big bowl of cold water acidulated with lemon juice. This helps stop them going any browner than they have to.
Pulp the fruit, ideally using a crusher of the sort pictured here, or alternatively in a food processor.
Now extract the juice, either in a cider press or by your chosen method. I tried to upload a video here but I’m obviously technically illiterate, so if you’d like to see the cider press in action you’ll have to nip over to Instagram.
Here’s an old-fashioned photo.
Strain the resulting liquid through a fine mesh sieve, pour into jugs or bottles, cover and leave in a very cold fridge for three weeks. This gives any particulates time to sink to the bottom and will help give you a clearer verjuice, although making it at home it’s never going to be anything other than a bit cloudy.
Strain again through dampened muslin set in a fine mesh sieve, leaving behind any sludge in the bottom of your jug. Pour into sterilised bottles and store in the fridge. Tony advises against freezing it.
We have been tremendously lucky in Australia that one of the doyennes of our food industry, Maggie Beer, began producing this and its ‘children’ over a decade ago. Quite frankly my cooking simply would not be the same without copious orders from South Australia:) !!!
Oh yes …. Maggies verjuice is absolutely magnificent….
Yes, she even dominates the verjuice market in the UK.
Absolutely love verjuice…. I find it so much better than lemons , vinegar or wine !
Absolutely love all this Linda ….. such a favourite of mine in cooking … love it to deglaze ….
as we have a few bits for my Membrillo making …it would be good to have a try with your methods & recipe …. I use grapes !
I wonder if the @vigo juice extractor would work using your methods ?
Apologies as I keep forgetting to say things …. I use my Vigo juice extractor for things like redcurrants so much easier than dripping through muslin …. I have done it with crab apples to make crab apple jelly …. so , as it goes through the heat process I have found it preserves it without adding extra bits …. this is clarified as I found some in my fridge (🤭) which is 2 yrs old , actually thought it was something else !! … needless to say NO MOULDS GROWING!!
I think you would be amazed how this could cut some corners !!!
Ah, that’s an interesting thought. I have one similar that I bought in The Netherlands years ago. It didn’t occur to me to try it. I think for the quantities we processed, our wouldn’t have been big enough (or we’d have had to do it in endless batches) but for smaller amounts it would probably work well. Thanks, Trish.
As I np longer have a tame crab apple tree, or any apple tree for that matter, I may stick to buying the stuff. But though I knew of it, I wasn’t aware it was available commercially, or how versatile and ingredient it is. So thanks!
You’re welcome, Margaret, thanks. Hope you find one you like. Lx
This is really interesting, thank you. I haven’t heard of verjuice [so that’s something new I have learned today ~ always good]. Where do you buy it from please? I have hedgerow trees which produce those wild cherry sized plums but they are not tart and I have no crab apples here. My son has a grape vine [he doesn’t usually do anything with the grapes which are green] he will be interested in this too, thank you.
P.S…………I am very impressed by your library of books.
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. My husband is rolling his eyes because I now have so many historical cookbooks (this is a fraction) he will have to build some new shelves. 🙂 If you’d like to buy some British verjuice check out the link provided in the piece to Tony’s website, try https://www.herefordshirewt.org/shop or google for something closer to you. Maggie Beer’s verjuice is available from some supermarkets too but I prefer to buy from our own producers. Cheers, Linda
Interesting post. You have been busy!
So I’ve a few Qs.
Can you use Bramley apples?
Can you use citric acid instead of a Campden tablet?
And is it pleasant as a drink? I cannot tolerate alcohol, so I’m wondering if it could be turned into a drink from my 100s of Bramleys!
Thanks, Alison. Yes, I think you could use Bramleys. Only add citric acid if it’s not sharp enough … the pH should be around 2.7. You can add sparkling water to make a long drink from it or use it in place of vermouth in non-alcoholic cocktails. Maybe try with a small batch first to see if you like it? Cheers, Linda
It’s a very interesting idea. How on earth do you find such esoteric foodstuffs? Are they from your array of olde worlde cookbooks?
Well, if elderberry syrup doesn’t take precedence, I might give this a go!
Thank you for the post.
Every day’s a school day, as they say 😉
Hi Alison, good question! I have cooked with verjuice before but yes, this is based on an historical recipe. I can buy verjuice of course (and have) but as we’re knee-deep in windfall crab apples it seemed like a fun idea to have a go at making it. Good luck with the elderberry syrup! Lx
Hi Linda, in my previous home I had so many apple trees and we purchased a Vigo press. At Vigo they suggested that instead of using a crusher we froze the apples, then defrosted them before putting them through the press. It meant we would defer the juice-making and do it in batches. Love what you have done…
That’s a really good idea, Barbara, thanks. Lx