The rich aroma of boiling grapes filled the spacious farmhouse kitchen. Joyce Estabrooke sat at the table with her husband, daughter and grandson. Her handmade baskets, some woven from grapevines, lined the eaves overhead.
Neil and Joyce Estabrooke have been growing grapes for six years on their small Stetson farm, but this is the first year they have opened their vineyard to the public. The crop was so abundant that they realized they couldn’t possibly use all the grapes.
They harvested two vines and wound up with 40 pounds of grapes, which makes about 4 gallons of juice. Their vineyard is composed of 60 vines. Even with the public toting home the fruit, they don’t expect to run out.
“It’s very simple. Just grab a container. Nothing is quite as easy to pick as grapes,” said Neil, 64. “That’s why we chose them.”
The Concord grapes are the Beta variety, which ripens two weeks earlier than most. Because grapes are killed by frost, Beta is the safest bet for Maine’s short summer season.
Neil and Joyce have grapevines woven through their family history. They grew up picking the fruit and making jelly and juice.
“So we’ve canned forever, both sides of the family, through multiple generations,” said Joyce, also 64.
“We have tile floors for a reason,” she said. “We learned a long time ago not to have carpets. Grape juice does stain.”
Their juice recipe came from a family from Port Pratt Farm in Newport.
“Some people use them for wine,” said Joyce. “I visited my aunt and uncle in upstate New York. They make wine. I saw everything they had to do and decided that jelly and juice was fine for us.”
Juice takes about one hour to make, from picking the grapes to placing the juice in the refrigerator. Joyce watches television as she plucks grapes off the vines and drinks a cup of tea as she waits for the fruit to cook.
“The most important thing in the whole process is making sure you get the top of the jar wiped clean before sealing the lid,” said Joyce. Any jelly on or near the rim may cultivate mold, which can leak into the jar and ruin the jelly or jam in a matter of weeks. The Estabrookes know this from experience.
They stick to a Sure-Jell recipe because it works well for them.
To make jelly, don’t separate the skins. Simply leave them out of the final product by separating them from the pulp and juice with a sieve along with the seeds. After boiling the grapes in water, use a strainer or cheesecloth to separate the skins and seeds from the pulp and juice.
One item people might not already have in their kitchen is a can processor, which costs about $20.
“We’ll probably make jelly in January when we want to heat the house,” said Joyce. Until that time, they’ll freeze 2-gallon pails of grape concentrate from this year’s crop.
“Some recipes tell you to add lemon juice, and I tried that and didn’t like the taste,” said Joyce.
While boiling the grapes, adding a little salt keeps the foam down and doesn’t noticeably alter the taste. If you stir the boiling mixture consistently, that also will minimize the foam.
“You can’t rush it,” Joyce said. “It seems to demand a hurry — getting the grapes from here to here to here — but you’ve got to do it slowly enough to be neat about it.”
“All of it is a process. But it’s more about everyone doing it as a family than it is about the process,” said the Estabrooke’s daughter, Julie Lockwood, 32.
“Especially for the kids this day and age, being able to see it from picking it off the vine and eating it on the table and not getting it from a grocery store. Knowing where their food came from — they can pass that experience down,” she said.
“All of my friends that I give grape jelly to say they’re better than any store-bought jam,” said Julie’s son Arthur Estabrooke, 16. “Even my friend Mike, who doesn’t like grape jelly, loves ours.”
The Estabrookes provide two recipes to people who come and harvest their grapes: one for juice and the other for jelly or jam.
For information about picking grapes at the Estabrookes’ farm, call 296-2367.
1 cup grapes
½ cup sugar
1 quart-size glass jar
1 metal spoon
1. Wash grapes and put them in a sterile, quart-size glass jar.
2. Add sugar and fill with boiling water. Placing the metal spoon in the jar before adding the boiling water will keep the jar from cracking. Stir with metal spoon to dissolve sugar.
3. Seal. Process in hot-water bath for 20 minutes. Strain into desired container, seal and refrigerate.
Grape Jelly or Jam
6 cups prepared grapes (about 4 pounds ripe Concord grapes)
1 cup water
1 box Sure-Jell fruit pectin
½ tsp. butter or margarine
7½ cups sugar measured into a separate bowl
1. Bring boiling water canner, half full of water, to a simmer. Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water. Pour boiling water over the lids in a saucepan off the heat. Let stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain well before filling.
2. Slip skins from grapes. Finely chop or grind skins and set them aside. Mix grape pulp and water in saucepan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 5 minutes. Press through a sieve to remove seeds. Combine skins and pulp. Measure exactly 6 cups prepared fruit into 6- or 8-quart sauce pot.
3. Stir in pectin. Add butter to reduce foaming. Bring mixture to full rolling boil on high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar. Return to full rolling boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with metal spoon.
4. Ladle immediately into prepared jars, filling to within Þ inch of tops. Wipe jar rims and threads. Cover with two-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack and lower it into canner, covering the jars with 1 to 2 inches of water. Cover; bring water to gentle boil. Process 10 minutes. Remove jars and place upright on towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middles of lids with finger. If lids spring back, lids are not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.
Growing your own vineyard
“Maybe some people assume it’s too cold here to grow, so they just don’t try,” Joyce said.
To begin, the family bought 1-foot plants from Fedco Seeds in Waterville and planted them in rows of 6-foot posts strung with wire. It takes the plant three years to yield a good crop, so the family “ignored them” for a while.
“We chose grapes for a very selfish reason,” said Nei Estabrookl. “We both have had back problems at one time or another, and for anything else, you have to bend to the ground or sit to pick it.”
Besides pruning, the grapes don’t require a lot of maintenance. But if vines aren’t pruned, they grow downward and root into the soil. Pruning should take place in early spring, before the new buds have grown, and late in the fall, after the plant goes dormant.
“It was a good spring and a beautiful, hot summer, and they just grew as if they were on steroids,” Neil said. “I had to prune them just to get at the grapes, the vines were so thick.”
Grapes have a short window of ripeness — three to four weeks — before frost destroys them. Everything depends on weather. Heavy rain can knock ripe grapes off the vine, and grapes that have grown in direct sun will be the first to fall.
“This coming weekend will probably wrap it up,” said Neil. “That’s up to the grapes, not us.”