Vincotto, the nuns’ way

I have been meaning to make vincotto for a while – but the essential ingredient (grape must – the juice of freshly crushed grapes, destined to be fermented into wine) is hard to come by in Birmingham. And I wasn’t going to buy all the grapes in the market, to make my own grape juice. Occasionally I do draw the line somewhere when it comes to experimental cooking. With a pedigree going back to the Romans, this is essence of grapes, caramelised, brown rather than purple and concentrated down to about a fifth of its original volume.

Anyway – a heads up from italianhomecooking that Waitrose now sell the good stuff; fresh merlot juice, by the litre, green lit my latest trip into the unknown.

I have a wonderfully eccentric book – La cucina dei monasteri, by Sebastian Papa from 1981. A little treasure chest of collected recipes from the convents of Southern Italy and Sicily. I’ve written before about these convents that preserved so many recipes that would probably have been lost. And this book is fantastic in that it gathers them together, ensuring their continuity. To be fair, often, they aren’t recipes, so much as recollections and descriptions, so you need to exercise both imagination and caution when trying things out. For me, it’s also a way of practicing my Italian (still as terrible as ever) as I have to translate the recipes before I can begin my experiments.

And so the ‘recipe’ for Vincotto, or Vino Cotto, as it’s named in the book.  This concentrated syrup of grapes is a sweet preservation for use as an ingredient or topping in numerous ways – on meat, on ice cream, on cheese, straight from the bottle, illicitly.  Italians get a bit dreamy eyed about their vincotto – I think it must trigger the memory button in their brains and transport them somewhere sweet, sticky and delicious.

The nuns of the convent attached to Sant’Andrea Apostolo all Vergini in Palermo (long gone, it was destroyed in the war) made their vin cotto rather more luxuriant that the standard method (which is just juice, reduced to syrup, by cooking). Their version adds dried fruit to increase the flavour (and although their method suggests leaving the fruit in the finished syrup, I hoiked mine out, as I’m planning on adding it to my Christmas mincemeat).

The syrup, kept in the fridge will (in theory) last for months.  But its star qualities will give it a much shorter shelf life in this house I suspect.

Below is the translated recipe from Papa’s book. Replace the must with sweet grape juice if you don’t have access to a vineyard. The dried pear and peach are probably not essential if you can’t find them – but I tracked some down in my local deli. I used two litres of juice which gave me 300ml of vincotto – 10 litres is fine if you have an Italian sized family, or are going into the convent business.

Yes it takes two days; no I don’t know if the wood ash is really necessary (can anyone enlighten me on why this is included)? But, the end result is, as the book says “buonissimo”.  Give it a go.

From La Cucina dei monasteri

“Boil 10 litres of must and be careful when it boils, because it boils over, like milk.

Remove from heat and let it cool. When it’s barely warm, almost cold, add two fists of ashes: and if the ashes were wood it would be much better.

After having mixed well, taste to see if the flavor is still tart, like unripe things, if so add another handful of ash. Cover it and let it rest in the same container overnight.

Ideally use a terracotta or enamelled iron pot. The next day filter and starts cooking again.

Chopped orange peel is sweetened and boiled in water. The first water is thrown away and replaced, keep cooking until the skins have lost their bitterness: it’ll take four changes of water. In the wine that has been boiling for more than an hour, these pieces of orange are addded with various quantities of dried fruit: pears, peaches, and apricots, but not plums because they are sour.

To see if the wine is cooked, pour a teaspoon on a plate and divide the drop of wine with your index finger. If the two parts remain separate, the wine is cooked, if they come together immediately, the wine asks for more cooking

Leave to cool and bottle together with the fruit. It’s really good.”

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