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Concords carry flavor from coast to coast

August 29, 2007|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer


Concord grapes: Have you ever wondered why so many things that claim to be grape-flavored taste nothing like any grape you've ever known? That's because they are based on Concord grapes, a venerable East Coast variety that is exceedingly hard to find on the West Coast. Though for all intents and purposes the Concord has disappeared from the fresh market except for a few hardy farmers market growers, it still casts a long shadow thanks to products such as grape juice, grape jam and Mogen David wine. As late as the early 20th century, American grape growing was still centered in New York and New Jersey, where the Concord thrived. (Today 97% of grapes come from California.) And it was in New Jersey in 1869 that a dentist named Thomas Welch began experimenting with a new pasteurization process that would allow him to preserve grape juice without it turning into wine. The distinctive flavor of Concords is due to a chemical compound called methyl anthranilate. For some reason, wine geeks call it "foxy," but grape lovers -- especially those transplanted from the East Coast -- call it summer. There have been several attempts to come up with seedless or semi-seedless versions of the Concord, including one called Niabell, but the distinctive flavor is hard to replicate.

Harry Nicholas, Ha's Apple Farm, $3 to $4 per pound

Specialty melons: Is there another fruit that offers such a dramatically varied range of flavors as the melon? The tastes can range from musky flowers to wild honey and the textures from crisp to creamy. That's really no wonder, since what we consider melons actually come from two distinct groups. On the one hand, there are the rough-skinned melons such as cantaloupe and muskmelon (which tend to be musky and creamy, with a rich perfume). On the other, there are the smooth-skinned melons such as honeydew (which tend to be more honeyed and crisp). These have almost no perfume at all (their Latin species name is Inodorus). Choose rough-skinned melons by fragrance and by color (the rind underneath the netting should be golden, not green). Smooth-skinned melons are harder to choose: Look for color that is rich rather than pale and a rind texture that is slightly sticky. Also remember that rough-skinned melons will continue to ripen even after they've been harvested. One of the best rough-skinned melons you can find is the Ha'Ogen, or Ogen. It belongs to the same family as the French Charentais and Cavaillon (cantalupensis for you fruit geeks), and has a profound flowery perfume.

Rocky Canyon, Weiser Family Farm, $1 to $1.50 per pound.

Green Zebra tomatoes: Many "heirloom tomato" assortments reflexively include the Green Zebra, a golf ball-sized tomato with green and gold striping. It's no wonder: Picked at its prime, it offers superb flavor with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. (To get a great one, look for the striping to be definitely golden, not pale green.) Funny thing is, many tomato experts argue that the Green Zebra isn't really an heirloom at all, because it was only introduced in 1983 by Washington State tomato breeder Tom Wagner. Leave that for the botanists. However arriviste its lineage, the Green Zebra is certainly one of the kings of the summer tomato salad.

Various vendors, $2 per pound.


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