By Franz Scheurer
Verjuice, by definition, is the acidic juice made from unripe fruit, primarily grapes. It can also be made from crab apples, unripe plums or gooseberries (in England a ‘fake’ verjuice was often made from mashed sorrel and water).
Its name derives from the French ‘vert’ (green) ‘jus’ (juice). As verjuice has traditionally been made from white and red grapes, leaving the juice on the skins long enough to colour it, the ‘vert’ refers to youth (unripe), rather than colour.
Verjuice is an ancient product dating back to medieval times, with culinary, practical and medicinal uses. According to French food historian, Jean Louis Flandrin, verjuice was used in 42% of all recipes in the early 15th century French cookbook ‘Viandier de Taillevent’. A 15th century English cookbook contains a recipe for spit roasted or grilled venison or beef using verjuice in the basting sauce; and the Franklin in one of Chaucer’s tales uses verjuice in a grandiose pie of chicken and turkey meat in puff pastry.
Verjuice combined with wine, lye or fuller’s earth was prized as a cleaning solution for furs and woollens, and verjuice mixed with sand was commonly used to clean rusty mail armour. As late as the 18th century the English still curdled blue (watered down) milk with verjuice to make a concoction drunk in the spring to prevent scurvy.
It fell from favour in the early 19th century (although its real demise may have started a lot earlier with the returning crusaders introducing lemons to Europe), to the extent where few people had even heard of it by the beginning of the 20th century. Starting in Europe, it is now undergoing a fashionable revival. Maggie Beer has been the driving force of verjuice’s revival in Australia and in her book ‘Cooking with Verjuice’ (ISBN: 0-14-300091-8) Maggie offers many tips and recipes from her own collection and from friends and colleagues, among them Stephanie Alexander, Stefano de Pieri, George Biron and Philip Johnson.The Italians call verjuice ‘agresto’ and in Spanish it is ‘argraz’ or ‘agrazada’. Never out of fashion in Iran, verjuice is called ‘abghooreh’; it is similarly popular with the Arabs who call it ‘hosrum’.
Think of verjuice as a gentle acidulant. It tastes tart, a bit like lemon juice or vinegar but not as harsh. It probably originated when vignerons thinned out the grapes to strengthen the vines and produce full flavoured fruit, and couldn’t bear to waste the unripe, pruned grapes. When this early crop of unripe berries is pressed, verjuice is obtained. In the Middle Ages bitter oranges were often used to make verjuice in Spain (keep in mind that the oranges of that era were considerably more tart and bitter than those we are used to today).
Verjuice is used fresh or fermented, and sometimes even undergoes a malo-lactic fermentation once bottled. This will only happen if malic acid and bacillus gracile bacteria are present. Malo-lactic fermentation converts malic acid into lactic acid and in the process improves the flavour. As it is commonly used for pickling, some medieval recipes for verjuice advocate the addition of salt to the juice, thereby preventing fermentation and also acting as a preservative. Due to modern (often pasteurised) verjuice’s relatively low acidity, it needs to be stored in the fridge once opened and should be used within a couple of weeks.
Instead of vinegar or lemon juice in salad dressings;
Instead of white wine or brandy when deglazing pans;
Poaching fresh fruit or reconstituting dried fruit;
Drizzle over grilled fish or barbecued baby octopus;
Cutting the richness of sauces or meat dishes, especially with pork;
Instead of balsamic vinegar when caramelising onions;
Heavily reduced as a topping for ice cream;
In the preparation of mustards.
Making your own verjuice
As green grapes are almost impossible to buy use crab apples instead. Crush the crab apples (or process roughly in a food processor) place in a non-reactive container, add water to cover and seal with cheesecloth or muslin to keep out insects. Leave to ferment for 4 days in a warm place. Strain and squeeze the juice from the pulp. Strain a second time and bottle in sterilised jars or beer bottles and seal.
By Franz Scheurer
300g fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced finely
100g young ginger, peeled, julienned very finely
150g French (brown) eschalots, peeled, sliced finely
4 garlic cloves, peeled, seed removed, chopped
4 tbs dark palm sugar, shaved
200ml verjuice (to make 60ml reduced verjuice)
4 green onions, white only
1 ½ litres fresh white chicken stock
Mushroom soy, to taste
3 tbs fragrant peanut oil (eg. Lion Brand)
100g garlic chives (flowers on, if possible), sliced finely
Pour verjuice into a small saucepan and reduce over high heat to just under one third (about 60ml). Set aside and leave to cool.
Fry ginger and eschalots in the oil, with half the mushrooms and the garlic until just starting to colour (don’t worry if it sticks to the bottom of the pan). Add palm sugar and caramelise. Once caramelised, add the reduced verjuice, the shallots and the chicken stock and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Add soy to taste and the remaining mushrooms. Garnish with garlic chives and serve immediately.
For the salad:
3 ears of witlof, bitter stem-end discarded, quartered and sliced
1 orange, peeled, segments filleted
2 tbs verjuice
3 tbs walnut oil
Sea salt and freshly cracked white pepper to taste
For the scallops:
24 plump, fresh sea scallops
100ml verjuice (to make 25ml reduced verjuice)
Black sesame seed paste
Freshly cracked white pepper
2 tbs peanut oil for frying
For the salad:
Pour verjuice into a small saucepan and reduce over high heat to one quarter (25ml). Peel the orange with a knife cutting away all the pith then insert the knife edge along both sides of each segment and pop out the flesh. Mix the sliced witlof with the orange segments, season with the verjuice, walnut oil, salt and pepper and toss well. Set aside.
For the scallops:
Using a knife make a small incision in each scallop and spread a little sesame seed paste into the cut. Brush the top of each scallop with the cold verjuice reduction. Season with freshly cracked white pepper.
Heat a non-stick pan until very hot, add peanut oil then sear the scallops, verjuice side down. Once they are golden brown remove pan from the heat and turn the scallops. Heap a small mound of salad into the middle of 6 plates, top with the scallops, seared side up, sprinkle with sea salt flakes and serve.
Serves 6 as an entrée
18 gow gee wrappers (round or square)
150g walnut kernels, dry roasted
200g freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbs palm sugar, grated
50g butter, just melted
Freshly cracked white pepper to taste
12 sage leaves
1 tbs cold-pressed hazelnut oil
Heat verjuice (don’t boil!) and reconstitute the sultanas by covering with the hot verjuice and leaving to rest for at least an hour (preferably overnight). Roast the walnuts in a small fry-pan without the use of any oil. This is best done by heating the pan, adding the walnuts, then shaking the pan at regular intervals until the nuts are equally golden brown. Do not burn! Set aside until cool. Roughly pound walnuts with a mortar and pestle (or slice with a knife), mix with the Parmesan, the palm sugar and the melted butter. Knead to a gooey paste. Season with pepper. Store in the fridge for 10 minutes. Lay out the gow gee wrappers and top with a tablespoon of the nut mixture, moisten the perimeter of the wrappers, fold in half encasing the filling pressing down firmly, and place on a tray lined with baking paper. If you use round wrappers you will end up with a semi-circle and with square wrappers you fold to a triangle. Repeat for all the wrappers. Up to this stage can be finished in advance. Store finished parcels in the fridge.
Once ready to serve bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add parcels and simmer until soft (they will return to the surface once done). Remove with a slotted spoon and place on baking paper and cover. In the meantime heat the remaining butter in a small frypan add the sage leaves, and when the butter is at the nut-brown stage, remove the sage leaves and place on kitchen paper, then add the hazelnut oil and the sultanas (taking them out of the soaking liquid with a slotted spoon) and increase heat until the liquid foams. Plate 3 parcels per plate, top with a sage leaf each and pour butter and sultanas over.