Dad is here for the last of the grapes, and that brief, magical spell between summer and winter which we could almost call autumn but isn’t quite right because it feels more like an English spring. The beaches are silver and empty, the sea fringed with foam, the olive groves lush with thick green grass. At night the breeze is cool; we sleep well for the first time in months. The dawn is milky-white and the sunsets crisp and crimson. Mauro comes home with his white bucket full of grapes every lunchtime. He picks some of the leaves too, because he knows I like them. They are just beginning to turn rusty at the edges. He washes the grapes carefully, handling them with a gentleness which is so particular to him. His hands have earth in their cracks; his nails black around the edges. He worries me by saying he needs to soak them in bleach. I wouldn’t recognize them without their soil stain. He washes each cluster of grapes, rinsing away various insects which have made their home inside the sheltered mass, silvery webs of tiny spiders washed away down the stainless steel sink. The grapes are cold and crisp, tight skins burst on touching teeth. Sweetness floods the mouth like childhood memories. The Vernaccia grapes are ready too, amongst the table grapes, smaller and more perfectly spherical, their flesh translucent, a fat seed glowing inside like an embryo, seen through the pale, green-gold flesh, flecked with auburn. Hazy, their yeast-clouded skins like stained glass that have been left to gather dust. They pop in the mouth, skins too tight, slipping off effortlessly. Then the honeyed flesh melts and you are left with the strange crunch of seed, a jolt back to reality.
Not unlike Muscat, they have an almost ethereal taste, so floral and fragrant. I keep these for eating. The others though, need using.
I want to make a grape recipe to use up the glut, and I want to use a chicken, but I am also nervous. Nervous because a chicken is special, and if it doesn’t work out right it will be a terrible waste. Nervous because simple roast chicken over potatoes is one of my favourite dishes, and almost nothing can beat it, and sometimes I feel all this experimenting is futile when we all know the very best way to eat a chicken is this way, with the sticky chicken caramel which collects at the edges of the roasting dish.
I make a chicken braised with wine, grapes, fennel and garlic. There is the familiar woodiness of rosemary too. It is sweet, savoury, autumnal and delicious.
Dad eats the chicken. He loves it, and smacks his lips like he used to, before he was suffocated by sickness. The next day Mauro eats the leftovers. He gives me an unequivocal ten out of ten.
And chicken isn’t easy, he says confidentially, because we all know the best way to cook chicken is to roast it. But this! This is just as good.
You can buy thighs and do that, or ask your butcher to joint your chicken or do it yourself as you prefer/
3 tbsp olive oil
1 large chicken, jointed into 8 pieces
3 cloves of garlic, halved
A few sprigs of rosemary
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 large bulb of fennel, cut into wedges
1 bunch of red grapes
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp runny honey
2 small glasses white wine/vernaccia
A small ladle full (around 100ml) of chicken stock
Serve with Sourdough and a radicchio/bitter leaf salad
Preheat the oven to 190.
If using a whole chicken: joint the chicken and boil the carcass with a celery stick and carrot or two to make a quick stock to use in the dish (with plenty leftover for later).
Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a heavy casserole pan and season the chicken pieces all over with salt. Brown them, a few at a time, skin side down, over a medium heat until golden brown. Turn them flesh side down and add the garlic and rosemary. Continue cooking for a few minutes as the garlic pieces just begin to colour.
Once golden all over remove the chicken pieces, rosemary and garlic and set aside on a plate. Heat the final spoonful of oil and cook the fennel wedges for a few minutes, allowing them to turn golden. Add the fennel seeds and the grapes, and then the sherry vinegar and wine and allow to boil for a few minutes, stirring and scraping all the nice sticky golden bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the chicken back in with its garlic and rosemary. Now add the honey and balsamic to the pot and a pinch of salt along with a ladle of your stock.
Place the whole lot in the oven and cook for arounf 40 minutes, until the chicken in tender and falling off the bone.
If your sauce looks too runny for your liking remove the chicken pieces and reduce it for a minute or two on the hob until syrupy.
Serve, with some steamed potatoes, mash or simply good bread and a bitter leaf salad.