I have always thought of the little garden nestled at the back of our home in Norfolk as a forgotten gem. The main house is a converted stables that was once home to my great grandmother’s pony, along with the numerous horses that were the life blood (and brute strength) of the farm at the end of the nineteenth century. The buildings wrap around a beautiful central courtyard and it is here that my parents pass most of the (at times rare) sunny, summer days. It is a lovely place to sit, with a large table weathered to a faded, silver-grey sitting on rustic, mottled flagstones and surrounded by sprawling rosemary bushes and blood-red Japanese maples. However, I much prefer to disappear into the shaded garden that lies to the rear of the house. My parents rarely spend much time here but for me, who would kill for any kind of green space, given my current third-floor-North-London-one-bed life, it is positively idyllic.
The lawn runs a little more lush and long here and ivy creeps up the walls in the shade of an enormous sycamore tree. In a far corner is a gnarled Victoria plum tree that in the late summer is positively bowed under the weight of its fruit. But my favourite spot to sit on sunny days is under the pergola that stretches along one wall of the house. It is a shady spot, thanks to the enormous grape vine that winds across its wooden frame and hangs down along the brickwork in leafy tendrils. In autumn the leaves turn vibrant shades of blood red, violet and gold and the sunlight is almost entirely obscured by the prodigious number of grapes that hang from the ceiling in huge, dusky bunches. I love to sit in this secret spot, nursing a mug of hot tea and a book and watching the chickens scratching around in the flower beds, under the watchful (and oddly mothering) eye of our little, grey and white cat.
These are wine grapes and I keep trying to get my parents to have a go at making them into booze but so far they haven’t been convinced (it may well be thanks to memories of the endless, dubiously potent home-brews my grandfather used to make) and instead they settle for turning it into vast quantities of grape jelly. This is amazing served with any roasted game (bird or beast) and also makes the perfect filling for buttery, home-made jammy dodgers. It is nigh on impossible not the return from a visit home without a few jars of the stuff, which is lovely, but it strikes me as a waste to not find more diverse uses for this tart, delicious glut.
This recipe is one of the great alternative ways to eat these beauties. Unlike so much of the other fruit that is at its best in autumn, most people seem to forget that you can cook grapes. Drizzled with a little olive oil and good quality balsamic vinegar, seasoned with a few flakes of sea salt and roasted in a hot oven the sharpness of the fruit mellows to an intensely rich and complex sweetness that is the ultimate accompaniment to cheese. Here I pair it with a soft cambozola, which (being essentially the love-child of brie and gorgonzola) is a lot more mellow than a stilton or a Danish blue. The creaminess and tang of the cheese offsets the almost wine-like fruitiness of the roasted grapes and is an unctuous and decadent topping to a warm crostini. This makes a perfect autumnal lunch or an interesting, seasonal alternative to a cheese course and I can’t think of more simple or delicious way to showcase this gorgeous and often forgotten fruit from my equally forgotten, secret garden.
Roasted Grape and Cambozola Crostini
This is so simple, it is more assembly than recipe, but for the best results use black grapes, like the small, intense muscat variety.
If blue cheese is not your thing then this works perfectly well with a ripe brie or creamy goat’s cheese.
Preheat oven to 220ºC/425ºF/gas 7.
- 4 thick slices of crusty white baguette (cut on the diagonal)
- 125g cambozola
- 500g black grapes (like muscat)
- Good drizzle of olive oil
- 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 6 sprigs of thyme
- Maldon sea salt and black pepper to taste
Wash the grapes and place them in a non stick roasting tray. Drizzle with a good amount of olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Pull the thyme leaves from the sprigs and scatter over. Season with sea salt and pepper to taste.
Roast for 5-8 minutes until the grapes start to burst and the juices begin to caramelise. Remove from the oven and transfer while hot to a plate, reserving any juice from the pan.
Place the slices of bread on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and scatter over a little sea salt. Lower the temperature of the oven to 190ºc and bake for 7-10 minutes, turning once, until golden and toasted.
Cut thick slices of cambozola and place on the toast. Return to the oven for a few minutes just until the cheese is warm and beginning to melt. Top with the roasted grapes and drizzle over any of the caramelised grape juice from the pan.
Serves 4 as a starter or 2 as a main