Arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, vin cotto, vino cotto, pekmez, petimezi—these words from various lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all mean the same thing: grape juice boiled down to a thick syrup. Before Arabs introduced cane sugar to Europe, molasses from grapes, figs, or pomegranates was the best substitute for honey, a product that was usually more costly—or painful—to obtain.*
Grape molasses is still fairly common around the Mediterranean. In Spain arrope is used to fortify wines, to transform them into liqueurs with rounded flavor and enhanced sweetness. In Italy vin cotto is sometimes be served with quince paste and cheese. In Turkey pekmez is used in preparing many desserts. Grape molasses is also dribbled on toast, salads, steak, yogurt, and ice cream, and used as a marinade for duck and other meats.
The typical way to begin making grape molasses is to save some of the must when you’re pressing grapes for wine. You need at least two quarts must, which you’ll get from about six pounds of grapes. If you don’t have a fruit press, you can separate the juice from the seeds and skins by putting stemmed grapes through a tomato strainer. Or you can heat the grapes in a covered kettle until they come to a boil and burst their skins, and then drain the juice through a colander. For a jammier texture, press the grapes through a fine strainer (or use a food mill, if the grapes are seedless).
The second and final step in making grape molasses is to gently boil the juice—in a wide, heavy, nonreactive pan—until you have a thick syrup (like hot honey), taking care that it doesn’t caramelize. The boiling requires at least an hour and a half, longer if you’re using more than two quarts must.
Store the hot molasses in tightly closed jars. You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, just as you would jam—five minutes if you’ve sterilized the jars first, ten minutes if you haven’t.
The color, texture, and flavor of your grape molasses will depend on your grape variety. The juice will darken with boiling in any case, but dark grapes, to my mind, make the most visually attractive molasses. The molasses will be more or less tart, and notably astringent or not. If it’s made from an American grape variety, it may gel upon cooling, though slow cooking can prevent this.
To make preserves in a truly ancient style, add fruit to your grape molasses while it’s cooking. Dried fruit, such as figs, are added to the juice at the start of the cooking. A few weeks ago I added a cup of dried figs to the juice of eight pounds of seedless, blue Glenora grapes to make two pints of dark, rich preserves.
Even more interesting are my Glenora-quince preserves. Quinces conveniently ripen at about the same time as grapes, so combining the two seems natural. I used a pound of quinces—peeled, quartered, cored, and then cut into smaller pieces—for six pounds of grapes. I added the quinces to the juice after reducing it by half. Then I gently boiled the fruit in the syrup for about an hour, until the syrup was suitably thick.
Early in the cooking, my quinces looked almost like sliced beets in beet juice. Afterward, in jars, the quince pieces were invisible in the dark molasses.
Preserves made with grape or other fruit molasses are more complex in taste than preserves made with refined sugar. Deliciously tart, mildly astringent Glenora-quince preserves go just as well with smoked pork or roast poultry as with toast or yogurt.
Fat bunches of Canadice grapes, my favorite for fresh eating, still hang on the vines trellised over our back deck. Before the birds and wasps get them all, I think I’ll boil some down into molasses.
* I use the word molasses for these fruit products because it originally meant “honey-like.” The word syrup seems less suitable, from a historical perspective, because it comes from an Arabic word for a sugar-sweetened drink.
When you buy a big load of soil for raised beds or another use, you usually don’t know where the soil has been or what’s been growing in it. It probably won’t have as many weed seeds as the soil in your yard, but you can’t assume that the soil you’ve bought is sterile.
I filled three large raised beds early last summer with a mixture of silty loam and compost from a local nursery. When what I guessed were Swiss chard seedlings appeared in the beds, I was delighted. I’d been depending on chard to self-sow in my garden, but none had come up after the extreme cold of the past winter. Now I wouldn’t have to plant chard from seed.
I transplanted a few of the chard seedlings into a neat row and waited for the leaves to get big. They never grew over about two feet, though, and when I tasted them they were unpleasantly fibrous. The stalks were thin, too. By the end of the summer, I could see thick white roots protruding out of the soil. I’d never seen roots like those on Swiss chard. As fall turned to winter, the truth dawned on me: I was growing not chard but its relative the sugar beet.
Although as far as I recalled I’d never seen a sugar beet before, I knew that Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I lived, produced most of the country’s sugar beet seed. Beta vulgaris is biennial, but the climate here allows the production of seed in just a year. Farmers plant sugar-beet seed in late summer or early fall, and the cool winter causes the plant to “vernalize,” or switch from vegetative to reproductive mode. When warm weather returns, the plant bolts, and the seeds are harvested. Some of them naturally end up on the ground. I suspected that the soil I’d bought had come from a former sugar-beet field. A Web search for photos of sugar beets confirmed my suspicion.
While still in the earth, the sugar beet plant looks much like chard, and also like a growing table beet, because these three are all variants of the same species, Beta vulgaris. (That chard and beets of all sorts are the same species, and that this species prefers to reproduce through cross- rather than self-pollination, explains why organic chard and regular beet farmers feel so seriously threatened by the effort to introduce Roundup Ready sugar-beet production.) Native to Europe, Betavulgaris has been cultivated since prehistoric times as food for humans and livestock. The ancient Romans were apparently the first to use the roots, which were small, narrow, and either white or black, in addition to the greens. By 1596, when the horticulturalist John Gerard grew beetroots in England, anonymous gardeners had developed red “Roman” beets as big as carrots; apparently none were yet round.
The mangelwurzel, or fodder beet, developed later than the table beet, apparently in the Rhineland in the eighteenth century. A variety of Beta vulgaris with a large, yellow, white, or red root that kept well over the winter, the mangel was valued as a supplement for milk cows but came to be seen as poverty food for people, partially because of its corrupted name; mangelwurzel, “scarcity root,” devolved from mangold wurzel, “chard root,” the name by which it is still known in Germany. Mangels were being cultivated in America by 1796, when Amelia Simmons wrote of beets that “the white has a sickish sweetness, which is disliked by many.” You can still get mangel seed from old-fashioned garden-seed companies like R. H. Shumway, and in England mangels are still fed to cows and pigs, carved into jack o’ lanterns, fermented and distilled into liquor, and competitively hurled as a rural amusement.
From the fodder beet developed the sugar beet. A German chemist, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, reported in 1747 that crystals from the syrup of mangelwurzel were identical to crystals from cane syrup. His student Franz Carl Achard experimented with mangel varieties and growing methods to maximize the beet’s sugar content. In 1801, soon after the Haitian Revolution threatened the world supply of cane sugar, the king of Prussia granted Achard funds to begin commercial production of beet sugar in Silesia (now part of Poland). Through selective breeding to increase the sugar content of the beets, Achard developed them into a viable commercial crop. A few years later, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain blocked supplies of West Indian cane sugar to France, and Napoleon ordered the establishment of large-scale sugar-beet farming and refining. Europe was soon producing most of its own sugar.
Across the Atlantic, abolitionists eager to undermine the demand for slave labor promoted the use of sugar beets from the 1830s on. But the first successful U.S. beet refineries weren’t established until the 1870s, by Claus Spreckels in California. Today beets account for 30 percent of the world’s sugar production and 55 to 60 percent of U.S. sugar consumption.
So, what was I to do with my sugar beets? I came across a mention of something called Zucherrüben Sirup, sugar-beet syrup. It’s a specialty of Germany, especially the Rhineland, where, as one German manufacturer advertises, it’s “an old favorite as a sandwich spread special for breakfast!” Also used to sweeten sauces, cakes, and other desserts, Zucherrüben Sirup is made by cooking shredded sugar beets, pressing the mash, and concentrating the juice to the consistency of honey. Having experimented in the past with making no-sugar-added syrup from apples, grapes, and watermelons, I had to try sugar-beet syrup.
In early January, I got around to digging up my sugar beets. Cleaning them was a chore. The skin comes off easily with a vegetable peeler, but I had to excavate a lot of crevices to get the beets fully clean. For the shredding step, I found that a cheap box grater worked better than my fancy mandoline.
I put 4 pounds of the shredded sugar beets into a large, heavy pot, covered them with 3 quarts water, brought the water to a simmer, and covered the pot. After the beets had simmered 15 minutes, I pressed them in a small fruit press placed in a large stockpot, and then propped the press over the pot to finish draining.
Left in the press was a hard cake of shredded beet the size of a dessert cake layer. The chickens loved it.
In the stockpot was a little more than 3 quarts of almost colorless liquid. I strained it to remove any remnants of beet solids, and then I boiled the liquid, uncovered, in a wide, heavy pan for about an hour and a half, until I had 1 cup dark amber liquid about as thick as honey syrup.
I let the syrup sit in a jar on the kitchen counter for a couple of weeks. By then some of the solids had settled out, and the syrup had lost its slight cloudiness. I poured off the clear syrup. The residue had a slightly bitter aftertaste. The syrup had an earthy aroma reminiscent of table beets and an odd bite on the tongue.
In retrospect, I think I could have extracted more sugar from the beets if I’d cooked them longer, stirred them more, or both. But will I try again? Probably not. Frankly, the experiment renewed my appreciation for more flavorful liquid sweeteners—cider syrup, maple syrup, and most of all honey.
Zuckerrüben Sirup isn’t bad, though. If you’d like to try some and can’t find any sugar beets in your neighborhood, you can order the syrup through online stores such as the German Grocery Store.
UPDATE 2022: At the time I wrote this article sugar beets were controversial in Oregon and elsewhere, because many farmers had begun planting GMO sugar-beet seed. This allowed them to spray glyphosate (Roundup) all over their fields, on their crops as well as the weeds. Doing so saved them from hiring workers to weed the fields. Besides, they argued, the GMOs couldn’t be found in the refined sugar. But the unintentional overspray of glyphosate was damaging neighbor’s crops, weeds were becoming resistant to the herbicide, and Roundup Ready plants were crossing with non-GMO plants, even on organic farms.
Some farmers found they couldn’t plant non-GMO seed even if they wanted to. Suddenly, non-GMO sugar-beet seed was practically unavailable. The industry warned of a likely sugar shortage.
Many farmers carried on growing GMO sugar beets. They were allowed to harvest the beets in the spring of 2010, but a judge ruled that growers would have to plow up any GMO beets that they planted for the next harvest season. Then, in February 2011, the judge’s decision was reversed, and in 2012 the U.S. government completely deregulated GMO sugar beets. Some states passed their own regulations regarding GMO foods, but in 2016 Congress exempted beet-derived sugar from all state-imposed GMO labeling requirements. In 2018, the USDA declared that refined foods derived from GMO crops, including beet sugar, would not be considered GMO foods at all. In its latest affront against American consumers, the USDA has now banned the term GMO (too political!) and developed a pretty green and blue label, depicting a plant, for identifying “bioengineered” foods in the supermarket. If consumers want more information, they will have to scan a QR code.
European and Asian countries, meanwhile, began allowing the importation of GMO foods and even permitting their own farmers to grow them.
Glyphosate has not been vindicated. After buying Monsanto, Bayer announced a $10 million settlement to resolve lawsuits over Roundup’s role in cancer cases. Researchers have begun to question the effects of the herbicide not only on human health but on the health of the soil and its organisms and on the water into which it leaches. And glyphosate-resistant weeds are an ever-growing problem.
Undeterred, Monsanto and Dow have recently developed “Agent Orange” GMO corn and soybeans, resistant to a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D. As Vietnam veterans know too well, 2,4-D is associated with cancer, lowered sperm counts, liver disease, and Parkinson’s Disease. The chemical is believed to harm the human hormonal, reproductive, neurological, and immune systems.
Agent Orange sugar beets may be next in the queue.
It’s possible that the sugar-beet seeds in my purchased soil were of the GMO type. Although I still wonder where that soil came from and what contaminants it may have contained, the beets themselves were no threat to anyone. I didn’t let them go to seed, and my sugar syrup was almost certainly free of any trace of GMOs or Roundup.
But if you want to plant sugar beets and try your own hand at making beet-sugar syrup, I advise buying non-GMO sugar-beet seed. It is easily available via the Internet from small companies that cater to home gardeners.
I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.
I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available, at least not at a price that many people could afford. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.
Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.
Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.
When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail in Metroactive. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.
Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.
On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans kept mainly to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.
A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.
Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and today refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.
The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.