By George N. Diamantis
Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, my mother always had a lush garden full of vibrant plants. I remember watching my mother tend to her plants while playing with my toy trucks in the dirt. She had a wide variety of colorful plants such as roses, hydrangeas, marigolds, hostas, begonias, and zinnias just to name a few. In the early spring mornings, I remember smelling the flower’s aroma and gazing upon the beauty of all the different brightly-colored plants. Not only did my mother have a flourishing flower garden, but she also had a selection of crops that she would harvest such as tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, basil, mint, and a grapevine. However, unlike all the rest of the plants in my mother’s garden, I took a particular interest in the grapevine.
Even though grapevines are usually traditional for producing grape juice, jelly, raisins, table grapes, and wine, many Mediterranean cuisines use the whole plant for food. In particular, the leaves are used to make a popular Mediterranean dish called Dolmathes—better known as grape leaves. I remember, as a child, getting excited when my mother would pick grape leaves from our grapevine because that would mean that she would be making Dolmathes, or as we called them in our household, Fela. Dolmathes consist of seasoned ground meat mixed with rice wrapped in a grapevine leaf. Dolmathes are not only common in Mediterranean cuisine, you can also find them on dinner tables in the Middle East and the Balkans.
My mother taught me how to make Dolmathes and how to pick the best quality grapevine leaves. The ideal size of grapevine leaves are harvested when the leaves are a deep green color and a little bigger than the palm of the hand. If you harvest grapevine leaves that are smaller than the palm of the hand, then you will need more than one grapevine leaf to make one Dolmathes, which could result in the Dolmathes falling apart while cooking. When my mother picks grapevine leaves, she stores them in either a jar filled with water or rolls them in foil and stores them in the freezer. This means we can eat these tasty delights year round, even during the freezing winter months when the grapevine has no leaves! The luxury of having a grapevine is that picking the leaves stimulates new growth and spurs the vine to develop more leaves. After about July in Pennsylvania, grapevine leaves become tough and difficult to chew, so I do not recommended picking leaves after July.
In the fall, particularly starting in November, you should cut the vine back so the plant will be ready for the winter. Winter frost and cold can injure or even kill the vine if the base of the plant is not protected. My mother likes to pile decaying leaves around the cut stem while other people use straw to keep the grapevine warm during the cold months. Then, in the spring, you can watch the grapevine grow. It is rewarding to watch the plant grow from a small bud to developing into mature leaves that are ready for harvesting.
I first learned about the grapevine as a child from my mother. Growing up in a Greek-Italian family and being exposed to the culture has taught me about grapevine and has introduced a favorite dish that my whole family enjoys year round (not just for holidays!). I personally recommend growing a grapevine in any backyard because it is one of the most useful plants in a garden and am thankful this one plant has given me and my family so much.
George is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Psychology. He is 25 years old and has aspirations to apply to medical school in the near future.