Local Ingredients: Verjus

This story starts with a whiskey smash and ends with the most delicious apple sorbet I have ever put in my mouth.

I am not sure if I can properly describe either. Which is problematic for a food blog, no?

So it may be best to start where it all started, at Woodberry Kitchen on my 44th birthday. My friend Kerry took me out for snacks and drinks, my choice of restaurant because, of course, it was my birthday, and we should all get exactly what we want on our birthday, yes?  

I could have gone anywhere in Baltimore, and the list of places to eat well in this city is long. Woodberry won for two reasons:

1. I had just read an article that said Woodberry Kitchen served all birthday folks a scoop of apple sorbet on a plate with “Happy birthday” written on it in chocolate. I am a sucker for strangers celebrating my birthday. Just please, no singing. And a gluten-free celebration? Even better because I can actually eat it.

2. A person at my yoga studio said Woodberry is so local-centric that they don’t even use lemon at the bar.

Number one piqued my taste buds, number two piqued my interest. How on earth could you make a craft cocktail without lemon? Or even a crappy, non-craft cocktail?

One answer: verjus.

Grapes for verjus (image source)

 Spike Gjerde opened Woodberry Kitchen with his wife in 2007, sourcing only local ingredients for the food, but a year later started to begin eliminating the majority of the citrus served in both food and drink, replacing it with verjus made from unripe grapes at Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Maryland, a scant 30 miles or so from Charm City. The result is a bright, tangy, not-unlike vinegar flavor that replaces the acidic component of drinks. Like my whiskey smash. While the bourbon must necessarily be from Kentucky, the cider (Distillery Lane Ciderworks), verjus, bitters (house-made), honey, and thyme were 100% local. 

Verjus (pronounced ver-ZHOO, but also clumsily called “verjuice”) is from the French: “vert jus,” meaning green juice. Verjus can be made from either unripe green grapes (for a cleaner taste) or unripe red grapes (producing a slightly earthier flavor). Neither preparation contains alcohol (verjus is simply pressed and bottled, no fermenting), which means that verjus will not clash with any wine served with dinner. While cooks in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance used verjus with impunity, its use has only recently grown as the local food movement has spread.

As with wine, verjus can be affected by terroir, the elements of soil and water that influence the subtle flavor variations in fruits and vegetables from a certain place. Verjus flavors can range from light, bright, and clean to murky and muddier flavors that are aggressive and more suited for heavier preparations (i.e., in wild game or heavy sauces).

Red and white verjus can be used just as you might use red or white vinegar. Some vineyards may sell verjus directly to visitors, but it can also be purchased in more “upscale” grocery stores. You can also buy verjus online if you must.

Epicurious has a few recipes using verjus if you are curious to start with more guidance, or you can even make your own verjus. Many vineyards thin their grapes well before harvest to produce sweeter grapes on the vine, and they may be willing to part with their unripe grapes. 

The whole menu at Woodberry is filled with verjus, but the cocktail menu is where it really shines, playing off house-made bitters and drinks designed to highlight the very best of local, seasonal ingredients.

I had two drinks that night (meh. I am a lightweight and no longer 24), but of the two only the memory of the whiskey smash remains. Perhaps because it went so well with the piece de resistance, my lovely scoop of apple sorbet:

I didn’t want to be one of those assholes Instagramming food, so I only got the one shot. 

I nearly absconded with the cute little glass the sorbet came in but decided thievery was not a good way to start the year, the last of my “early 40s.”

Have you had verjus before? What is your most hyper-local dining experience?