Fermentation is happening all around, those hungry yeasts feasting on sweet grape juice, creating heat, energy, increasing levels of alcohol and finally, having done their job, wine.
This is a process that has taken place for thousands of years one that has also generated other products associated with harvest. In Roman times, fermenting juice or must was used to make Mustaceum, a cake baked on laurel leaves and served at weddings.
South Africa has its own harvest traditions, which may or may not have been introduced by the French Huguenots. Bearing in mind the use of must dating back to Roman times, it’s likely Europeans who settled in the Cape before the Huguenots would have used must for other purposes.
Whatever the origins of our harvest delicacies being made from must, the long-time traditions are eagerly anticipated and welcomed during the wine harvest. They include moskonfyt or must jam, made from the fermenting grape juice, either strained or with skins and pips retained, and reduced by boiling.
Probably the best known and favourite of many are Mosbolletjies – small must buns, almost loaf-like in shape. Many wine farms bake them, but La Motte in Franschhoek kindly spreads the mosbolletjie love to guests on the farm and media, including lucky me.
I asked La Motte’s brand manager, Mareli Roux about the history of these harvest buns on the farm. ‘In 1752, Gabriël du Toit, (descendant of our first Huguenot owner, Pierre Joubert, who bought the estate from first owner, German Hans Hattingh in 1709), planted 4000 vines. I’m sure these early owners treated themselves to this seasonal delight.’ Roux suggests, continuing with more up-to-date history: ‘Dr Rupert bought the estate in 1970, replanted the vineyards with the first vintage released in 1985. Mosbolletjies were part of every harvest season then, but since our Pierneef à La Motte Restaurant and the Farm Shop opened at the end of 2010, mosbolletjies have become such an important part of what we do. From 2011 we’ve been baking them for the restaurant and the shop, where they’re popular with guests and staff!’
La Motte’s baker, Ricardo Slawers has no preferred variety for his mosbolletjies and there’s no exact science behind the degree of fermentation in the must before it’s added; taste and texture are what matters. The farm’s recipe also suggests other uses for this seasonal ingredient.
Given the long history of the use of grape must beyond turning into wine, I thought surely other wine-producing countries have similar traditions.
Indeed they do. Along the French/German border of Alsace and Baden-Wurtternberg, as well as in the Rheinland-Pfalz, Flammkuchen is the dish of the day during harvest. Made from a thin bread dough, which may include must, rolled into a rectangle, covered with crème fraiche, shallots or thinly sliced onions and lardons before being cooked in a pizza or conventional oven. I discovered via asking friends on social media that this pizza-like fare is a favourite with our adopted American winemaker, Andrea Mullineux and, on the other side of the world, Judy Finn owner of high-regarded New Zealand winery, Neudorf.
Zwiebelkuchen is a savoury German onion pie made with a yeast dough (using federweisser, the young fermenting wine) and a filling of steamed onions, diced bacon, cream and caraway seeds. From Germany’s south-westen region of Swabia, but with versions in other regions, Zwiebelkuchen brings back happy memories of her time working there for Christa Von La Chevallerie, winemaker on the family property under Huis van Chevallerie label.
Greece also has a long wine-producing history; that country’s tradition at harvest time is Moustalveria Greek Grape must pudding (Moustos is must in Greek).
Going north, up the Adriatic coast to Croatia and in the vineyards around Dubrovnik, a dessert cake called Mantala is a local speciality made with must, preferably that of local variety plavac mali. The difference with this harvest produce is that it is ready for eating only around Christmas time. The story behind this now rarely made delicacy is related here.
Croatian, Marija Mrgudic, who still makes Mantala from her mother’s recipe, also told me about a dessert wine traditionally served with the cake. Prošek, from rukatac, the delightfully named grk, pošip or vugava in the white version with plavac mali or crljenak in the red wine, is made from sun-dried grapes; when around 60% are raisined, the juice undergoes a long, slow fermentation achieving anything between 13 and 16% alcohol with a residual sugar spanning 80 to 160 grams per litre.
I guess most mosbolletjies are shared with a cup of coffee or tea, but when transformed into rusks, I can imagine they too would happily be partnered with a glass of our own special sweet wine, Muscadel.
There are likely many more traditions worldwide connected to the sweet juice of the grape before it becomes wine, all celebrating harvest and the birth of a new vintage.