Four autumns ago, I sampled an exceptionally tasty concord grape pie at a friend’s house in Rochester, New York. It triggered nostalgia in me, for jelly melting on toast, and provoked my curiosity, too. Concord grapes, with their thick, blue-black, musty skins and medium seeds, are rarely sold as table grapes—they’re used for juices and jams (the Welch’s company is all but built on them)—and are not generally linked to New York, having been first cultivated (in 1849) in Concord, Massachusetts.
But it turns out that New York State is the largest producer of concords on the East Coast—Washington holds the record nationwide—and that pies made with them are a cottage industry in the Finger Lakes town of Naples (population 1,200), about 40 miles south of Rochester. Though several local families claim the recipe (supposedly imported by German immigrants) as their own, the woman who baked the pie I tasted, 85-year-old Irene Bouchard, is considered the Grape Pie Queen of Naples.
The Naples Grape Festival has been held every year since 1961 on the third weekend of September, attracting more than 80,000 visitors annually. Bouchard, the most popular of the many local pie bakers, went through two and a quarter tons of grapes per season in the late 1970s and early ’80s. One year she turned out more than 6,000 pies from her home oven. She sold pies off her porch during the festival and now sells them by special order year-round (grape pulp freezes well).
Bouchard retired in 1986, but the demand for pies was such that she picked up again in ’90; she baked 800 pies in the ’98 season. My friends in Rochester purchased one of Irene’s pies—the one that got me going. This fall, I’m heading to Naples for another.