Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are a popular dish in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine. These appetisers are made of meat, rice, various herbs and spices, all of which are wrapped in grape vine leaves and cooked.
When cooking, it’s important to use the correct ingredients, which is why many people ask, which grape varieties are best for making dolmades?
The Sultana grape, also known as the Thompson seedless, is best grape variety with edible leaves used in making dolmades.
How do I know? i asked my ethnic mum, she grew up on a farm, and has been making this dish her entire life, so I’d say that’s a reliable source!
Why are Sultana (Thompson Seedless) Leaves Preferred?
There are several reasons why Sultana (Thompson seedless) leaves are used for their edible leaves in preference to other grape varieties:
- Large, broad leaves with very shallow lobes provides ample wrapping material without any holes or gaps where ingredients could fall out, unlike the more deeply lobed (deeply cut) grape leaves of most wine grape varieties.
- Stronger and more flexible leaves than other grape varieties make them perfect for use in cooking, as they’re easier to wrap and won’t come apart.
- Leaves have a good texture and taste when cooked and are easy to chew.
Other varieties with broad leaves may also be used if they’re palatable and lend themselves to cooking. I should point out that the Vitus vinifera species (European grape varieties) are used for edible leaves.
Are Labrusca Grape (Fox Grape) Leaves Edible?
The Northern Fox Grape, also known as a Concorde Grape or Labrusca grape, is the species Vitis labrusca, native to the US. With it’s distinct musky flavour which many find objectionable, and large seeds which cling to the pulp of the berries, it’s an inferior grape compared to the European Vitus vinifera species, and it’s leaves are also are not suitable for cooking this dish.
Only the young leaves of Vitis labrusca are considered edible, and are said to have a ‘pleasant acid flavour’ when cooked and used as greens or wrapped around other foods and then baked where they impart a pleasant flavour. You really don’t want the flavour of the leaves seeping into to the ingredients in dolmades, in case you’re wondering…
The leaves are actually used historically as a herbal medicine, where an infusion of the leaves has been used in treating diarrhoea, fevers, headaches, hepatitis, stomach aches and thrush, while a poultice has been used externally on rheumatic joints, sore breasts, and as a headache treatment.
In other words, just use the European Vitus vinifera species for dolmades!
Harvesting the Best Grape Vine Leaves for Use in Cooking
As with any other fresh cooking ingredients, knowing what to harvest and when will determine the quality of the ingredients!
The best time to pick vine leaves is in late spring to early summer when the leaves are nice and tender, unblemished and in great abundance. Any leaves that aren’t used immediately can be stored for later use.
You don’t want to harvest the very delicate young leaves which can tear easily or the oldest, toughest ones, but the medium sized leaves in-between.
The traditional method my mum taught me was to start at the tip of a branch, leaving the first three leaves, and then selecting the fourth and later leaves for harvest. Select a few leaves from each branch to avoid stripping any one branch of leaves. Cut off the leaves near the branch, you want the leaf stem to stay attached to the leaves, this prevents leaves tearing and the leaf stem can be cut off later during the cooking preparation process.
Choose healthy looking leaves that are as large as the palm of your hand or larger, without any holes in them or any other damage. Make sure that the leaves haven’t been sprayed with any pesticides or fungicides, if it’s not your grape vine, ask the grower!
If leaves are going to be used immediately for cooking, rinse the leaves with cool water to wash them, then pat them dry before use.
Storing Grape Vine Leaves
Since the harvesting period is limited, it’s best to collect the grape vine leaves you need during the few months that they’re available, and storing what is not used.
If leaves are to be stored, they are not washed but instead wiped down with a dry paper towel, stacked, then placed in a sealed freezer bag, and put he freezer where they will keep for 6 months.
More Than Vine Leaves!
In permaculture, which is essentially ecological garden design, we prefer to use plants which have multiple uses to maximise efficiency
More than just a source of edible leaves for making dolmades, the Thompson seedless (sultana) grape is one of the most popular sweet table grapes worldwide, and it is also used for making dried raisins and wine also.
The berries are yellow-green in colour, oval in shape, small to medium in size, and seedless, with soft skin and sweet, firm, juicy pulp with nice grape flavour. The berries are produced in large, conical bunches which are usually well filled. This vine is vigorous, and a cane-pruned variety. It’s definitely worth growing!