The Community Market in Santa Rosa the other day displayed a stack of plastic containers of Thomcord grapes, which sounded like a hybrid of Thompson Seedless and Concord grapes. A little research revealed that was the case.
U.S. Department of Agriculture grape breeders at Parlier, a town of about 15,000 in Fresno County, crossed the two grapes in 1983 and — it took a while — released it to farmers in 2003.
Now it’s in our stores. Besides the Community Market, it’s been spotted at Trader Joe’s and in Oliver’s on Montecito Boulevard, although I haven’t seen it in the Whole Foods on Yulupa. Some Safeways have also carried the variety. It combines the seedlessness of Thompson with the Welch’s grape jelly flavor of Concord.
Concord is a selection of the native wild grape of the eastern part of North America. It’s why the Vikings called the land they discovered in what’s now the U.S. and Canada “Vineland.” It not only has that foxy flavor of Welch’s grape jelly, but it has seeds. It’s a slip-skin grape, meaning that if you pop a berry into your mouth and crush it, the slippery blob of grape flesh containing the seeds comes squishing out, leaving the skins behind but coating your mouth with the deliciously aromatic and floral-sweet essence of the wild grape.
In 1848, a guy named Ephraim Wales Bull of Concord, Massachusetts, planted 22,000 seeds of wild grapes and went through them looking for what he called “the perfect grape,” finally choosing the variety we know today as Concord. His original vine is still growing there.
Thompson Seedless is a hybrid of Vitis vinifera — the species that drapes our hillsides and bottomlands with wine grapes. “Seedless” is really a misnomer. Rudimentary seeds form in California’s seedless grapes, but they’ve been bred to prevent pollination, and so the seeds stay so small and unfertilized that you don’t notice them. The trouble with Thompson Seedless is that it’s the flavorless green grape your mom put in your lunchbox.
Concord, on the other hand, is brimming with flavor from both the dark blue skins, usually covered with a dusty “bloom,” and its berries’ chewy interior flesh.
The USDA’s hybrid of Thompson and Concord has yielded the Thomcord. It looks almost exactly like a cluster of Concord, and it’s got a hint of labrusca’s heady grapiness in its flavor, which makes it superior to most seedless grapes, including its parent Thompson, except perhaps for those grapes derived from the perfumy muscat variety. It’s sweet but not cloying.
And you’ll notice that Thomcord has occasional tiny crunchy bits in the berries — those are the rudimentary seeds that have developed just a little more than in Thompson Seedless. Concord has also contributed to the hybrid with a little of the buzzy bite in the back of the throat that characterizes the wild grapes of the East.
It would be good if more grocers identified the varieties they sell. Among red table grapes, the most popular varieties are Flame Seedless, with medium-sized, round, sweet berries, and Sweet Scarlet, at Oliver’s now, which carries a light, fruity Muscat flavor.
Look also for Summer Royal, with medium-sized, blue-black, round to slightly oval seedless berries; Red Globe — you may have noticed those extra-large, very round, light red grapes, but they do have seeds; Scarlet Royal, with large, red, oval, seedless berries; Crimson Seedless with medium-sized, red, cylindrical, seedless berries; Ruby Seedless, also known as King Ruby, is similar to Crimson Seedless in size and color, but with oval berries, and finally, Vintage Red, arriving in September with large, red, seedless, oval or elongated berries.