In a city alley, grape expectations

Any night now, a timely frost will pucker the unplucked Concord grapes along my pathway to and from central Back Bay in Boston. I've tried to do my share of bringing in the harvest, but most of the fruit has hung too high. So I've only taken what I could reach above the iron railings of a garden along one of the city's public alleys - and put out of thought those that have dangled tantalizingly from four stories of balconies and fire escapes.

By now, with temperatures in the low 40s some nights, the foot-wide leaves are turning yellow, revealing perfect clusters of tiny green grapes, not one larger than half my little fingernail. And the few that are ripe are no longer enticing. If there is nothing more succulent than the perfect Concord grape warmed by summer's heat, there is conversely nothing less appetizing than a chilled grape at the end of a rainy afternoon.

So well has the setting deceived and the leaves concealed that not even the birds have found this savory trove. In fact, I passed this way all last summer without ever really seeing the vines. They were just luxuriant foliage over a sunken garden.

After a hot day, the barely seen garden - with its tile-topped garden tables, Majolica dishes, and terra-cotta pots - reminded me of Tuscany, especially as laughter and the clink of glasses rose to street level.

It wasn't until most of the leaves were gone last fall that I finally saw the clusters of tiny green grapes and assumed this was some kind of ornamental variety. Later, the vines became brown and a few purple fruits hung on them like wizened currants. Now it was easier to see the wooden beams over the garden - and what looked to me like dead vines, traceable to five small wooden planter boxes nestled on a low wall.

To think that from those planters had sprung that profusion of foliage and fruit! As I passed by, I speculated whether they could survive the onslaught of wind and snow. But little did I know about the tenacity of grape vines. With the first warmth of spring, little streaks of green appeared in the vines. A few weeks later, tiny buds of pink and green, looking like marzipan candies, sprung on the vines. Soon they opened into pink-veined leaves.

Remembering the unappealing clusters of tiny green grapes, I enjoyed the full foliage, but gave no thought to fruit. And then one late July afternoon, I spied a single ripe, purple grape peering from beneath a sheltering leaf. And with anticipation perhaps akin to Eve's in the Garden, I plucked it. Warm, dusty, enticing. No grape was ever eaten more slowly or more gratifyingly enjoyed. It was like fine perfume to the taste.

Each day for the next few weeks, as I passed I would reach beneath the leaves and take a few grapes. Most were still tiny and green, but each cluster had a few ripe ones. Because the grapes weren't truly mine to enjoy, I finally stopped one day when the tenant of the garden unit emerged, and I asked cautiously if I might pick some grapes on occasion. She looked at me blankly and replied "Grapes? Oh, yeah, sure, I guess."

Since the treasure now seemed to be mine, I could share it. I picked a cluster to share with a food-wise friend. She took one grape and tested it slowly. Then her eyes lit up and she said: "Ooh! This takes me back to childhood." Then she saved the rest to share with her husband. Yes, they've been that good - a hidden treasure in a city alley. And even better, come the heat of next summer, there will be that first perfect grape to savor.

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