I may be slightly biased in this, but today I’m talking about the guaranteed, best-ever, most superb piece of dining accoutrements ever – grape scissors!
In praise of ‘grape scissors’!
Admittedly it’s because I just love using my own pair, and when they get wheeled out at dinner parties no-one’s ever seen them before and the conversation takes off, but grape scissors really are one of the most practical of history’s avalanche of dining paraphernalia.
Also called ‘grape shears’, you often see them in antique and ‘olde wares’ stores in boxed sets along with nut crackers, with both intended to be used during the dessert course of a meal. They look like a small pair of fancy scissors with one blade having a distinctive ‘L’shape, and are often ornamented with grapes or vine leaves just to make sure you know what they’re for.
Cultivated only for the dessert
Grapes for the table appear to have been in demand as early as the beginning of the 16th century. …The uses of the grape in Britain are well known; in the dessert it ranks next to the pine, and is by some prefer to it. The berries, when green or not likely to ripen, may be used in tarts and pies; and the leaves form an elegant garnish to other table fruits.
J C Loudon, An Encyclopedia of Gardening. London, 1824.
We often use grape leaves as decoration when we recreate historic recipes; you may remember this elaborate presentation of jelly-filled oranges from way back in 2012:
Only two years after Loudon wrote about table grapes, an article titled ‘A short account of a few good things’ (specifically wine, brandy, port and gin) The Australian also noted wine production in Britain was almost unknown, with vineyards (often in glass or hot houses) used for the production of table grapes:
… vineyards are now scarcely known in England, and the vine only cultivated for the desert. There are many varieties of the Vine ; that which is called the Alexandrian Frontiniac, yields the most delicious grapes for eating, and the Syrian the largest bunches; the last is supposed to be the sort which the spies, sent by Moses to examine Canaan, cut down at the brook Eschol ; “a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two on a staff”. …The celebrated Vine in the garden at Hampton Court, which was planted in the year 1769, and allowed by all foreigners to surpass any in Europe, produced in one season 2,272 bunches, weighing it 18cwt; it measures 72 feet by 20, and is about 13 inches in girth.
‘A short account of a few good things’. The Australian, 28th October, 1826.
With a far milder, temperate climate, grapes were widely grown in colonial gardens. 19th century auction or lease notices routinely list what fruit trees were included on the advertised property, and grapes typically appear alongside apples, peaches, plums and almonds. Being so close to the salt air of the harbour we can rule out the vineyards at Vaucluse and Elizabeth Bay houses for wine production and ascribe their production for table use.
Newspapers constantly printed suggestions, debates and arguments as to the best method and position to grow the vines, avoid blight and maximise production. Horticultural societies gave medals and prizes for the best table (and wine) grapes. The Macarthurs were very active in this debate; at Elizabeth Farm you may remember the post on the ‘Greek Pirates’ who tended the vines. One of the grapes they tended was the ‘Sweetwater’, which John Macarthur brought with him on board the Eldon when he returned to the colony in 1817 after his long exile.
This receipt, made out to Edwin Stephen Rouse in 1885, includes (along with pears, plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines and quinces) thirty grape vines – though frustratingly no information on the type! They would however all be for table grapes, grown on the hillside east of the house and destined to supply the dining room at Rouse Hill:
Then fronting Marrickville Road, and bounded by Livingstone Rd, Stanley and Lilydale Streets, Marrickville, the Lilydale nursery was subdivided in 1893.
Also at Rouse Hill House the overseer’s cottage, last used by Gerald and Peggy Terry and their family, still has a robust vine of black table grapes growing across its front. In a scorching hot summer it provides welcome shade, turning the verandah into a green tunnel:
Today a modern vine grows on the verandah of my office at Rouse Hill, and as I type the tiny grapes are just starting to form.
“But just how does one use grape scissors”?
They’re really very simple. The design, with one blade having an ‘L’ shape, means that when you snip off a small bunch (a ‘bunchlet’?) the scissors hold onto the severed stem, and you can transfer them to your plate (or hand). It means a large, visually impressive bunch can be presented intact at the table, which is handy if they’re draping decoratively over the hedge of a fruit stand or epergne, and you only snip off a small, individual segment without destroying the entire effect. It also means that the selection is unlikely to fall apart and bounce across the table, as you are holding the stem, not an individual grape.
This was particularly handy if you were hosting a Victorian dinner and had gone all-out on the table decoration – and didn’t want your complex arrangements to topple onto the cloth. It also meant that diners had that few inches of extra reach, so could actually serve themselves from dishes placed at the center of large tables; some guides even mention potted grape vines grown as a standard, and set on the table as both decoration and to take part in the desert course. Snip!
While they were used right through the 19th century, the hey-day of the grape scissors seems to have been from the 1880s and then right through the Edwardian period, when they were a popular suggestion for a wedding present. A wander through Trove shows a sharp decline in their appearance in newspapers after the 1910s, and by the 1930s etiquette columns advise to eat grapes with the fingers, using grape scissors “if they are provided”. After that the phrase as often refers to a specialised gardening tool for thinning bunches while on the vine as it does to the item of tableware.
As my favorite piece of table paraphernalia, “Bring back the grape scissors!” I cry!
The Illustration of the Sweetwater grape is from George Brookshaw’s ‘The horticultural repository, containing delineations of the best varieties of the different species of English fruits’, London, Sherwood, Jones & Co., 1823, plate XXX, May 1st 1822; from the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. The publication noted “This is one of the best out-of-door Grapes, and its flavour and qualities are well known.”