"Muscadines, muscadines, their overture of sweetness in the mouth and brain testifying to the Holy Trinity of Sun, Rain, and Dirt…” ~James Tighe
Muscadines are a distinctly Southern crop that, with their thick skins and sweet, seedy insides, have been titillating the palates of birds, woodland creatures, and lucky humans who stumbled across them in the woods for centuries. Muscadines are the only fruit crop that is native to the South, I heard Southern Living’s “Grumpy Gardener” say. Even Florida’s amazing oranges are not native to our soil. But the hardy muscadine has been climbing trees and fence posts across our warm Southern states long before the U.S. was a country.
The popularity of muscadines has grown in recent years, with the rise in popularity of Muscadine wine, muscadine juice, and the like. There are now over 30 cultivars of these unique native grapes. Muscadines are reportedly full of even more antioxidants than blueberries have, and their resveratrol content is as good if not better than the seedless table grapes you find in the grocery store, which is another reason for the renewed interest in this bountiful berry. (Yes, grapes are berries!)
Southern chefs have begun to use these humble orbs on the menu of the most exclusive restaurants during the harvest season, recognizing not only their sweet, smooth flavor, but also their roots in Southern culinary tradition. They make jellies, relishes, and other concoctions with them, and serve customers the cold, sweet wine, perfect for sipping while sitting on the porch or patio on a hot summer day.
My grandfather had his own grape micro-vineyard on his property on St. Joe Beach, over on Ponce de Leon Street and Alabama Avenue, where he owned several acres of land. He grew a specific kind of muscadine, the scuppernong. The scuppernong is one of the first muscadines known to us in the southeast U.S. In fact, the “mother vine” which grows on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, is believed to be the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world, at over 400 years of age. It is a scuppernong vine. Talk about a survivor!
Granddaddy loved to learn how to do new things; a retired GE engineer, he constantly researched new things and tried new projects. When he became interested in growing scuppernongs, he prepared the ground behind his house, built the arbor in just the right way, and got the scuppernong plants from … I don’t know where. But within several years’ time, he had fat, juicy scuppernongs growing plentifully on the vines. He began making wine with them, as well as jelly and juice. I wasn’t allowed to try the wine, but I can still picture his small winemaking operation, which he had set up in Grammy’s laundry room. Luckily I was allowed to eat the grapes. They were perfectly round, with a thick skin protecting the juicy flesh inside. I’d suck that part out, spit the seeds and discard the skin, stopping when my mouth began to tingle from all that nutritious ellagic acid. It was fun on a warm fall day!
Fast forward several decades, to 2015. I visited a muscadine farm with my husband in a little town called Winnsboro, Texas, where a gentleman had planted a beautiful muscadine vineyard. He had several varieties of both black and bronze grapes, and we picked both kinds as we walked around the vineyard with the man and his beautiful turkeys, which he told us he keeps in the vineyard to eat the grasshoppers which would otherwise damage the grapes. The turkeys were so friendly and quite handsome!
The man gave us a bottle of his homemade muscadine wine to take with us, which we enjoyed trying later on at home. It was smooth and sweet, unlike many wines we’ve tried. Because it is so sweet, it lends itself to making jelly, which I did; I made muscadine wine pepper jelly, which is a delicious treat, perfect for glazing meats or pouring over a softened block of cream cheese to enjoy with crackers. If you get your hands on some muscadine wine, try your hand at making some, too. Pepper jelly is beautiful to look at, and makes nice Christmas gifts to share with friends and neighbors.
Muscadine wine pepper jelly
1/2 cup minced seeded red bell pepper
2 tablespoons minced seeded jalapeño peppers
3 dried hot chile peppers, halved lengthwise
1 1/2 cups white sweet muscadine wine
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 1/2 cups sugar
1 pouch liquid pectin (3 ounces)
1. Prepare canner, jar and lids (if you’re not familiar with this process, check out freshpreserving.com for full details)
2. In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine lemon juice with wine, then whisk in the sugar until it is completely dissolved. Add the various peppers.
3. Bring to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring nearly constantly. Stir in pectin.
4. Hold at a full boil for two minutes, then remove from heat and immediately skim foam off the top of the mixture.
5. Quickly pour the hot jelly into the hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Wipe the rim, then screw band down firmly.
6. Place jars in canner, making sure the jars are completely covered. Bring to a boil and then set timer for ten minutes.
7. Remove canner’s lid, then remove jars and cool.
“Oh, the intoxicating taste of the muscadine! Somewhere between summer and fall, this fruit offers the best of both worlds with a flavor that no man can replicate.” ~Rebecca Bearden, Southeast Farm Press
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com