The first time I ran into Muscadine grapes, I was visiting Fayetteville, North Carolina, and it was an accidental run in. I had heard about them from friends who grew up in the south, but never had the pleasure of sampling one myself. When I say accidental run in, I mean accidental run in. I was travelling the wilds of North Carolina in search of the delicacy known as the “pig ear biscuit” and ended with the discovery the coolest grape on the planet.
Muscadine Grapes Intro
A little explanation. My very old friend Lynn Baucom and I met in DC when we were 19. Though we met in DC, much of our friendship has taken place on foreign soils. This is due to the fact we have both lived overseas much of our adult lives. I mostly lived in London and Lynn would visit me there. On his visitations, he would tell me hysterical stories about his little town in North Carolina. Broadway, the place of his birth and escape. The stories included tales of a local specialty….the “pig ear biscuit”. My feeling was that any town that made a sandwich out of what most considered a dog’s chew toy, was the kind of American city I had to visit. As neither of us lived in America, it took a long time for the stars to collide and for this important field trip to occur. But, the opportunity to visit Broadway North Carolina and verify the tale of the “pig ear biscuit” did eventually happen. In 2007, and we journeyed from DC to the fabled Broadway, NC. We opted to stay in the nearby metropolis known as Fayetteville, NC.
True to his word, the whole experience was quite remarkable. Broadway lived up to its reputation. At more than one moment, I had to remind myself that I was still in America, not my America, but America. There was lots of good barbecue and lots of people smoking cigarettes. Sadly, no “pig ear biscuits” could be found.
I still blame Lynn for this. He should of known they were out of season.
But, the trip was not a total loss. I got up early one morning and was looking at the plants surrounding the Fayetteville holiday Inn Express. There I spied an interesting vine overtaking the fence securing the grounds of the hotel. Me being me, I took a closer look and discovered it was a huge wild muscadine grape vine, and, as total luck would have it, it was loaded with ripe fruit. And I mean loaded with sweet, tough skinned, blacker than black, grapes. I did what any sensible plant freak would do. I retrieved the plastic bag in the ice bucket in my hotel room and set to picking. Well, by the time Lynn dragged his sluggish butt out of bed, I had at least 10 pounds of sweet black muscadines in my plastic ice bucket liner.
It was a bit of a bitter sweet trip, no “pig ear biscuit” but I had encountered a really cool new plant, the muscadine! Even better, I had enough “muscadines” to make jelly and enough seed to start my muscadine vine.
I really wanted to add muscadines to my plant collection because…..the mother vine was living on a fence, in a holiday Inn Express parking lot, next to a highway and producing buckets of fruit. That’s not a low care grape, that’s a no care grape. I spent an hour and picked 10 pounds of delicious fruit, and what I harvested was a fraction of what was hanging on a huge grapes vine. Dream Plant. You do nothing and reap huge rewards for all your non-efforts. Oh yes, I was going to plant some of those seeds.
So, once back in DC, I carefully pulled the seeds out of the biggest grapes and planted them in my green house. Within weeks, I had lovely baby muscadine vines crawling out of their pots.
With the other 9.90 pounds of muscadine grapes, I made a batch of some of the blackest, most fragrant, grape jelly I had ever made or tasted. And, that’s the thing about muscadine grapes. They are packed with flavor and specifically a super strong grape taste. The grape taste survives cooking and stays strong in jam, jelly, juice, or wine. I gave my best food connosseur friends samples of my wild muscadine jelly and each and everyone was blown away by its incredible flavor. This jelly was electric in taste….unlike the dead tasting commercial grape jellies made with stale grapes and cheap beet sugar. This jelly packed such a flavor punch it about knocked your front teeth out.
Now, here comes the sadness. My seedlings never made it to adulthood. I had this idiot working for me and, for reasons that I will never understand, he decided the baby grape vines looked like weeds and pulled them out. Bye- bye muscadines dreams. After the senseless murder, I hatched plans to go back to Fayetteville the next summer, re-collect the seed, and start over. A long trip to collect some seeds, but, having seen that mother plant, it seemed worth the sacrifice.
Then it occurred to me, there might be an easier way. A little search on the internet resulted in me meeting one of my favorite mail order nursery suppliers, Jason Willis of Willis Orchards. (www.willisorchards.com) He had quite the collection of muscadines to choose from and Jason sent me 30 vines. I planted them in what has become my muscadine vineyard. Well, it was supposed to be a grape arbor, but 30 vines required four arbors, 100 foot long, and that is more of a vineyard than anything else. So, two years on, I have an endless supply or muscadines to make jelly and juice, though I mostly make juice.
The moral of the story is that when you go looking for a “pig ear biscuit” you never know what you will find.
About Muscadine Grapes
As for the plant and grape in general, there is much to know. To begin with, muscadines are grapes native to North America. It’s one of three really edible North American grapes, a list that includes Vitis labrusca(the concord grape), Vitis aestivalis(the Norton grape), and the muscadine grape( Vitis rotundifolia.) Muscadines scientific name, Vitis rotundifolia, means round leaf grape, and, indeed it does have a round leaf. This grape is most comfortable in the south, and, makes its home from Washington, DC. to southern Florida and west to Texas. It likes to live in locations that are hot, humid, and sunny.
The key WORD here is NATIVE grape, it did not come from Europe. Being a native plant, over millions of years, it developed resistance to American bugs and diseases…..pests that take a European grape to meet its maker. It developed resistance to these threats to well being a long time ago and just laughs them off. It produces its crop with little or no intervention on the part of the grower. The European grape, on the other hand, only survives here with lots of fungicide, pesticide, and more. Because the muscadine does not need chemical intervention to do its thing, it’s both earth and people friendly.
This is one productive grape. One acre of muscadines will produce between 8-18 tons of grapes! And, like I said, without the help of insecticides or fungicides. And these grapes can be sweet. They contain as much as 16-20% sugar which makes them more or less a sugar cube passing as a grape.
Any who, this grape is a different than the European grapes you see at the supermarket. First of all, they do not grow in bunches. They produce their marble sized grapes in groups of one, two, or three at a time. For this reason, they are sometimes called non-bunching grapes. And, though you get a volume of grapes, you don’t get them in that big fat bunch you are accustomed to seeing at the market. You have to pick them one at a time, or a few at a time.
The difference does not stop there. Muscadines are different than the other native American grapes and indeed European grapes on a very fundamental level. All other grapes have 38 chromosomes, whereas the muscadine has 40 chromosomes. Modern science has revealed that the muscadine, though somewhat related to grapes, are kind of a mutant grape.
Muscadine Grape History
Free food never goes unnoticed. Ancient man noticed plants that provided free food, and used the hell out of them. Muscadines are one of those foods ancient people noticed and used to survive. Long before the White Man barged onto the North American continent, Native Americans were collecting muscadines and using them for a variety of purposes. Indeed, Native people that had access to them derived a significant portion of their calories from muscadines. Apparently they were used fresh to make juice and dried into raisins for later use. Historical records tell us that the Native Americans made some kind of sweet corn and muscadine dumpling with them that was supposed to be delicious. Too bad the Indians got wiped out and the recipe got lost along with them.
Here is something I can’t resist mentioning. A lot of books talk about the muscadine being “discovered” in the 16th century when the White Man invaded Native American soils. Think again. They were discovered a long before that and it was not by the European invaders.
Anyhow, after we wiped out most of the Southeastern tribes, the white man started picking the muscadine grape. Much like me in the parking lot, European colonials noticed the free food hanging off this wild plant, and began using the grapes to make juice, jelly, and wine. The first record of European use of muscadines comes from the 16th century, and that involved the Spanish making wine with it.
The muscadine was a big hit with both the Spanish colonials and the English colonials that followed. Again, it was all about free food in a time when producing food was a lot of work. Anyhow, as we moved into the modern age, plantsmen saw the potential of the muscadine, and began developing new varieties. Today there are over 300 different varieties available to the gardener. In the wild, one finds bronze and black muscadines, but, now they come in green, bronze, red, and black. If you live south of the Mason Dixon line, this is the grape for you. And, you have lots of varieties to choose from.
Plant breeders may have come up with a hoard of new varieties, but, the incredible flavor remains intact in all of them. The muscadine, regardless of variety, offers the cook a rich, intense grape flavored grape, which makes for knock your socks off juice, jelly, and wine.
But, as it turns out, it is also a food really worth eating. Contemporary science has studied the grape and its contents and have found that it is incredibly healthy. It comes packing loads of compounds which have more than one healthy side effect!
Indeed, researchers Diane Hartle, Phillip Greenspan, and James Hargrove wrote a whole book about the medicinal applications of the muscadine, entitled “Muscadine Medicine”. It is a really remarkable book and if you are interested in how healthy this grape is, order up a copy. You can order it from www.naturespearlproducts.com. To summarize their exhaustive work, the muscadine fights heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, digestive diseases, and contributes to a long lifespan. Wow. And tasty too.
Muscadine Grape Benefits
Here is my own list of interesting health attributes.
Survive our toxic food
They way we produce food, meat and produce, is so unnatural, we now have shockingly unnatural and unhealthy food arriving at the Grocery store. Wave after wave of infected, meat, eggs, and produce have found their way to our supermarkets and there is no end in sight. When eggs, one of the most natural foods, arrive to you filled with infection, you know there is a problem. It’s all pretty depressing. But, the good news is that there is something you can do. Have a glass of muscadine juice with each meal. Drinking muscadine juice or wine, or smearing some muscadine jelly on your bread, with meals, may help protect you and your loved ones from death by food. Here is some evidence to this effect.
Two studies found that Red muscadine juice killed Cronobacter sakasakii, a lethal bacteria found in baby food and formula. The good news was that this effect increases with heating the grapes in processing, so, cooking muscadines to make juice or jelly does not hinder this activity. In addition, Red muscadine juice was found to have a strong anti-E.coli activity. Two killers knocked out with a tasty glass of muscadine juice.
Here is the study I found really interesting. Factory farm chickens, fed ground muscadines, had an increased resistance to two lethal digestive infections, often found in chicken factories(coccidiosis and necrotic enteritis). This big news. These birds are kept in horrific living conditions and are bombarded with crap. Literally bombarded. As such, when a digestive disease hits the chicken factory farm, the chickens only survive with massive doses of antibiotics. Muscadines raising these birds resistance to digestive disease, in their crap filled world, is nothing short of a miracle. And, if could do that for the chickens, it might be able to help us survive crap filled food.
Skip Looking Older than Dirt
Anti-oxidants reduce the damage free radicals do to our bodies, and, a diet rich in anti-oxidants may reduce your chance of a heart attack and or ending up looking older than dirt. Four studies revealed that Muscadine grapes are incredibly high in free radical neutralizers, or, as they are more commonly known, anti-oxidants. In fact 88 compounds with anti-oxidant activity were found in muscadines. Though filled with anti-oxidants, ellagic acid is one of the most powerful. Slow the clock with a muscadine.
One of the parts of getting older that really sucks is all the aches and pains that come with a used body. Creeping out of bed in the morning becomes a procedure rather than a mindless activity. Well, regular muscadine consumption might help. Muscadines have been proven to have anti-inflammatory effect in mice with artificially induced skin irritation. It was also found to have in vitro(In the test tube) and in vivo(in living animals) anti-inflammatory effect on joint and muscle inflammation.
Anti-oxidants have a natural anti-cancer activity. They prevent damage to cells that lead to cancer. But, there is more anticancer activity here than that. Researchers revealed that Red muscadine juice caused colon cancer cells to self destruct, and concluded that muscadines’ had anticancer properties.
Of the many downsides associated with being a drunk is bad health. A study with mice revealed that muscadine wine contains chemicals that offset the damage alcohol does to the body. Specifically, the loss of immune function due to alcohol consumption. Whereas alcohol depresses immune function, compounds found in muscadines stimulate immune function. The good in the wine counteracted the bad. If you like to get drunk, this may be a healthier option.
Where to Get Muscadine Grapes
Getting Your Muscadine On
If you live south of the Mason Dixon Line, you can get your muscadines the way I get mine. Plant a vine and just sit back and do nothing. If you are interested in growing some muscadines, I suggest you contact my friend Jason Willis at (www. willisorchards.com). He has lots of different types and will be happy to mail you as many plants as you like. I suggest you keep the number low. Learn from my mistake. It does not take many muscadine vines to have a boat load of grapes.
If you live in the south, you may be able to buy fresh muscadines at the supermarket. I have even seen them for sale at my conventional grocery store and at my local whole foods supermarket. They become available in August. Check with your produce manager and find out when and if they carry them, and put it in your calender!
If you live north of the Mason Dixon Line, you may not have access to fresh muscadines. You may have to purchase your muscadine products on line, which I seriously recommend. Ebay often has people selling various muscadine juices and jams. There are some really great folks making great homemade muscadine products selling on ebay, so give that a whirl.
That said, there is a fabulous company that makes all kinds of muscadine products, and, I have sampled their juice and its absolutely the best. The juice costs about five dollars a bottle, delivered, but, it is worth every penny. You cannot put a price tag on health or flavor and you get both with their out of this world juice. GET SOME. They can be found at www.naturespearlproducts.com. They UPS the juice by the case, and, it’s worth the wait. You will never go back to conventional grocery store juice again.
Now, if you want to sample muscadine wine, there are several organizations that can help you find a winery. There is the North Carolina Muscadine Association (http://www.ncmuscadine.org) and the North Carolina Wine Growers Association(http://www.ncwinegrowers.com). Both can direct you to vineyards that specialize in muscadine wine. I don’t drink so I cannot attest to whether its tasty or not, but, I hear it is very good. Considering its health benefits, even if it tastes like pond water, its worth drinking. But, like I said, its meant to be very tasty.
How to Make Muscadine Grape Juice
Making Your Own
- Muscadines in the pot and ready to be cooked down for juice.
- Muscadines cooking in the pot.
- Cooked muscadines in the food mill….the mill will remove the hulls and seeds and deposit the juice in the pot.
- Chunky Muscadine juice ready to drink.
I like to make grape juice with my muscadines, as it’s a really healthy alternative to the commercially made beverages. The process requires muscadines, a food mill, and some mason jars. First, I put the muscadines in a pot. For every 5 cups of grapes, I add one cup of water. I then turn the heat on medium and begin stirring. These grapes have a high sugar content and are inclined to stick to the bottom of the pot and burn, so, keep stirring the pot. When the grapes have more or less fallen apart, turn off the heat. When the cooked grapes have cooled to room temperature, place in food mill and mill out the seeds and skins. When you finish milling you will have a bowl of really great chunky grape juice. You can thin it out with water to your preferred consistency. I think it comes out of the food mill plenty sweet, but, if you like your juice really sweet, hit with a little honey.
The traditional way to make a more transparent grape juice is to put the cooked grapes in a cheese cloth and strain out the juice. If you want to make this type of juice, you can forget about the cheese cloth concept. Cheese cloth sold today is for polishing silver not juice making. I use panty hose to filter my juice. A clean pair that is and not mine! All you do is pour the cool cooked grapes into the foot of a pair of panty hose, and hang the “bag” that results over a pot. The clear juice will drip out into the pan. Once again, add sugar to your particular juice tastes.
Both types of juice, chunky and clear, can be canned. Go to Mason Jar.com to get guidance as to how to can your juice.
When I think about muscadines, two things come to mind. The first is that it is a grape that really tastes like a grape. It tastes really grapey and everything made from it packs a serious grape taste, be that juice, jelly, or jam. The second is this. This grape is native to North America, likes to grow here, and does so with no chemical help. Its native. Consuming muscadine products is better for the earth, and, because they lack pesticide, growth hormone, and fungicide residue, they are better for you. On top of that, muscadine juice, and products made from muscadine juice, offer you all kinds of health benefits. Ok, it might be a tiny bit inconvenient to order your supply of muscadine juice, but, go the extra mile. You’ll love the taste and being doing some thing good for you and for the planet and for you.