I love grapes. They go great by themselves, or as wine, or as jelly. They are fun to watch grow, and the signs of new life on the vines in the spring are a promise of the wondrous adventure of grapes in the fall. They start as hard, tasteless berries, largely ignored by everyone, and gradually swell and change color, attracting nats, bees, birds and me.
I live in the south, not California. You might be thinking, “Grapes, oh he’s talking about Riesling or Concord or some other type of well known wine grape.”
But no, I’m referring to the lowly Muscadine, and it’s lesser known cousin, the Scuppernong. They are southern grpaes for sure, drive along any interstate in the south and pretty soon you will see the vines. They grow like kudzu, taking over anything in their path, spreading out and dropping fruit to start over again. They were some of the first grapes cultivated in the new world.
Muscadines are generally purple, whereas scuppernong are greenish-bronze to light purple. They don’t respond well to mass production on a grand scale, which is why you dont see them in stores across the country, and you won’t see mass-produced Muscadine jelly or wine to a large extent. There are some southern regional vineyards that do a good business, but nothing on the scale of Napa Valley, for example. Trimming wine grapes is an art. I trim my muscadines with a weed eater, otherwise they would take over the yard. But on to the jelly.
I make my own jelly. No, I’m not one of these organic-gardening wienies or a big-agriculture or gene-spliced food conspirators, I just like getting free stuff. My grapes are basically free. I don’t put chemicals on them, other than some fertilizer in the summer, and I don’t have to do a lot of work, other than picking and trimming. They either grow or they don’t.
The grapes above are actually wild, and the vines have taken over a dogwood tree. Grape vines are pretty much the only reason I would allow a dogwood tree to live in my yard…I hate those things.
But why jelly? My mother used to make jelly when I was young. It was great on toast and bread, I ate it all the time. When we bought our hose, and I found out there were grape vines outside, I decided it was time to enjoy a treat from my youth, that I had not had in a long time. As I said, you can’t find it in the grocery store.
Go to the grocery store sometime, and look on the back of any jar of jelly. Ingredients: Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, etc. etc. That’s not REAL. Real jelly is made with grape juice, water, and sugar, not that fake HFCS crap. Even some of them you would think would use the real deal do not. Look at Smucker’s commercials. Family farms, kids playing, “with a name like Smucker’s it has to be good”. Not with HFCS in it, it doesn’t. That crap is made in a refinery, and doesn’t have the same taste.
Learning to make jelly was easy. Thanks to Google, it’s not very hard. You need some jars, half a dozen pots, some sugar, spoons and a lot of time.
I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details here, that’s what google, and the pack of Certo, is for.
I know what you’re thinking…well, some of you. “Making Jelly? That’s women’s work. That sounds sort of gay.”
There’s a former marine I know who makes and decorates cakes. I say if you enjoy something, go to it. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Besides, it’s tasty, and taste trumps gender roles any day.
My daughter assisted me with grape picking the other day. She is not a big fan. Since I don’t use pesticides (I’m cheap), there’s always gnats and other flying insects arounf the grape vines. towards the end of the harvest, bees find them too, so you have to be careful what you grab. She has decided to be the bucket-holder, while I pick.
If you’ve never seen a muscadine grape, they can be many different sizes, but the best ones are about as big around as a quarter. They grow more like berries than bunches, and will ripen at different times. You might pick from the same vine over a few weeks as different sections and berries ripen over time. Soon after the grapes ripen, the leaves start falling off the vine, a sign that fall is definitely here.
I typically store my grapes in the freezer, which gives me gallon bags of frozen rock-looking things, until I can process them for juice. Thawed grapes are gross, don’t freeze them to eat later. They split open, take on an awful texture, and generally don’t look that great either. But looks and texture aren’t important. Since they’ve turned to mush anyway, they are easier to cook and strain into juice. I then store the juice for a few days until the tartaric acid starts to precipitate out, and then freeze into measured batches. If I want to make jelly, typically in mid-winter when standing over a steaming stove makes me nice and warm, I just thaw out on sack o’ juice, and the house smells nice.
Unfortunately, it leads to there being a LOT of grapes and juice in the freezer. Since I can’t legally sell the jelly, most of it gets given away as X-Mass gifts or eaten. I need to start charging for the jars, though, because they get expensive.