When I was a kid, my mama’s daddy had a cattle farm with a huge garden that we visited often. He probably had some muscadine vines, but I don’t remember them; if they were there, they were overshadowed by my obsession with his giant blackberries. When he and my grandmother sold the farm, and moved to little Quitman, Mississippi, outside of Meridian, he put in a smaller garden and four lines of scuppernong vines. I was about ten then, and since there were no blackberries at the new place, my attention turned to the sun-warmed, speckled golden orbs that hung, almost hidden beneath wide, light green leaves, from the clamoring, crawling vines in late summer and early fall.
If only I had known (or cared) about them sooner, I could have been enjoying their distinct sweetness, earthy and woodsy, which fits their natural history, for so much longer. Muscadines (of which scuppernongs are one variety) are the native grape of the Southeast, their vines discovered growing freely, climbing up trees and tangling over brush, by Europeans colonizing North Carolina. They now grow throughout the region, either in backyards or multi-acre vineyards. And wild vines still twist around trunks tucked away in a forest and tumble over fence posts on the edges of fields. When I think deep thoughts about them, I see the fruit’s thick, sinewy skins as a reflection of the tough, hearty character of so many things (and people) in their home habitat; they are the key to the grape’s survival long before cultivation came along. They make you work for even the tiniest taste; you have to chew through that rubbery exterior while your teeth dodge the escaping slippery, bitter seeds. But boy is it worth it.
I like eating them straight out of hand. No muss. No fuss. Just a cup for spitting seeds in. But they also hold up well to cooking and melt down into a simple syrup that, once you taste it, you’ll want to make by the gallon. Use it for a fall cocktail that’s (thank goodness) not centered around pumpkins or apples, the Scuppernong-Bourbon Smash. It’s only slightly sweet and super smooth and perfect for sipping on an autumn evening.
Even the great writer (and possibly even better drinker) William Faulkner enjoyed adding the flavor of muscadines to his toddies. On a recent visit to his home in Oxford, Mississippi, while strolling under an arbor of ancient muscadine vines, their trunks so thick and leaves so large not even a sliver of sun could peek through, I learned that the secret ingredient in his mint juleps was a splash of muscadine simple syrup, a substance he called “thin jelly.” So do as this literary legend did. Mix up some Scuppernong Bourbon-Smashes.
Makes one cocktail
1/4 cup scuppernong simple syrup (recipe below)
1 to 1.5 ounces bourbon
2 to 3 whole scuppernongs, smashed
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
2 generous splashes of club soda
Mix together over ice and enjoy.
Scuppernong Simple Syrup
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
2 cups scuppernongs
Place scuppernongs in a small saucepan with a tablespoon or two of water. Cook gently over medium heat until the scuppernong skins start to soften. Use a wooden spoon or potato masher to pop the flesh from the skins. Remove from heat and pour off almost all the liquid.
In a separate saucepan, heat the water to boiling and add the sugar and stir until it dissolves. Lower the heat and allow the mixture to simmer for 3 to 5 minutes while you stir constantly, and then remove from heat. Add the cooked scuppernongs, and let the mixture steep for 20 to 25 minutes. Strain the syrup through a fine mesh sieve and pour into a sealable container. It will keep in the fridge for about 2 weeks.
Or, if you’re looking for a tee-totaling way to enjoy your grapes, muscadines make the best jelly there is, and it’s not that much more complicated than the simple syrup to make. This really easy recipe is from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Muscadine Jelly (makes about 4 half-pint jars)
4 cups muscadine or scuppernong juice
3 cups sugar
To get the juice: Select grapes that are in the just ripe stage. Wash and crush grapes. Without adding water, boil and simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Press juice from the heated grapes. Pour the cool juice into glass containers and set in refrigerator. The next day strain the juice through a cloth jelly bag. Do not squeeze the bag.
To make the jelly: Sterilize your canning jars. Heat the juice to boiling in a saucepot. Add sugar and stir until dissolved. Boil rapidly over high heat to 8°F above the boiling point of water or until jelly mixture sheets from a spoon.
Remove from heat; skim off foam quickly. Pour hot jelly immediately into hot, sterile jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened clean paper towel; adjust two-piece metal canning lids. Process for 10 minutes in boiling water bath.
And here’s a tasty way to use muscadines in a savory preparation. This simple sauce jazzes up roasted meats or a cheese plate.
• 2.5 cups muscadines
• 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
• 2 tablespoons chopped shallots
• 1 teaspoon brown sugar
• Pinch salt
• 1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
Take 1/2 cup of the grapes and cut them in half. Remove the seeds with the point of your knife. Set aside. Put the remaining 2 cups of the grapes in a saucepan with 1/4 cup of water and cook over medium-high heat until the grapes break down. Use a potato masher or wooden spoon to mash all the grapes in the pot. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine strainer over a bowl, pushing on the grapes to get all the juice. Discard the seeds and skins. Put the juice back in the saucepan with the halved grapes, the balsamic, the shallots, the rosemary, the salt and the sugar and bring to a boil. Cook until the compote is reduced and thickened, about 5 minutes.