It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingering and September’s drought is setting in, but on a bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets. These aubergine and bronzy green globes are a little bit pricey, often going for as much as $5 (but usually more like $3) a quart, but to me they’re worth it. These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy–but when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor.
North America has two native grape species, Vitis labrusa, often called the fox or possum grape, and Vitis roundifolia, which most people call a muscadine. While the wild fruit of both species is edible, the fruit of cultivated varieties of vastly superior. Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet and best used as an aperitif or digestif. The name muscadine comes from its similarity to early settlers with the Muscat grape, a Mediterranean type used in making muscatel, both words deriving from the musky scent of the fruit.
Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black or purple and the bronze. “Scuppernong” is the name of the first muscadine cultivar, a cultivar being a variety of plant that is created or selected for cultivation. This “white” (most types are a light greenish) was so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Interestingly (and surprisingly) the original mother vine is still on Roanoke Island, where it has been growing and producing for several hundred years. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any bronze/green/”white” muscadine grape even though botanical correctness dictates that “Scuppernong” should only designate the cultivar and not all such color types.
You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies, but because their fresh taste is so incredibly wonderful, I recommend that you simply keep a bowl on the kitchen table for a quick little nosh during the season.