It’s late summer. The exhausting heat endures, and September’s sure to extend the drought, but on a (rather singular) bright note, our native grapes are beginning to appear in markets.
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 are vastly superior.
Naturally, both species are widely used for making wines, which are most often cloyingly sweet, the sort of thing a little old lady would poison, pour into cut crystal apéritifs, and serve to a middle-aged rogue she’d discovered was cheating on her with the choir director.
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 Sanskrit muska-s (testicle,) in reference to the musky scent of the fruit. (Never underestimate etymology.)
Muscadines come in a variety of colors, but there are two basic color types: the black/purple and the white/bronze. The white/bronze type is called a scuppernong because of a natural cultivar so named because of its discovery along the Scuppernong River in North Carolina. Because scuppernongs are such an early variety, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any ”white” muscadine grape.
These grapes have a thick skin and rind–they’re actually chewy; when you bit into them, you get an explosion of sweet, sharp flavor, and of course that essential hint of musk. They’re a little bit pricey, but to me, they’re worth it.
You can use muscadines and scuppernongs as you might any berry: in pies and cobblers, muffins, jams and jellies , as well as the aforementioned wines, but their fresh taste is incredibly wonderful, so keep a bowl on the kitchen table during the season to nibble on.