Muscadines and Scuppernongs

It’s late summer; the exhausting heat lingers, and September’s drought is soon to set in, but on a 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 her maid.

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 of muscadines, scuppernong entered common usage to refer to any ”white” muscadine grape.

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 during the season to nibble on. 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, and of course that essential hint of musk. They’re a little bit pricey, but to me, they’re worth it.

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