Stretching from Texas to the Carolina coast, the Muscadine grape is a sweet little native-grown gem that ripens in the fall. Around here in the Piedmont Region of North Carolina, the muscadine, and it’s subgenus the Scuppernong, are proud parts of the local foodways with recipes dating back to the colonial times. Considered the “Concords of the South,” these grapes have that perfect, almost artificial grape scent and range from deep purple to bronze to a dusky green (the latter are scuppernongs).
While native to the area, the grapes have been cultivated using traditional European vineyard methods and cross-pollination techniques since the colonists first arrived. There are accounts from Sir Walter Raleigh and other European explorers of the North Carolina colony, though the grape varietals far proceed their arrival. And though they remain unknown to me and my research, surely there are recipes and uses of this grape by the indigenous groups – some of the Algonquian speaking peoples – that predate European discovery. I’ll see what I can find.
The varietals do well in the sultry southern heat and grow wild where allowed. The grapes are still used in various commercial efforts – like wine, jams, and jellies – but I’ve been told by locals to do the “pluck and suck,” that is to say, to pick a grape off the vine, break a hole in the thick hull with your teeth, and suck out the sweet pulp. The phrase might have prompted some brow-raising, but we have just as bawdy food phrases back home in Texas.
The green scuppernongs, also known as “fox-grapes,” “scuplin,” and “scupadine,” serve as the state fruit of North Carolina. Recipes from old southern cookbooks, such as Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (1869), make mention of both muscadine and scuppernong grapes, the former of which is said to produce a wine that is “troublesome, but worth the trouble.”
We drove out to a little vineyard to pick these grapes a few weekends ago, our small French Opinel knives (intended for vineyard work) proved helpful during our short half hour harvest. Unlike apple or berry picking, these grapes don’t lend well to snacking mid-pick. As described above, the skins, or hulls, are tough, thick, and puckeringly tart. They are, however, edible after the application of heat — a traditional pie flavor around here is muscadine hull pie.
I only had the patience for muscadine marmalade. Jelly would have been too demanding still, and so the hulls remained…a lazy woman’s marmalade. Pie seemed a bit out of our palate for now and I’ve already mentioned how troublesome the wine coudld be and cooking these fragrant grapes just made me miss eating Concords at our old New England farmstand. So I went with another New England “classic”: the brownie (supposedly first printed in a recipe by Boston’s Fannie Farmer). Opposing swirls of smooth cream cheese and muscadine marmalade bring all the worlds – North, South, Colonial, Contemporary – together, I suppose.
about 4 cups muscadine grapes, stems removed and washed
1 to 2 cups sugar
pinch of salt
In a large saucepan, cook muscadines whole until the hulls are tender and popped open. Pour into colander or sieve and mash pulp and hulls through. This can be a bit difficult, so do your best! Discard seeds.
Return juice and pulp to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in sugar and bring back to a boil, stirring constantly, until mixture is thick and syrupy, about 15 more minutes. It will thicken more after cooling.
Pour into a jar (or jars) and refrigerate.
muscadine marmalade & cream cheese brownies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s lovely recipe
4 ounces dark chocolate (very bitter) chocolate chips
1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup flour
4 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup muscadine marmalade, room temperature
Set the oven to 350 degrees and line a quarter sheet pan with parchment paper.
In a large glass bowl, combine the chocolate and butter and microwave in 30-second increments or until melted. Stir to combine. Add the sugar, salt, and vanilla and stir again. Add the eggs and stir until thoroughly incorporated. Lastly, add the flour and gently fold to combine.
Pour into the lined sheet pan and smooth into an even layer.
In another bowl, combine the cream cheese, powdered sugar, egg, and flour and whisk together until smooth.
Drop spoonfuls of the cream cheese mixture over the brownie batter. Repeat with the marmalade. Use a wooden skewer or the tip of a sharp knife and swirl together the cream cheese, marmalade, and batter.
Place the sheet pan in the middle of the oven and bake until the mixture is set and the top of the brownies begins to crinkle, about 20 minutes. Cool completely before slicing and serving.
“America’s First Grape: The Muscadine.” AgResearch Magazine, USDA, 1997.
Case, Steven. “State Fruit: Scuppernong Grape.” NCpedia, NC Government and Heritage Library, 2007.
Ellicott, Elizabeth. “Green Fox-Grape Jelly.” Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers. Baltimore: Cushings and Bailey, 1869.
Hendrick, Katie. “Scuppernongs.” Garden & Gun Magazine, 2009.
McCulloch-Williams, Martha. “Muscadine Wine.” Dishes & Beverages Of The Old South. New York, McBride, Nast & Company 1913.