Muscadines: Native Grapes of the South

Grapes of the South

As we browsed the displays at the farmer's market, I passed a small stack of berry boxes full of strange dark purple fruits, bigger than cherries and perfectly round. "Muscadines," I read from the sign. I turned to my husband Morgan. "What are muscadines?"

A slight smile touched the corner of his mouth and his eyes unfocused a little, looking at something in his past. "They're a kind of grape. They only grow here in the South."

"Shall we get some? Do you like them?"

"They're pretty good. You'd probably like them. Go ahead." He paused for a moment, and then went on to tell me, "I used to eat them straight off the vine at Evan's house in the summers." Morgan's old friend Evan lived in an old house built in 1811 with a lot of land out in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Morgan has many magical memories of that place and his time there with Evan when they were children.

Muscadine grapes are on average two times as big as the more common (European) grape varieties, with darker purple opaque skins and pale greenish-white pulp inside. One to three hard, light green seeds, slightly smaller than peas, are found in the center of each muscadine. Muscadines looked much harder than more common varieties of grapes, but I was surprised to squeeze them and find that the skin yielded softly under my fingers, pliant and flexible, a soft vessel that promised to be brimming with juice. The fruit was still very sun-warm.

I was pleasantly surprised with the flavor. Biting through the skin is much harder than a normal grape; it is very thick and tough. Once my teeth broke through, however, my mouth was filled with the incredibly sweet flavor of the juicy pulp inside. Avoiding the seeds, I savored the juice and then started chewing the skin. The tannins in the skin give it a tart, very slightly bitter taste that made my mouth feel kind of dry. A lot of people recommend not eating the skin of muscadines because of this, but I found the tart skin to be a wonderful complement to the extreme sweetness of the pulp. The two flavors mixed well together--eating the whole fruit at once was a very pleasant experience. I found muscadines to taste a little closer to wine straight off the vine, richer and fuller than supermarket grapes.

Eating the skins, it turned out, had more benefits than simply the flavor--they are also very good for your health. (See this article). It is in the skin and seeds where resveratrol is most concentrated, and resveratrol is a compound that has shown an ability to reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol. Muscadine puree contains more fiber than oat or rice bran, and the skins are also high in essential minerals. Ellagic acid is also in muscadines, which is "a natural organic compound thought to inhibit the start of cancer caused by certain chemicals." (Source)

These unique fruits are not only delicious; they're very good for your health. I give them a shining recommendation, and I'll be looking for dishes to use them in from now on!