By Frieda's Speciality Produce CEO Karen Caplan
When I think of summer in the produce business, I think of grapes. August is the time of year when grapes are at their peak of flavor, and one of the many “new” grape varieties is Muscadine.
Not to be confused with Muscat grapes, Muscadines (also known as Muscadine Grapes) are a rare grape variety grown in the hot, harsh and unyielding climate of the Southeastern United States. They are actually among only four grape varieties native to North America. Native Americans used them for food and medicine long before the first colonists cultivated them.
The first record of a Muscadine vine dates back to 1534 in the Southeast. You can still visit a “Mother Vine” in North Carolina, with cuttings that are sought-after gift items for those who love the fruit.
In a way, the saying “as American as apple pie” should be “as American as Muscadine” because the fruit have been around long before Johnny Appleseed came around with his apples.
In New York, Muscadines are referred to as “Swamp Grapes”, however, most growers consider them berries. Scientifically speaking, they are indeed berries but just happen to grow in grape-like, loose clusters. The berries ripen individually within that cluster and are not synchronized like bunch grapes. So you may find them on the berry table in the produce department instead of grapes.
Muscadine berries range from bronze to dark purple and are often compared to oversized grapes. Since they’re all individual berries, they can be just a little bigger than a Concord grape to the size of a small plum. The skins are edible, and some of the fruits may contain small seeds.
These great American heirloom fruits are not only tough, but are believed to have more antioxidants than others like açai berries, mangosteens, pomegranates and goji berries.
Muscadines naturally develop an extra chromosome, which helps the grapes defend themselves from the difficult growing conditions they are put in. They proactively pass those fighting, defensive capabilities on to the person eating the grapes in the form of antioxidants.
Skins and seeds are often used in food supplements and nutraceutical products. The purple variety packs even more punch with the antioxidant, anthocyanin, in the purple pigment.
To put it in perspective, one cup of muscadines has more fiber than a serving of oats and more than double the average person’s antioxidant intake.
How do these super fruits taste? I am happy to report that muscadines taste great. I tasted my first one a few weeks ago when growers from Georgia sent us samples and I found myself going through half of the clamshell.
The grape-like flesh is flavorful, sweet and filled with grapey goodness. They can be eaten fresh, much like regular grapes, although some prefer to peel off the skin first. Muscadines are great for jam, juice, wines, or any other recipes using grapes.
The fruit are in season from August through October. They have been exclusively available in the Southeast and Eastern U.S., but you will see them in markets nationwide this year.