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Everyday wild gourmet by Julie Diehm - Wild Grapes

Many country kids can remember trying wild grapes straight off the vine growing up. The sour candy craze nowadays has nothing on these little fruits! They were so sour that most of us only tried them once. I guess I can’t be considered a majority…

At the very least, wild grapes as a group are easy to identify. The different species of wild grapes are very diverse. To identify a type of grape, grab a field guide. Look at the grape leaves. Notice the shape and edge (jagged, etc.). Look at the vine. What is the coloration (streaks of additional colors included)? How many seeds are in a single ripe grape? Be careful with this one – sometimes seeds stick together. Lastly, look at the tendrils. How many branches are coming off of the tendrils? Use these clues to identify the type.

It would be terribly misleading to say that every variety would work in any recipe and application. Why do you think there are so many types of wine? Many wild edible books have recipes for wild grape pie. Euell Gibbon’s has one in his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, that is often copied. Fox andmuscadine grapes are said to be excellent for this, but many of the smaller varieties would be a culinary epic fail used in pie. The smaller grapes work better for other recipes such as juice. Every grape species has its own attributes. Readers can experiment themselves and consult a wealth of articles written on subject. 

Wild grapes make an extremely potent juice. You do not have to remove the stems from the grapes before crushing them, except if there is a high stem to grape ratio as sometimes occurs when the grapes are grown in the shade or there was poor fruit set at flowering time. If you do remove the grapes from the stems, I recommend the use of a fork to limit your contact with the juice, which is very important. About an hour after the juice soaks into your skin, it will make you burn with pain. Limited contact with the juice will not cause this; it results from the kind of inundation that might accompany handling a lot of grapes to making a few gallons of juice or more. Once the pain begins, washing your hands won’t help at all – the burning, tingling sensation will persist for as long as four hours.

When I am making grape juice, I keep a bucket of water close by to rinse my hands in whenever I am forced to touch the mash or fruit juice. I also wear kitchen gloves and am careful to not get any juice on the inside of the gloves.

I believe this burning is caused by tartrate, a substance found in grape juice, that precipitates from it and forms gritty crystals. My theory is that the juice soaks into your skin and the tartrate forms crystals inside of you, hence causing pain. All grape juice is said to contain tartrate, but the quantity varies considerably from one kind of grape to another. Summer grape contains much, riverside grape contains even more, yet muscadine and fox grape contains very little. When dealing with these smaller, more potent grapes that are loaded with tartrate, there are really only two options: get rid of the tartrate or don’t enjoy the grapes and subsequently write them off as useful wild fruit. I will explain how to easily remove the tartrate after explaining how to get the juice.

I put some grapes, stem and all, plus a little water into a pot or tub and crush them gently so as not to break the seeds, using a mug or my wooden “stomper.” Then I stuff the mash into a jelly bag and wring out the juice, after which I promptly rinse my hands and crush another batch, if there is one. A cider press would also work well for this. Strain the liquid through cheesecloth to remove bits of seed, skin, and stem from the juice. The result will be thick and dark purple, and as sour as lemon juice.

Two rules that I follow when making wild grape juice are 1. Never break the seeds and 2. Never boil the grapes to get juice, or the juice with seeds, skins or tartrate in it. Both of these rules are to keep strong and sometimes bitter flavors out of your juice.

If you drink a lot of this fresh-pressed wild grape juice it will give you a sore mouth and throat. (It’s that darn tartrate again.) Fortunately tartrate is easy to get rid of. Just let the juice sit in a container in the refrigerator or some other cool place for a day or two. The tartrate will settle to the bottom; you will recognize it because it forms an ugly grayish sludge. Simply pour off the good juice on top and discard the tartrate settled on the bottom. The sludge is usually about one-fourth of the volume of the grape juice. If you make jelly from high-tartrate grapes without removing that nasty substance from the juice beforehand, the jelly will be saturated with annoying pieces of grit that, besides wrecking the texture, impart an unpleasant flavor to the confection. But when properly treated, riverside, summer, and probably all the other small, sour and maligned grapes of North America produce wonderful products. Therefore I never make anything from these wild grapes without subjecting them to this simple purification process.

Wild grape juice prepared with care as I have described will have a very strong but clean, refreshing grape flavor. I occasionally drink it by itself or mix it with other juices such as apple. If drank plain, most will find it necessary to dilute it. The prepared juice can now be used in recipes calling for grape juice!