The thing about muscadine grapes is that they just smell so good.
When you hold a handful of fresh muscadines in your hands and breathe deep, it’s like inhaling summer itself, all the bright, hot sunny afternoons, all the rain-washed twilights, all the vitality and endlessness of the season condensed.
But then, you bite into the little globular fruit, and meet with resistance: How do you get past that tough, leathery skin?
Despite a lifetime of exposure to the South’s native grape, I’ve never been able to truly develop a passion for eating them due to the skin’s texture and the pebbly seeds. The spectacle and inconvenience of working the natural wrapping away from the pulp then ferreting out the seeds just turns me off. It’s unusual for me because I normally don’t shy away from full-contact foods. Watermelon slices? I’ll dive in. Boiled peanuts? Just pass the discard cup and the paper napkins. Oysters, blue crabs, crawfish? I’ll bring the Tabasco and the extra wet wipes.
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I contemplated this as I filled buckets full of muscadines recently at Baker Family Vineyard in Zebulon. The vineyard owners had graciously donated all the ripe grapes that volunteers could pick to the InterFaith Food Shuttle, and a group of us had come from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh to glean the vines. Seduced by their scent, I tried to eat a few of the grapes, but remained frustrated by the experience. I comforted myself with the thought of indulging in a glass of muscadine wine later, my thirst fueled by the perfumed air of the vineyards.
Of course, eating whole grapes and drinking the wine made from them aren’t the only ways to consume muscadines. In the vineyard that morning, I happened to be working alongside someone who simply blends up the whole, fresh grape and eats it part and parcel.
“I think they lend themselves really well for use in smoothies,” said Amanda Vargochik. “Put them in some yogurt or coconut milk, with some chia seeds … I’ve also made ice creams with them in the past.”
She advises that you’ll need a powerful blender to get the skins and the seeds smooth enough to drink. Vargochik advocates the use of the entire grape because the skins and the seeds are so rich in the beneficial nutrients that muscadines are famous for. The grapes have been implicated as potentially beneficial in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation, cancer and diabetes.
Vargochik devoted her time as a master’s student at N.C. State University to researching methods for processing and storing muscadines in a way that most effectively preserves these nutritional benefits. Her research focused on continuous flow microwave processing of whole muscadine grape puree and its potential as a food product.
With more than 1,000 acres of land in North Carolina dedicated to growing muscadine grapes, more and better methods for using the entire grape could have profound implications. Many winemakers have been finding uses for the whole grape in nutritional products, like Duplin Winery’s Muscadine Grape Seed antioxidant supplement, or its line of skin care products, for years.
But what about those of us who want to take the easy way out and simply sip the fruits of the native vine? Are some muscadine wines better for us than others? What if I pick a wine that spent some time soaking with the grape skins rather than one made with just the juice of the grape? Would that be a healthy choice?
Vargochik said she would assume that to be true. Longer exposure to the skins and seeds would mean a higher concentration of the bioactives, she said.
For this, I recommend Duplin’s Queen Anne’s Revenge 100 percent muscadine wine. It’s a bold, interesting wine that spends several days in contact with the muscadine skins during production. When you stick your nose in, it rewards you with that aroma of summer days condensed. And you don’t have to worry about what to do with the skins.
Reach Nimocks at email@example.com.