I’ll just go ahead and apologize at the beginning. This post is going to travel all over the place. So sit back and enjoy.
Scuppernong….skuuh…purr….nohhng? Is that right? I think so. So what is it? What’s it mean? I thought this was going to be about jelly?! It is. It will be. Just stick with me for a moment.
On a few occasions of scavenging adventures on The Ridge, I read about Claire foraging and collecting wild scuppernong grapes. What the heck are those?
So get ready, here’s your Outlander botany lesson for the day. While I am by no means a botanist, I can identify a wild plant or two but I’d never heard of a scuppernong anything, let alone a grape.
A quick search on the interweb taught me that this particular species of grape is native to the southeastern United States, and its name comes from the Scuppernong River in North Carolina, where the grape was first mentioned following exploration along the Cape Fear River valley in the 1500’s. This particular variety produces grapes that are fairly large, tough skinned and bronzish in color. The scuppernong grape has been used for centuries as a host plant in a variety of grape propagation uses, and according to Wikipedia, a 400 year old cultivated scuppernong vine is growing on Roanoke Island, NC making it possibly the oldest cultivated wine in the world. But do they grow anywhere near me in Virginia? Nope.
So like all things Outlandish, it was time for me to play make-believe. Claire dried scuppernong grapes to use to ward off the pernicious risk of scurvy, as well as provide sweet treats for her grandkids. While I was mostly interested in either juice or jelly, I was kind of curious to see what naturally dried raisins might be like.
While not quite as exciting as the scuppernong, the hubs and I planted a few concord grape vines a few years ago, which finally bore fruit this year. As with every gardening project, growing grapes isn’t always as easy as you’d think it would be. While the plant grows voraciously, it takes a few years (four in our case) for the plant to start bearing fruit. That’s if you make it through the spring flowering season without frost, and if you make it through the summer without plagues of blight, fungus, and/or insect predation. The 2015 grape season turned out to be just as tough, but in the end, I couldn’t give up on my ugly fruit.
We’ve had a vegetable garden for years and there’s always some frankensteinish version of a tomato, gnarled up carrot, or pathetisad ear of corn. Why would funky grapes be any different? They didn’t scare me. I’d find some way to use those sticky dusty pips.
Watching grapes ripen is a painful process. Typically the entire cluster doesn’t ripen at once, which means that a few grapes will be beautifully ripe one day, and then either fall off the vine, are eaten by bugs, or rot on the vine a few days later. I’m sure I could have picked all of the grapes a week or so earlier than I did with better results and a higher yield, but I was interested to see how the natural raisin-making process was going to go.
And in the end, did I get any raisins? No. I collected tiny dried-up dustballs of grape jerky covered in dirt and spider webs. Thanks, I’ll pass. Undoubtedly Claire had a way of collecting, drying, and then storing her scuppernongs that created beautiful little treats for Jem and Germain, which also undoubtedly ensured Jamie kept a mouthful of pearly dazzlers. But I had no such luck. Which was no big deal because I DID have enough ripe juicy grapes for something much sweeter – grape jelly.
Now, I’m not going to get into the how-to’s of making jelly. If you’ve made jelly once, you can make it again. It’s a matter of cooking down the fruit du jour, straining out the skins and seeds, and cooking the juice with your thickener (pectin) and sugar. The fine folks at Sure-Jell have inserted their multi-fruited instructions inside each and every package of their product, and it’s easy enough to follow their lead. There’s really no need for me to go through it here.
I will offer some advice. Be careful around the cooking jelly because you’ll have to cook the juice until it’s a madly boiling mess. Once you’re finished cooking, the jelly is immediately ready to be poured into jars, and it actually starts jelling soon after you take it off the heat. So work fast and have your jars clean and ready for jelly storage. This is not a project for the wee ones. Their job comes later when they can lick a cooled spoon.
If you’ve ever questioned if you’ve reached a rolling boil, this is most definitely ROLLING!
Here Comes My Soapbox
What I would like to touch on a bit now is the whole topic of ugly produce. As I mentioned above, my garden has produced a veritable freakshow of produce. But since I helped these little uglies grow, I couldn’t be so heartless to just throw them to the compost because they looked odd. I frankly liked them. But it does make one wonder, would I ever buy something like this at a store?
It turns out, we can’t. Most grocery store chains around the world have strict guidelines for what constitutes a cosmetically pleasing piece of produce. Ugly food is thrown out. And it turns out, the ugly contingent is a substantial amount. Anywhere from 20-40% of our produce isn’t “pretty” enough, so it doesn’t even make the grocery store shelves. Read more about it here:
Let’s think this through – that means roughly a quarter of our pesticides, herbicides, gasoline, are essentially wasted. Not to mention the individual farmer’s time, acreage, equipment use, and workforce are basically futile. I find that more than a little sad. With many, many Americans struggling with the cost of putting healthy food on their tables, partnered with an epidemic obesity problem, isn’t it more than a little heartbreaking that a quarter of our healthy foods are tossed because of cosmetic reasons? Not to mention the added waste produced and tossed into landfills. And let’s not get confused – this produce is tossed purely because it doesn’t meet the standard aesthetic definition of its respective fruit or veggie. It’s not unclean, diseased, or otherwise unsafe. It just isn’t pretty enough. (Starting to feel a bit like a 13 year old at your first dance?)
But…. Things are changing. Last year in France, a major grocery store chain started an entire campaign focused on ugly produce aptly named “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” and it was a huge success. Store traffic increased by almost 25% and consumers were thrilled with the discounted price of their produce, which sold for 30% less than it’s prettier counterpart.
See more here:
While I think the average American consumer might not be ready for inglorious produce, we should most definitely be sure to find uses for our ugly home-gardened varieties. Just as most of us will never have the stunning outer beauty of a Hollywood superstar, we all have something uniquely wonderful to offer. So, my suggestion – Embrace the ugly.
End of rant.
Back to the jelly.
After I finished with the jelly, I decided that I needed to create a pretty little landscape upon which to lay the literal fruits of my labor. It was an easy enough decision for me to refer to the Herself of the Outlander culinary world, and a trip the Outlander Kitchen was in order. Thus, the Falling Through Stone’s version of “Mrs. Graham’s Oatmeal Scones” by Outlander Kitchen. Find this recipe and many more here:
And folks, let me just say these were WONDERFUL. Not the dried up dust ball scones you’ve had before. The oats added a bit of chew. The buttery goodness was incredible. And a touch of ugly grape jelly added just the right amount of sweetness. Soooooo yummy. (And sidenote – I love to bake, but this was my first use of grated frozen butter. What a fantastic way to get perfectly cold bits of butter mixed into flour!)
And lastly, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about historical methods of preserving fruits, check out these links below. I found them pretty interesting and hope you do as well.
“The History of Jam” by the Museu de la Confitura
“Jelly, Flummery and Creams” on http://www.historicfoods.com