Humans have been using grapes for thousands of years
There are over 60 species of wild grapes world-wide and North America has over a dozen. Many of them are quite hardy and can survive well up into Canada. In fact, it is believed by many that the name Vinland, given to the area by Lief Erikson in about 1000 C.E. describes the Viking settlement in Newfoundland because of the wild grape vines they found there. Wild grapes have been an important food and medicine ingredient since before writing was invented. Archaeological discoveries indicate that grapes have been in use and cultivated by humans since before 6500 B.C.E. and we have been consuming them for thousands of years before that. When fermentation was discovered, wine became the preferred drink since the water was generally unsafe to consume. Even babies were given watered wine because the alcohol content killed much of the harmful bacteria that could cause sickness.
Grapes can be part of a healthy diet
Grapes were used as both food and medicine. All ancient cultures had deities associated with grapes and wine. Everyone from the ancient Greeks and Romans to the Celts and Native Americans had spiritual connections to the grape. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are well documented and may help prevent cardio-vascular disease. They also contain lutein which is good for your eyes. They contain potassium and vitamins C and K along with several other trace components that are essential for health.
Foraging wild grapes
This past week, I discovered a massive wild grapevine, full of grapes in a nearby thicket. A small spring wanders through it and the ground stays quite moist just about all of the time. Willow trees are a perfect trellis for this massive grape vine. It was hanging full of hundreds of clusters of the smallest grapes I’ve ever seen. They looked like BB’s. A quick look at the leaves and a quicker taste of a few of the grapes confirmed the identification. These are native frost grapes Vitis vulpina. There are riverbank grapes and fox grapes that are all similar. They are small grapes too, however the frost grapes have the smallest fruits. They stretched for at least 40 feet up and around the trees with many side branches. The vines were hanging so heavy in the willow trees that they were almost pulling them over. I decided that it was time to relieve those willow trees of some of that excess weight before the birds beat me to it.
Prepare grapes for making jelly
I quickly cut the grape clusters into a five gallon bucket and despite the clouds of mosquitoes, quickly filled it. However, my work was just beginning. I’m going to make wild grape jelly and the process is pretty labor intensive. These tiny, seedy little grapes have to be picked from their stems, crushed, cooked down and strained. Then, the juice has to sit overnight and strained again. It took about three hours to pick all of the little grapes off of the stems and the five gallon bucket of grape bunches was reduced to a gallon and a half of just grapes. I definitely have respect for my ancestors and what they went through just to put food on their tables. In retrospect, I should have borrowed my friend’s mehu-liisa. This is a juice extraction system using steam from Finland and anyone who makes jelly or wine should invest in one. I’d used it several years ago with apples. I’ve done a second batch of grapes with the mehu-liisa and it was much easier, plus the fact that the juice is pure and all sediment is left with the husks.
Making wild grape jelly
I poured the grapes into a large stockpot and added ¼ cup of water for each quart of grapes. That meant I added 1 and ½ cups of water. I turned the heat on and let the grapes warm. When they were simmering, I used my stick blender to crush them and release the juice. They simmered for about 20 minutes and then I poured them into a fine strainer to separate the juice from the skins and all of those tiny seeds. These little grapes are mostly seed, however they do produce a wonderful deep purple juice, that those who use natural dye love as well. I let the grapes drain their juice into a bowl and stirred it several times to help it along. When it had quit dripping, I placed the juice in the refrigerator overnight. This lets the sediment settle. The next day, I strained it again and was careful to leave the sediment in the bowl. I ended up with about 4 cups of juice.
Two ways to make wild grape jelly
The recipe calls for three cups of sugar to four cups of juice. It is ok to add a little water to the juice if you are a bit short. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat until the jelly is done. After about 15 minutes, I spooned a bit of the juice on a plate and put it in the freezer for a few minutes. If it jells, your jelly is ready. (A side note here, if you boil the jelly too long it turns to a thick, taffy-like candy.) If you are unsure about doing this, then use a commercial pectin. You bring the juice and the pectin to a boil and then add the sugar. When it comes to a boil again, boil for one minute and your jelly is done. Bottle up into canning jars and seal. I processed my jelly in a boiling water bath for five minutes as well.
Make positive identification on anything you forage from the wild
When foraging wild grapes, make a positive identification. There are several similar plants with purple berries that are toxic. Canada moonseed is probably the worst, although Virginia creeper and pokeweed are also not safe to eat. Poison ivy also has berries, however those are creamy colored. Make a positive identification of the leaves. Grapes are distinctive and the other plant’s leaves are dissimilar. Foraging from the wild is fun and rewarding, however you must be able to positively identify whatever you are harvesting and that you get permission from any land owner before you forage. Also, I never take all of the fruit. Leave some for the birds and small animals. This is a good wildlife forage as well and they will thank you.
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