Make Your Own Great Grape Jelly!

Part 1 – Picking Grapes

168::365  strawberry jam
Creative Commons License photo credit: .j.e.n.n.y.

Almost everyone enjoys jam or jelly on their toast or in a peanut butter sandwich.  But how many of you have ever made your own?  It’s certainly not necessary from an economic point of view – commercial jams and jellies are relatively cheap – but making homemade jams and jellies is fun, easy and satisfying!  Perhaps the best part is picking the fresh fruit – that can be a fun outdoor adventure for the whole family.

Fruit preserves such as jams and jellies have a long history.  The tradition probably originated in the Middle East and was brought back to Europe by the Crusaders.  Many different fruits can be used – the only limitation is the imagination of the cook and/or seasonal availability.  Sugar (or another sweetener such as honey) is an essential ingredient, unless you are making a “fruit spread,” which does not contain added sugar.

Another essential ingredient is pectin.  Found in the cell walls of plants, pectin is what makes jams and jellies “jell.”  Some fruits, such as apples, naturally contain enough pectin that none needs to be added.  Others, such as strawberries and grapes, don’t “jell” easily on their own.  Extra pectin, usually derived from apples or citrus peel, must be added to these fruits along with sufficient amounts of sugar.

The earliest recipes for fruit preserves come from the world’s first known book of recipes, written in the first century by a Roman author.  Entire books on making jams were published in the late 1600s.  In the United States, early settlers picked native fruits and preserved them with honey or maple sugar.  Apple parings provided pectin when needed.   Apple “butter” was invented in this country in the early 1900’s by the Smucker family at their cider mill.  And in 1917, Paul Welch obtained a patent for a pureed grape product he called “Grapelade.”  His first batch was sent to our troops in France during WWI – and after the war, the demand continued.

Today, strawberry jam and grape jelly are far and away the most popular varieties of fruit preserves in the US.  Other popular flavors are raspberry jam, orange marmelade, and apple jelly.  In addition to all the fruit flavors, jams and especially jellies can be flavored with vegetables or herbs:  mint or jalapenos, for example, are often added to a base of apple jelly.  

So, I hope you are intrigued enough by this ancient art to want to try it for yourself.  I have spent the last few weekends picking and processing over 30 pounds of wild “mustang” grapes.  And I’m hoping that I can find time this coming weekend to do another batch.

Weintrauben Fläsch
Grape Vineyard
Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

There are several species of wild grape native to Harris County, but most do not have edible fruit.  Mustang grapes (Vitis mustangensis) are one of the most common grapes in our area and are easily recognizable by the leaves, which are covered with a grayish white wool on the underside (so these leaves are NOT the best for making stuffed grape leaves!).  The fruit looks very much like domestic Concord grapes – dark purple, almost black when ripe, often with a bluish bloom on their surface.  The peel slips easily off the whitish, juicy fruit inside.  When ripe they are quite tart, and not unpleasant tasting – but a word of caution!  Mustang grapes are very acidic, and most of us can’t eat more than a couple before our mouths are burned by the acid.  However, these grapes make an absolutely delicious jelly, and I’m told make great wine as well. 

The best place to find mustang grapes is along bayous or fencerows in semi-wild areas.  The vines may grow high up in trees, in which case the fruit is out of reach.  You need to look for someplace where the vines come close to the ground – and be aware that there are both male and female grape vines (the male vines are necessary to fertilize the fruit on the female vines, but never produce fruit themselves).  This year, the female vines are loaded with fruit so keep looking until you find a patch with accessible clusters.  Grab your kids, or mom, or friends, and go pick!

Come back next week for instructions on how to make jelly from the grapes you pick…

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