Now here is something we don’t have in New England. They look an awful lot like our gooseberries—same colors, similar translucence, bigger, although the smaller ones close to some of our giant gooseberries—but they are no family relation, genetically speaking.
The muscadine is a large grape with a very tough skin, sometimes referred to as a hull, that is native to the South. It is primarily used for making jams, jellies, and wine, although some people eat muscadines as table grapes; apparently, there is a local art to using the teeth to puncture the skin, suck and scrape out the flesh, and, presumably, spit out the seeds. I haven’t seen it done, and haven’t tried to master it myself. There are many varieties of muscadine, and for some reason the green ones are always called scuppernongs, even though they are, like the others, technically muscadines. Not sure why it’s not just black (or red) and green muscadine, but the South, like most regions, works in mysterious ways when it comes to naming its food. New Englanders being among the most egregious of odd food-namers, I accept the distinction and use it here out of respect.
In a side-by-side test, the scuppernong is intensely sweet and simpler and more straightforward in taste, while the darker (red/black) muscadine has a, well, musky undertone and is slightly less sweet. The scuppernong flesh is also a little greener, the muscadine flesh still green but a little subdued. When I first tasted muscadine jam at a James Beard Foundation dinner at the Belle Meade Plantation during my first week living in Nashville, I really wasn’t sure what it was made from; “grape” did not immediately spring to mind, so I now think it may have been made without using the skins, which hold a tremendous amount of unusual but markedly grapey flavor. Many jam recipes call for chopping up the skin and blending it into the preserve. In the recipe below, not liking the idea of lots of bits of skin in the final product, I pureed them. As I was making this, originally with the objective of a jam, I loved the look of the green flesh in the red syrup so much that I decided to allow the fruit to remain whole and cook it just to a saucy consistency. This meant that I wouldn’t mush up the fruit first and strain out the seeds. Never having made anything with muscadines/scuppernongs before I’m not sure whether I will come to regret making an aesthetic choice. I suppose I can always put the sauce through a food mill again and sieve out the seeds if they turn out to really be unpalatable; I will keep you posted as I use it. But for now, the sauce is very pretty.
Tennessee Muscadine and Scuppernong Sauce
Cover the hulls with just enough water to cover them and bring to a boil, cooking until soft, about 10 minutes and being careful not to scorch (add more water if necessary). Put the hulls through a food mill directly into the pan holding the muscadine flesh—it will equal about a cup of purple puree. Add the sugar, salt, lemon, and cardamom, stirring gently. Bring to a boil and then cook, lowering the heat somewhat so it boils but not too wildly, stirring occasionally. Add the whiskey, and continue cooking until it reaches a soft gel stage, about 10 minutes. Put into jars.
To skin (hull) muscadines: Using your fingernail, pull a slice of the skin back from the stem end and then squeeze out the fruit; do this over the pan in which you will make the sauce to catch the juice. Scrape as much remaining flesh from the hull in the process. Set the hulls aside in another pan. Another method is to whack the muscadine with the flat side of a heavy knife, splitting the skin and popping out the fruit, but I think using your fingers is more efficient.