When I was a kid, grapes always seemed way out of my league—totems of opulence, only to be hand-fed to goddesses and satyrs in far-off lands, in far-off ages. It was awkwardly many years before I recognized the vines, draped like velvet ropes with their hanging clusters of fruit, snaking through every thicket of my own hometown. The shabby surroundings just didn’t fit the garish scene I’d envisioned, but there they were, dangling over the moat and there were no satyrs in sight, but there I was, hungry.
When I was absolutely sure they were grapes, I crept back to the ditch and pinched off a whole bunch, admiring its weight and sweet smell. I took a single grape, closed my eyes and squeezed it between my tongue and palate, braced for an unblemished Greek flood, but what I got was grape juice. I expected to be whisked away to a place of gold filigree, but I only got as far as my last peanut butter and jelly. I had drunk all the wrong grapes. I thought they were all the same and all had something to do with wine and lust, but after a little reading I learned that there are all kinds of grapes in all sorts of places and most of them happen to be right at home in the Hedges of North America hanging around, just like me.
You actually are So so abundant here that early Norse explorers named the whole place Vinland. You might think I was disappointed that they were so provincial and that I wouldn’t get my Greek vacation, but I was genuinely over the moon to take them as my own totem – the taste of a wild American childhood.
Those first grapes I discovered were Concord grapes, and since then I’ve tasted at least six of the types native to the Northeast, with many more across the country that I have yet to taste. This large number of species can seem daunting when approached from an identification standpoint. If you are in North America, you will most likely encounter the river grape (Vitis riparia), but rest easy knowing that Everyone grapes (except muscadine) share a handful of basic characteristics that set them apart from other species, so you don’t necessarily need to know them from a foraging perspective the Grape is knowing that it is a grape.
How to Identify a Wild Grape
Look for clusters that climb along field edges, river banks, sunny openings in the woods, roadsides, waysides, and any other sunny marginal habitat that the cluster can cling to. Botanically speaking, grapes are not actually “vines”; they are “lianas”, woody climbing plants that do not support their own weight.
So you will never find a wild grape alone in an opening, they are always clinging to things like trees, fences or utility poles. However, they always cling to their supports with their tendrils, rather than twining around like other common vine plants like the Notorious Asian bittersweet.
The rind of a mature grape is brown, shaggy, and peeling — this is a key trait to distinguish a grape from plants that share a similar habitat that you don’t want to eat, particularly Virginia creeper, Canadian moonseed, Amur pepper vine , and American pokeweed.
Another key to confirming that you have a grape is the leaves. They are alternate, simple, broadly cordate, lobed (usually three large lobes ranging from flat to deep, but the leaf is never fully divided into separate leaflets), with a serrated margin and palmar veins.
The next thing to look for in a grape is the forked tendrils. The tendrils grow out of the stem opposite a leaf, green and forked, reaching for something to hold on to as this is how the plant supports itself. Once the vine finds support, it wraps itself around you in a corkscrew spiral, hardening and turning brown like the mature bark.
The last key distinguishing feature is the fruit itself and the seeds within. Bunches hang heavily beneath the leaves in elongated to conical racemes (just like in Greek mythology), although depending on pollination, predation and your timing, bunches will range from full to sparse and sometimes there will be just a single bunch here and there.
When a grape is crushed between the fingers, it has one to four pear-shaped seeds, while its cunningest doppelganger, the Canadian moonseed, has a single, hard seed shaped like a flattened quarter moon.
How to eat a wild grape
Eating a grape might seem self-explanatory, but if you’ve only had seedless table grapes from the grocery store – it’s not. Eating a wild grape fresh from the vine might surprise you. The skin is thick and nutritious, there are seeds full of tartaric acid that can irritate the tongue and gut in some people, and there’s flavor—lots of flavor. They can be fatty, tart, musky, sour, or they can taste just like Welch’s grape jelly but better.
Depending on the variety, they’re fantastic straight away or more suited to wine, liquor or raisins, but they all make excellent jelly. By “jelly” I don’t just mean grape juice cooked with sugar and pectin is a proven crowd puller. I mean the broader category of grapes, combined with some form of sweetener, cooked to somewhere on the liquid spectrum between juice and jam. This ranges from simple, sweet sauces that you drizzle over peanut butter ice cream to something savory, gooey, or even spicy that you can spread on your grouse, ducks, and geese. You can make syrup, reduction, glaze, mop sauce, hot sauce, pan sauce, add a little vinegar for an oxymel or a gastrique, use the leftovers from juicing to ferment your own vinegar, or the pulp too Fruit pressing leather.
The flavor potential of wild grapes covers as much ground as their native varieties, but almost anything you want to do with them starts with juice, which is essentially crushed grapes that are covered in water, heated, strained, and optionally sweetened. While the fruit is the star of the show, let’s not forget what makes all these fruits possible – the leaves and vines – they’re also a delight in the kitchen.
The leaves are best known for dolmas, or stuffed vine leaves, where they are fermented or pickled to preserve them, then stuffed with rice, herbs, pine nuts, and sometimes ground lamb, beef, or in my case venison. Leaves for dolmas should be harvested when they have reached full size but are still tender and easily pierced with a thumb (mid summer).
Later in the season, until frost, vine leaves are placed on top of pickles in jars because they are rich in tannins, which penetrate the brine and keep the pickles crisp. The tendrils are affectionately called “sweet forest tarts” by children across the country. For such a slim thing, they pack a real sour punch. They’re a lively and elegant addition to salads, soups and sandwiches.