Grape Expectations

I finally got grapes!

I am pretty sure the foragable clusters I found are riverbank grapes (Vitis riparia), based on the blistering levels of tartaric acid in the fruit. I nibbled a few and regretted it, because the high acid levels left my tongue and lips stinging. Sometimes the tartaric acid is so powerful, it can hurt your hands when working with the grapes. Can you imagine crushing grapes in a big vat with your feet and the acid eating away at your flesh? If Eurasian grapes had been anything like American grapes, viticulture may never have been a thing, and the world would be very different indeed!

I left my harvest outside in the shade for a while to give any arthropodal immigrants a chance to escape before I began the serious business of separating fruit from stem.

Wild grapes ready to strip from the stems
Wild grapes ready to strip from the stems

Picking the grapes off the stems was tedious, but no more so than many other things I have done in the name of wild food: processing sumac drupes, cleaning elderberries, winnowing amaranth, or most recently, trying to extract enough black cherry kernels to try making mahlab. (No, I still don’t have enough!) I did not use gloves, because I wanted to see whether the acid levels really were so bad I would feel it on my skin. However I didn’t get enough juice on my hands to make a fair assessment. It did sting mightily when the juice got into a cut on my finger though.

I reserved the greenest grapes hoping there might be enough to try verjuice. In retrospect, I should have just included them with the rest of the grapes. It’s not like wild grapes get sweet as they ripen, so a handful of extra tart ones would have blended right in!

Not enough green grapes to make verjuice
Not enough green grapes to make verjuice

I have read that the grape stems can be saved for future meat smoking opportunities. Smoking meat is not one of those things I’ve mastered, so into the compost mine went.

In all I ended up with over four cups of grapes.

My wild grape harvest - over four cups!
My wild grape harvest – over four cups!

I crushed the grapes carefully using a muddler with a relatively wide end to distribute the pressure more evenly. (Yes, I have multiple muddlers for different jobs; don’t judge.) I only processed a handful of grapes at a time. I read online that if the seeds get crushed they can give the juice a bitter flavor, and I didn’t want to find that out the hard way.

First the squished grapes went into a wire mesh strainer over a bowl, where I used the muddler to press more juice out. Then I transferred the pits and pulp to a jelly bag (okay, actually my big fat nut sack) and squeezed as hard as I could. Then I repeated the whole process for the next small batch of grapes.

Once I had wrung out as much juice as possible, I simmered the skins and seeds in a small pot with just enough water to cover for about 30 minutes. I don’t remember the website where I learned this trick, but it helps free up juice hiding in the bits you are about to discard. I’m hoping it also rendered the seeds inert, since I composted the remains and the last thing I need is grape vines sprawling out of my compost bins! I strained the pulp one more time in another jelly bag, and ended up with about three cups of juice.

In theory the seeds could be pressed for grapeseed oil which is very healthy. Unfortunately I lack the mechanism to do so.

The most important step of this whole process: the juice rested in the fridge overnight to allow the tartaric acid to settle out.

Allowing the tartaric acid to settle out of the grape juice
Allowing the tartaric acid to settle out of the grape juice

You can clearly see the line across the bottom of the container that marks where the tartaric acid is.

Once I pour off the juice, I should have about 2.5 cups remaining in order to … um … well, I’m not sure. The primary uses for wild grape juice appears to be jelly or wine, and this really isn’t enough juice for either! It’s waaaaaaaaaaay too tart to drink straight, if you were wondering! My options are to freeze it until I have more wild grapes to process – unlikely, given that it has taken me this long to even get this paltry amount – or blend it with some other juice (even store bought grape juice, perhaps). Sometimes I forget the hardest part of foraging is deciding how to use your bounty! (All 2.5 cups of it.) What would you do?

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