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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wild Grape Jelly


Food is everywhere. Really! At least, where I live, in the great valley of Sacramento. This is farm country. If you ever fly into Sacramento, you will see a green and gold patchwork all around, with glints of light flashing up from the rivers and rice paddies. It's magic. I think we sometimes take it for granted.

Some foraging outings are easier than others. Leaves may be tricky for a beginner to identify and prepare well. But, fruit is often easy to smell, see, gather and eat. The plant's effort to grow and increase  results in generous gifts for those of us who gather and eat. I've foraged figs, blackberries, wild plums, feral pears, and elderberries. None of them are much effort, except maybe the blackberries. I spotted these grapes growing up and over elderberry bushes and bitter almond trees near my house on a levy. Usually, I'm cautious about foraging close to a road. There may be spraying. My philosophy is this - the more abandoned and unkempt the area looks, the less likely it is to be managed by chemicals. My only competition for the fruit I gathered in this spot was a raccoon. We had a bit of a staring match, then Mr./Mrs. Raccoon decided to retreat and come back again later. Very gracious and appreciated.

As I travel through this beautiful world, I find myself scanning the roadsides, open fields and public spaces. Sometimes I find treasure, like the loaded peach tree I found in an abandoned parking lot last night. Sometimes I wonder why there isn't more food growing everywhere. Why not have parking lot trees that provide shade and fruit? Granted, there may be some splats in the harvesting season. I wouldn't mind. Even a "vacant" lot in an urban neighborhood, can have tons of edible plants. Fruit is more rare than those leafy pioneer plants that populate fields, but it is out there and in abundance.



Wild grapes will range from a transparent green to deep purple as they ripen. They are smaller than table grapes and have large seeds. They taste nice, but are tricky to eat because of the seeds. If you find a ton, you could make grape juice for canning. Grapes have plenty of pectin and if you are patient, you will be rewarded with a beautiful color and wiggly set. I never really liked grape jam or jelly as a child. Those flavors just tasted like sugar to me. This tastes like concentrated grapes. You get a bit of the tannins and a rich and unexpected depth of flavor. The gathering of these grapes was well worth the effort. Like many wild foods, you have to hit it when the time is right. I gathered and made this jelly last week and the remaining grapes in my neighborhood are already drying out. Some may continue to be available at higher and cooler elevations over the summer and fall.

Wild Grape Jelly
Ripe wild grapes
Sugar
Lemon Juice

Step 1 - Make the Juice
Remove the grapes from the stems. Wash and sort them, removing grapes that are spoiled and any debris. Place the grapes in a large pot with enough water to cover the bottom by 1/2 inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat. Simmer until the grapes are soft. You can help them release their juice by mashing and stirring with a potato masher as they cook. Once the grapes are pulpy and the seems easily separate from the rest of the fruit, remove them from the heat. Line a colander with several layers of cheese cloth and place the colander over a tall pot. Gently pour in the cooked grapes. Allow the fruit to drain, undisturbed, 8 hours or overnight. Do not squeeze the fruit in the cloth. Let the juice stand for several hours to allow the tannins to settle to the bottom of the pan. Carefully pour the juice off and leave as much of the sediment behind as possible. Now your juice is ready to make into jelly.

Step 2 - Make the Jelly
Prepare the boiling water bath and several jars, lids and rings. Place some saucers and teaspoons in the freezer. Measure the grape juice. Your batch can be somewhere between 4 and 6 cups. Don't use more than 6 cups of juice. Add 3/4 cup sugar for each cup of juice. Stir to dissolve. Taste and add lemon juice to balance the sweetness. (My grapes were quite sweet and I added a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice just to balance the flavor. The lemon juice is not needed for a safe acidity with most wild grapes.) Bring the juice and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat slightly and continue to boil until the juice reaches about 220 degrees. Jelly does not visibly thicken like jam does. You can use the thermometer to let you know when to start the saucer testing. Once the temperature is reached, use one of the frozen spoons to scoop out a small amount of the jelly. Place the spoon back in the freezer for a few minutes. Observe how the jelly pours off the spoon onto the saucer. When it sheets or bloops off, push what has fallen to the saucer with your finger. If it wrinkles and mounds up, it is ready.

Remove the jelly from the heat and skim any foam. Carefully ladle the jelly into the hot, prepared jars. Leave a quarter inch head space. Wipe the rims and cover with the prepared lids and rings. Process in the boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Use your jar lifter to remove the jars from the boiling water bath, being careful to keep the jars level, and place them on a towel lined tray. Do not disturb the jars until after the seal has formed. The jelly's set will become more firm over the next few days.

I gathered two 9 X 13 baking pans full of grapes before I started this process. The grapes I gathered made 6 half-pint jars.

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