Scuppernong grapes are big, juicy, burnished bronze, golden, green delicacies native to the southeastern United States. The indigenous fruit is a variety of the muscadine grape that was first domesticated in the 17th century. As the state fruit of North Carolina, the grape is named for the Scuppernong River off the Albemarle Sound. The grapes thrive on perennial vines in full sun to grow firm fruit with a sweet Southern fragrance ready for harvest in late August and early September.
This delicious local fruit is readily available in both grocery stores and at the farmers markets in 20 pound-plus baskets, usually mid to late August. In addition to smelling the distinctive aroma of the grapes before purchasing, the experienced scuppernong aficionado might pop a grape in their mouth, suck out the pulp from the skin, then spit out the skin and very bitter seeds to test the sweetness of the fruit. While all may not consider the grape pleasant to eat on its own, the fat, thick skins and juicy flesh flavor are great for making the famous Scuppernong white wine and a variety of homemade jams, jellies, and preserves.
Once the harvest is ripe and available, my early fall ritual begins, usually with one or some of my children and now grandchildren, to make our family recipe for Spiced Grapes. Handed down to us through my stepfather, Col. Jim Lovelace, the recipe has been a very guarded secret, shared only with a select few. However, having now made the condiment for the past 30 years, I can share the recipe knowing that the process is only perfected over numerous experiences in the kitchen. It takes time, patience, and testing and is not for the faint of heart.
Luckily, I had “Jimbo,” as my children affectionately called him, as a teacher, and we were able to master the art of making what he aptly called “pure gold” under his tutelage. The jars are hidden high in my kitchen cabinets, out of reach of poachers, and used or given to special friends sparingly throughout the year to complement game, pork, and roast recipes … or often on a hot biscuit to experience the full flavor. I wish you luck in your attempts to make this delicacy. Set aside a day and persevere — it’s worth it!
Purchase canning jars and boil to sterilize, set aside. (This recipe fills about 19 half-pint, widemouth jars). Wash 10 pounds of scuppernong grapes, removing debris. Making a slit in the hard skin of each grape, squeeze the pulp and seed from the skins, putting them into separate bowls. Some of the pulp will stay in the grape skin — and this is fine. Set aside.
Put the pulp in a saucepan and simmer on the stove, stirring occasionally, until the seeds begin to separate from the flesh. This takes about 45 minutes. Remove from the heat and begin the process of totally separating the seeds from the pulp. The most efficient way is to use a food mill attached to a bowl. The grinder forces the pulp through the strainer into the bowl, leaving the seeds behind to discard.
Put grape skins and pulp in a large, 12-quart stockpot. Add 5 pounds of sugar, 2 cups of vinegar, and 1 tablespoon of ground cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and mace. Stir over low heat until grapes reach jam consistency. This takes 1½ to 2½ hours. Testing for doneness can be complicated and tedious. One method is to put a saucer in the freezer and when the jam looks the right thickness, put a bit of jam on the cold plate. Let this rest briefly, then taste and look to see if it feels ready. Practice makes perfect, year by year.
Fill the jars with the spiced grapes while fairly hot and cap right away. As the jam cools, the caps will seal.