Tough Enough 

What to make of the muscadine grape.

Researchers at the USDA Agricultural Service and Mississippi State University have recently discovered that France's red wine and the South's muscadine grape share a common ingredient. It's called resveratrol, which acts as a natural "heart guard." Red wine shows high concentrations of resveratrol, but muscadines have an even higher concentration, especially in their skins.

Resveratrol consumption in France has been linked to its countrymen's intake of red wine, which in turn creates what is now commonly known as the "French Paradox." The paradox is that in France few people die of coronary heart disease, even though they indulge in a relatively high-fat diet.

The good news for us? We might just be one step away from a "Southern Paradox." Two ounces of unfiltered muscadine juice have twice as much resveratrol as two ounces of red wine.

While older people from rural parts of the South might remember their mom's muscadine jam, the sweet and musky flavor of muscadine wine, or the bitterness of a fresh muscadine's skin, today they'd be lucky to find a grocery store that sells muscadines. We found them at the farmers' market at the Agricenter.

Muscadines are wild grapes first discovered in 1524 by the explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano in North Carolina's Cape Fear River Valley. It was most likely named after the French muscat grape, which is similar in its sweet flavor and musky scent. The grape Verrazzano found, unlike the common dark-purple grape, is a greenish bronze and also known as a scuppernong, after a small town in North Carolina where it was first grown. Because it thrives in a warm and humid climate, the muscadine is largely grown in the South, with most of the grapes being used to make wine and juice.

Many different varieties of muscadines have been cultivated since Verrazzano's discovery, but the fruit is still that firm, tough-skinned, seed-studded, marble-size grape that for many is only edible if processed in a certain way. A fresh muscadine has a more pronounced flavor than a garden-variety red, seedless grape found at the grocery store. It's in season from mid-September until late-October and is hand-harvested since not all muscadines on one vine ripen at the same time.

The secret to enjoying the muscadine is in your approach. One way is to simply pop it in your mouth and chew. But if you don't care for the grape's tough skin and bitter seeds, you can try squeezing and spitting. First, you squeeze the grape's pulp into your mouth. Then you separate the pulp and seeds, spitting out the seeds or swallowing them whole.

If that's not for you, there are a number of other ways of removing the skin and straining the seeds for jam or jellies. Muscadines also make delicious fall pies and cobblers (using pulp and skin, no seeds). And there is always wine, juice, and research.

At the USDA Southern Horticultural Laboratory in Poplarville, Mississippi, geneticist Steve Stringer is working hard to cultivate a more consumer-friendly muscadine -- maybe even one that is seedless.

"Our goal is to come up with cultivars that have softer skin, melting flesh, and less bitterness but still have that characteristic muscadine flavor," Stringer says.

But a more appealing muscadine might mean a less disease-resistant plant and possibly lower resveratrol levels -- the very quality that makes the skin so tough and the grape so good for your heart. It is the paradox to the "Southern Paradox."

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