After a decade in North Carolina, surrounded by mountains four-hundred and eighty million years old, I can now say y’all in a smooth velvety way, without flinching (at least in my head), but during my first summer in Asheville as I walked through the Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market I wouldn’t have dared.
During this excursion I smelled a sweet, intoxicating, honey-like aroma I had never encountered before. Soon I came upon the culprit – rows and rows of large green and purple grapes in light blue cardboard cartons.
“What are these?!” I asked the bone-thin woman in her eighties selling them, whose tight ashen curls had probably been in curlers the night before.
“Scuppernongs and muscadines,” she said, matter-of-factly.
I fell in love with them right there.
Scuppernong: this fun, playful word’s singsong feel, which I still cannot say without a smile on my face, was as much a discovery to my vocabulary as the taste of this new grape was to my palette. Little did I know, I had encountered the official state fruit of North Carolina.
They are much larger than your average grapes and perfectly globular. The deep purple ones are aubergine in hue; the light green are slightly transparent and speckled, with hints of gold, but their thick skin makes them more opaque.
When you bite into them, the tough, tart skin bursts open to the sweet, firm jelly inside, that slips away from the skin instantly, a delicious surprise once you bypass the first crisp bite into the bitter skin; The honey floral essence with hints of ferment infuses into this unusual musky grape and makes them complex like no other grape you will ever eat. The large bitter seeds don’t get in the way of enjoying the pleasure of each one.
According to “State Fruit: Scuppernong Grape,” by Jessica Lee Thompson, from the North Carolina History website, a Scuppernong is the large green variety in the muscadine family. The purple ones are usually called muscadines though there are several different varieties within those general categories
Early settlers named muscadines after the French Muscat grape, but muscadines are native to the southern United States. The oldest known living vine is over 400 years old and still active, covering half an acre on Roanoke Island (I must see it someday), and the first wines made in the United States were actually made from North Carolina Scuppernongs.
You can buy muscadine wine and Scuppernong jam, but my favorite way to eat them is fresh from the vine. You can only get them once a year in this area, around the cusp between summer and fall, so it has become something I look forward to every year.
Today I went to the Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market and bought two bushels of Scuppernongs from the same woman who first revealed them to me. The bittersweet of each one mirrors the transition between summer and fall.
They are best enjoyed while looking out over the mountains when the leaves do their magical costume change across the Blue Ridge.