I eat grape jam about four times a year, other family members eat much more of it, but it is me who plans the annual trip out to the u-pick to fill our buckets with grapes.
We got up early on Sunday as planned, slapped on the sunscreen and big hats, had a quick bite and were out the door as the fog was burning off, which meant we were leaving just a little later than we should have.
At the vineyard, there were two other families already there, one, clearly early risers, were leaving. As we exited the car the farmer started pulling out the picking buckets for us. He directed us to the variety that most jelly makers prefer Ison, rather than Black Fry and we headed out to the vines. Muscadine grapes are different from any other grapes I have ever seen. They have the dark skin and gelatinous insides like the Concord, but they are almost the size of a small plum. Every year I marvel at their enormity.
We each took our bucket and we headed for the far end of the vineyard, hoping that the fruit would be less picked over since it was a longer walk. There was plenty of fruit, some of it had already gone by, but there still was a huge amount of perfectly ripe fruit left on the vines. We started to pick. Knowing that the fruit hangs down below the vines where you cannot see it, I crawled underneath. I checked for fire ants, finding it clear, I kneeled on the ground. The grapes were just above my head, as I tried to ignore the thoughts of the giant Florida spiders as the leaves brushed my hair. I began to pick, just barely touching the ripe ones as they fell into my hands and then into the bucket.
I picked some and then tossed one into my mouth. Immediately, I was transported back to 1970’s Massachusetts, to the grape vine alongside my grandparents’ driveway with my cousins running around with my sisters. The flashes continued for the rest of the day as the scents, sights and smells nudged my memory.
My daughter ran amongst the vines, picked a few grapes, studied the bugs and chattered more than the squirrels. Between the three of us, we picked two and one half buckets of grapes, weighing in at 16.06 lbs. They were a bargain at $1 lb.
We brought them home to begin the jam and juice making. The scent of the grapes in the big stock pot as they warmed was my time machine back this time to my mom’s steam filled kitchen in Rhode Island, with newspapers spread all over the table, with the food mill, big pots, pans, ladles and spoons and boiling mason jars. My kitchen right down to the style of the food mill was the same, except we used a dark colored towel instead of newspaper to catch the drips, because we read the news on-line. The cutting board turned a glorious shade of splotched purple, just as I remembered.
My daughter clearly enjoyed extracting the juice from grapes, “Squish this!” was an instruction I did not have to repeat or encourage, it just happened. I filled the mill with hot grapes, she rotated the pestle until the skins were dry and the pot underneath was filled with thick juice, and then requested more to squish. She seemed to know when the next batch from the stove was ready to squish, because she would disappear for a while, but as soon as the food mill was prepped for more she was right there, purple pestle in hand.
The whole hot, steamy, messy affair tangibly produced six pints of jam and three quarters of a gallon of juice, which will probably end up as jelly, since none of us drink much grape juice. The intangible products will have to wait thirty or so years, when my daughter craves connection to her past and the past of the women before her,and buys herself a food mill.
I use a cone shaped mill with a cone shaped pestle, there are many types which can be found in antique shops for about $40,or in the church thrift shop where my mom socializes weekly for about $3, I understand that she practically dove across the room to get it for me when it came in.
Janet's Grape Jam
Adapted Recipe from Ball Blue Book:
2 quarts Muscadine or Concord Grapes
6 cups sugar
Wash and de-stem grapes.
Place in a stock pot and cook over low heat until the grapes begin to burst.
Place some in a food mill set over a large pot. and process until the grape skins are nearly dry and the juice ceases to flow. Repeat until this procedure until all grapes are processed. (I don't have the patience for the process in the book of separating the skins and pulp and processing separately, apparently my mom doesn't either, because I know she has never done that)
Add sugar to the pot of juice. Bring slowly up to heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Then bring to a boil and stir frequently until it reaches the gelling point, the spoon that you stir with will cool and it will gel on it, then it is ready. Skim foam. Pour jam into sterilized canning jars leaving 1/4 in head space and process 15 minutes.