The Wrath of Grapes
As foraging becomes more and more popular there is a lot of well placed concern over the impact that increased consumption of foraged goods has on populations of wild plants. Species such as ramps, ginseng, trout lily, and Solomon’s seal are all slow growing and delicate, and very much at risk of being over-harvested by zealous foragers. Fortunately there are a great many wild edibles that are so fast growing and widespread that this is not an issue for them. People regularly group garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and nettle amongst these, but one plant that is sometimes neglected in this category is wild grape.
Wild grapes are incredibly fast growing and vigorous. They’re easily found throughout the northeast in cities and rural areas alike. I have so many behind my house that when I try to cut small trees they’ll hang suspended after I make the cut at the bottom, held up by the wild grapevines growing in the canopy. They’re perennial, meaning that the same plant returns year after year. There are approximately sixty different species of “wild grape” in North America, fifty odd of which are native to the continent. In fact, there were so many grapes growing here when Leif Erikson landed in modern day Newfoundland that he christened it “Vinland”.
When identifying wild grape it’s good to be aware of several look alikes, including Virginia creeper and Boston ivy. This article has some good pointers to help you out. By paying attention to the points mentioned there it’s easy to pick out wild grape from the imposters and put it to good use.
There are three parts of the wild grape that I commonly use. Year round I harvest the vine itself and burn it as cooking wood or for smoking. Like most fruitwood it has a pleasant, mild flavor, and when I’m pulling a bunch of vine off of trees anyway it’s a great way to get good use out of the product for all the work that goes into removing it. To use the grapevine you’ll want to store it somewhere nice and dry for at least several months before using it because the vine are absolutely saturated with water. Often they’ll drip when you cut them, and after sitting around for a few days they’ll continue to weep moisture in the form of small clear drops of gel-like fluid on the cut ends. Once they’re dried they burn wonderfully though, and simply adding a piece to a charcoal fire or using a firebox on a gas grill is enough to give a wonderful smoky flavor to anything you cook on the grill.
While I also have uses for the small grapes themselves they aren’t ready to harvest until fall, preferable after first frost when the cold weather makes them concentrate their sugars. In the meantime I content myself with using their leaves. Wild grape leaves can be used just like domesticated grape leaves are. Most commonly they’re used to make dolmas or dolmatas by rolling them around a rice based stuffing, although you can apply that concept to any stuffing you would like. To cut down on the labor of rolling individual dolmas I also like to make a “grape leaf pie”, basically a casserole of layered grape leaves and stuffing that gets baked and cut into squares before serving.
To use wild grape leaves for either of these purposes it’s as simple as picking them and blanching them. You’ll want to pick them before they get too tough, usually before July. The leaves come in a variety of shapes depending on which species you’re using. While they’re all edible it’s more practical to harvest leaves that don’t have deep lobes, these are easier to roll into dolmas due to their unbroken broad shape. To blanch them I simply trim off the stem and drop them into a pot of boiling water for about sixty seconds. Remove and place in a bowl of cold water to cool. They’re pretty hardy and I don’t typically worry about them falling apart if they get overcooked a little. If you have a lot and would like to save them they freeze beautifully. Simply blanch and pack into small freezer bags, pressing out as much air as possible before placing in the freezer. They can then be thawed at your convenience and used the same as freshly blanched leaves.