Wild grapes will always have a special place in my heart: they’re the first wild fruit I ever picked, tasted, and really enjoyed cooking with. I first read about wild grapes that grow in the Midwest in the book The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer. After I was primed to notice them, like a lot of other plants, I started to see them everywhere.
They love to grow alongside roads, and the edges of forests and parks. I know a number of parks around that have huge wild grape populations right in their parking lot that produce. Really anywhere that gets more sun that in the thick of the woods you will find these. My grandmother has a wild grape vine that has grown up her trellises on the side of their deck, their friends come every year to pick the grapes and make wine with them. Wild grape wine is great, sure, but wild grape jelly is even better.
When Summer is peaking in the Midwest, generally around August for me, I might start to pick wild grapes. My harvest plan begins much earlier though. If you’re out hiking for other things like mushrooms, herbs and plants during the growing season, it’s easy to see where the grapes will be fruiting heavy– I like to take a picture on my phone and make a note of really good patches and places to come back to. When the grapes are ripe, deeply colored and filled with juice (filled is relative here) I strip them from the branches and put them in a box or something that won’t rip if it gets damp. Plastic food-grade cambros, cardboard, and under-bed containers are good too, since the grapes are spread out horizontally so as to not crush the fruit on the bottom.
Once I bring the grapes home, I try to process them quickly so they don’t dry out in the fridge. Here’s what I do: I remove the wild grapes from the vines, which I might dry and save for smoking if I feel like it, then wash the grapes to remove any grit. Next I put the grapes in a stock pot and add water up to about an inch below the grapes, and bring the mixture to a simmer. When it’s hot, I mash the grapes gently, then pass them through a food mill. The resulting juice is what I use for jams and jellies.
You can use raw wild grape juice too, and I have a great recipe using the byproduct skins and seeds that it produces, but you’ll get a lot less juice, and it’s very, very strong. Wild grape juice is not something you’re going to be pouring into a juice glass for breakfast, since it’s incredibly tart, but also since it has tartaric acid crystals that can cause loose bowels when drunk in quantity. I can’t drink the juice raw at all, as my tongue is sensitive to it, and I know others that share my sensitivity. Don’t let that stop you though, wild grapes are still one of the most bountiful, delicious wild fruits I’ve tasted, you just need to know how to use them.
Wild Grape Leaves
The leaves confused me for a while, since a certain chef I worked for told me they were inedible as they were tough. He was wrong–wild grape leaves are exactly the same grape leaves sold in stores, but it did take me a couple years, and dating a Greek woman to figure it out. In hindsight, I should’ve just looked up a Greek cookbook, or a blog. The best part is that wild grape leaves can be harvested while you’re checking on grapes growing throughout the season, as once the grapes are ready, a lot of the leaves will be past-prime. I can collect hundreds of leaves from a single vine or two in an hour if I’m working quickly.
So yes, grape leaves are edible, and fantastic for their most traditional use: stuffing. Since they’re tough, tannic and sour, you’re not going to be making a salad out of them, although I’ve had some preparations where the leaves are pickled or fermented and then cut into pieces and used in dishes.
Personally, I really only ferment them for long term preservation so I can stuff them, and I would challenge you to find a better way to enjoy the leaves. If you’ve ever had commercially pickled grape leaves, they can be very strong on the vinegar, and I know plenty of people that don’t care for them. Wild grape leaves you pick yourself though, are a blank canvas for whatever flavor you like.