Monday, July 27, 2009

Discover if you have the grape de-seeding gene

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 27, 2009)

I got a call last week from friend and grape grower, Tommy Free.

"The grapes will be ready on August 1st," he said. "We got a lot of good rain this year and the vines seem to be producing even bigger grapes than usual."

Free has been producing purple muscadine and bronze-colored scuppernong grapes on the west side of Clermont's Lake Apshawa since his parents moved there from Ocoee in 1987. In the 18 years since our family has lived in south Lake County, I don't think we've missed a single August grape harvest. Picking grapes is one of my favorite late summer rituals.

After receiving Free's call, I e-mailed Jenny in Massachusetts and Timmy in Seattle.

"Tommy's grapes will be ripe when you visit," I wrote my two out-of-state children. "When you get home we can go over and pick them together."

Jenny has been hankering for Florida fruit. "Will there be ripe starfruit when we're there?" she asked a few weeks ago. I had to tell her no. Last winter's freeze severely damaged our carambola tree — commonly called starfruit because that's what the fruit looks like when sliced. Although new leaves have since formed, it is nowhere near harvest time. Ditto for the papayas, another of Jenny's favorite Florida treats.

"Figs and grapes," I told her, "that's what will be ripe when you arrive."

Timmy likes both but Jenny is not a big fan of the former. That's because, like her father, she has difficulty de-seeding certain types of fruit.

"How can you eat them that way?" Ralph always asks when I sit down to consume dozens of scuppernongs in rapid succession.

I have no idea. It's an unconscious act. That's not the case for Ralph or Jenny. I've always found it perplexing that both lack the oral dexterity needed to separate a seeded grape's individual parts. They have the same problem with pitted fruits like cherries and loquats. Are such abilities (or lack thereof) inheritable traits? Are some of us actually born with a fruit de-seeding gene?

If there is such a gene, three of our four children inherited it from me. Not only do I adore the sweet flavor of scuppernongs, I actually like the process of separating the tough skin and small seeds from the juicy flesh. Part of the fun in eating muscadine and scuppernong grapes is the process — pick them, pop them into your mouth, squeeze out the flesh, spit out the seeds and wait while an aromatic landmine of sweetness explodes in your mouth.

The best way to enjoy the amazing sweetness of a Florida grape is to pick them yourself. Fortunately, Free's vineyard is one of several local u-pick farms that have survived the economically unstable times. According to the Web site, there are eight farms in Central Florida, including Free's Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery, providing u-pick muscadine grapes to the public. Like all small farms, it's best to call ahead before visiting for availability, hours and price.

Grapes grow on vines trained to twine around horizontal wires. This makes them easy to pick without much bending or reaching. Look under leaves for the ripest clusters and be selective. The softer, darker skinned muscadines and the more bronzy-colored scuppernongs are the sweetest. In less time than it takes to stand in the checkout line at the grocery store, you can fill a bag with golden and purple fruit, pay for them and be on your way.

Florida is famous worldwide for its citrus fruit and coconut palms but even many longtime residents are unaware that the Sunshine State also produces a distinctively flavored table grape.

Grape season in Florida is short — lasting only until the end of August — but it is a decidedly sweet period of time. Take advantage of one of the state's best-kept secrets. In the process, you might discover the possession of yet another secret…the fruit de-seeding gene.

(for more information about Tommy Free's u-pick grapes, call 352-394-3313.)

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