Monday, August 13, 2012

Mustang Grape Jelly

Another opportunity to pick and preserve fruit came up last week when I was in Hallettsville, staying at my grandmother's house. Behind her back yard, in an interim space where the barn is before you get to the pasture, there's a dead tree covered in white mustang grape vines. Thank goodness the variety is disease and drought resistant considering the Texas weather lately. The vines had completely covered the "host" tree, which had been struck by lightning. There was plenty of fruit though. My mother and brother, Stephen, had picked enough for one batch of jelly the weekend before. And there was still more to be had. 

My son and I picked enough grapes for four more batches, half for me and half for my parents. Being a typical entrepreneurial 13-year-old, my son got my father to pay him for the grapes we gave my parents. I, however, paid my son in jelly. It was hot, sweaty, itchy work that made us contort into awkward poses to get "just one more" cluster of the small, greenish-yellowish fruits. (Most mustang grapes are purplish or blackish. "White" mustang grapes are rare, so says my Dad. Even rarer is the fact that my Dad claims the grapes grow white on one side of the vine and purple on the other.) Luckily, the pay off was worth all the work. 

We pretty much stripped the vines of everything that was worth picking. My son, who is actually part monkey/action hero/daredevil, climbed the dead tree, which was laying on its side, to reach the fruit hanging at the top, even in the mid-90 degree Texas morning. I was being extremely cautious since my Dad warned about rattle snakes climbing the vines to get to the fruit. I was VERY careful about where I stepped. "Don't worry - you'll hear them before you see them," my Dad added.

God only knows how long these grape vines have been on my grandmother's land. My father says that my great-grandfather planted the vines. He lived with my grandparents in his later days and he died in the late 1960s. When I was a kid in the early 70s, my many cousins and I would sometimes go down to the pasture to climb and swing on the vines. When my mother was a kid in the early 50s, she and her many brothers and sisters would do the same. When she got a little older, she would smoke the twigs from the plant.

I blended my mother's instructions for making mustang grape jelly with some basics from the Ball website and they are below. It really is very easy to make jelly, but you want to make sure you have all your ingredients and equipment right at hand. And it takes a little dexterity to work with the hot jars, hot lids and boiling hot jam, too. Just try to stay focused.

Mustang Grape Jelly (Makes 6 half-pint jars)

enough grapes to extract 4 cups of juice (half a bucketful)
3 Tablespoons low-sugar pectin 
3 cups of sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter
clean jars and rings, new lids

Pull the grapes off the stems (discarding any that are rotten). Wash grapes to get all the little twigs and bugs out. Put them in a large pot and add water until you can just barely see the water come up through the grapes (do not cover with water as they will start letting off enough juice as they cook). Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer ten to fifteen minutes to soften the grapes. 

Then mash them with a potato masher and simmer another 10 minutes or so (not too long because the seeds might give it a bitter taste).  Don't mash them too much or the jelly might be overly cloudy... just mash them enough to get the fruit and juice out of the skins. 

Remove the pot from the heat and let cool for 30 minutes or so.  Strain the juice through a cheesecloth or porous cup towel.  It may take a couple of hours to drain totally. You can strain it in batches because it seems to run through the cloth quicker if you divide the pulp.  Again, try not to mash the pulp too much at this stage either because it tends to make the jelly juice cloudy. You can gently move a spoon through the pulp to make sure you get all the juices out. You can either make jelly right away with the juice or freeze it in 4-cup batches. 
Fill the canner halfway with water and bring it to a simmer. Warm your jars in the oven at about 200 degrees. Warm the lids in simmering water (not boiling) until you're ready for them. 

Combine the grape juice with the sugar in a large saucepan. Add the butter to reduce foaming. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, over high heat, stirring frequently. Add the pectin all at once and continue boiling for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and skim the foam off, if necessary. 

Ladle the hot jelly into the hot jars leaving ¼” headspace. Wipe the rim off with a wet cloth. Center the lid on the jar and screw the band on until it’s “fingertip tight.”  Process the filled jars in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Remove the jars and let them cool. Check the lids to make sure the jars sealed. They should not pop up and down when you press on the center. 

Notes: My mom uses the low sugar pectin, which calls for 4 cups juice to 3 cups sugar because she like's the tartness and flavor of the grapes. The regular pectin calls for 6 or 7 cups of sugar which we think is too sweet and, goodness knows, we could all use less sugar in our diets. Second, my mom doesn't think the juice from the white grapes has a very appealing color for jelly, so she usually adds a little unsweetened concord grape juice, cranberry juice, etc. as her mother did. You could also add a little food coloring if you want, too. I went au naturel for my first try at making the jelly and I thought the color was just fine... even beautiful.

The jelly was definitely tart, but my older son was eating it out of the jar with a spoon, so I know he loved it. My jelly was cloudy because the unattended pot of simmering fruit was actually on full rolling boil for 10 minutes (not my doing.... uuurrgghhh) and the grapes were pretty much boiled to %^$#*%. My preferred way to eat the jelly is on bread (not toasted) with real butter. Or on homemade cornbread, with butter on that, too, of course. 


  1. Hello, I just discovered your wonderful blog! Mustang grape jelly with soft butter on homemade bread is my favorite way to enjoy it too. I've been documenting the Tex-Czech community and my family past and present in the Hallettsville area for the last few years, just thought I'd share.
    Thanks for making this site exist and I look forward to reading more. :)

  2. Oh my gosh, your photos are wonderful and I'm so happy to see other people doing documentation work about Texas Czechs. (I thought I recognized a house in one of your photos - maybe we're cousins.) I also have a good friend from Hallettsville who's been documenting the Czech community for years on film. And I was there last weekend for the Sacred Heart Picnic.

    So glad to meet you and thanks for reading!