Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sea Grapes

Sea grapes have become, along with coconut palms and the blue curling waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the idealization of Southwest Florida to me.

The pretty sea grape shrubs, which grow wild at the edge of the seashore, are tropical arbors delighting the eye. The distinctive foliage is set off by its light-gray wood.

The color of the slim trunk and branches can vary based on degree of sun and salt exposure. Sea grape b
ranches twist in interesting shapes as if not sure how they should properly grow.

They frame sea views as you stand incredibly moved by the union of water, sky and sandy fringes. They block out the beach parking lots from which you've just come, finally managing to snag a space when the car lot is full.

They're the background for millions of vacation photos, the kind that are turned into screen savers or made into Christmas cards.
If a picture is worth a thousand words a picture of white beach sand and sea grapes almost says it all.

Sea grapes are hardy. They handle wind and the strong gales that can buffet the coast. They're drought resistant. They're tolerant of salt which is important in their proximity to the ocean. They provide shelter and food to wildlife.

Like other native plants, including the sabal palmetto palm, the Florida state tree, they're protected under Florida law.

Their adaptive qualities make them popular in residential and commercial landscaping. The island road we travel could in fact be called Sea Grape Boulevard.

Homeowners use sea grapes as hedges along the Gulf. The shrubs function as lot lines and noise buffers for traffic. They add a seashore look to the neighborhoods, even those not directly on the water.

Sea grapes (also spelled seagrapes) are most attractive in their natural settings as we see it. My friend Rebecca is of the same mind.

She and I agree that sea grape leaves, which are variously described as round, circular, heart shaped and kidney shaped (and I throw in fan shaped) are attention worthy.

Sea grape leaves are broad. They're eight to ten inches wide. Variation in the color of the leaves makes them very picturesque.

In the winter months leaves can be copper, spicy gold, brown, red, pink, fiery orange and green freckled with red. These various colors, and shadings of colors, ripple in the sun for gorgeous effect.

The colored leaves may be new leaves replacing old foliage. They may be leaves getting ready to fall.

Sea grapes appear to have the same tendency as deciduous trees to shed leaves, based on the piles of leaves on the ground. Dry conditions are possibly stressing the leaves causing them to turn color more readily.

We don't have this part figured out yet.
You can pick any guess. We wonder about so many things. All we can say is that in January the leaves are remarkably beautiful.

The fruit of the sea grape is edible and actually very tasty. The berries are in clusters like grapes (hence, I suppose, the name sea grape).

It's pointed out that sea grapes aren't grapes. They're not wild grapes either. Sea grapes are a species of flowering plant in the buckwheat family.

The berries ripen through the summer turning red and purple as they mature. They can be made into jelly and wine.
Rebecca was the one who told me about sea grape jelly. This was new to me.

She says it's hard to find sea grape jelly. She's been lucky occasionally. She mentions Southwest Florida International Airport as a place where she has bought it.

She likes to bring sea grape jelly home with her. It makes great gifts for those with whom she wants to share a taste of Florida.

I suggest to her that possibly she can buy sea grape jelly online. She brightens visibly at this.

Rebecca is my age. Our children can be relied on to use the internet like a shopping cart. They know what's there. They click and buy.

We're getting more comfortable with this concept. It still doesn't tend to be our primary shopping strategy. This is why I felt quite current to so casually toss out the idea. It sounded as if online purchasing is something done all the time.

Rebecca's interest in sea grape jelly passed to me. Some investigating was in order. Without even checking it's reasonably safe to assume sea grape jelly recipes can be found on the internet. Of more interest to me was a recipe from a local cookbook.

I was certain local bookstores, or the cookbook sections at libraries, would have church or community cookbooks with a sea grape jelly recipe in them.

It's always worked this way before. Old time methods of conserving and preserving are tucked away in lovingly compiled cookbooks sold as fundraisers by women's groups,community organizations and dedicated members of the congregation.

In the meantime I asked around. Was anyone familiar with sea grape jelly? Had they tasted it?

Almost all the answers were no. Several who grew up along this area of the Gulf had never heard of sea grape jelly.

The woman at the beach bookstore knew her inventory so well she could confidently advise me. I wouldn't find the recipe there she said. Sensing my disappointment she gave me some information.

She hasn't tasted this specialty jelly but she knows of it. Sea grape jelly is part of the workings of her community. The women's group picks the berries, cooks them and sells them.

It was neat hearing her tell this. It gave piquancy to the jelly which, for all I know, has no piquant taste at all. Perhaps it has just the sweetness of the mystery to it. Although Rebecca assures me the jelly is very good.

One person remembered sea grape jelly sold years ago at many of the fruit stands. They had sea grape jelly for sale then but not now I was told.

One woman, in Florida since the 1960s, had never seen sea grape jelly for sale but suggested visiting a fruit stand or asking the volunteers at the nearby park preserve.

I didn't do the first but I did find the park volunteers. One in the small group, busy that morning with an information program, knew just what I was asking about.

She even has a sea grape jelly recipe. She offered to share it with me. I thought Super. See how easy it can be. It shows up just like that.

I turned to help someone who needed assistance. It was important and it took a little while. When it was taken care of the docent group had dissolved, my sea grape jelly recipe lady along with them.

It makes me happy that this cherished recipe is in this person's home file. The jelly must have important association for her.

I was struck by the unhesitating way she was willing to give the recipe to a stranger. Not securing it at this opportunity, however, the search needed to go on.

Pulling a dozen books on Florida cookery off the shelves of the library, the quest for sea grape jelly came at last to successful conclusion.

Directions for Seagrape-Key Lime Jelly are printed on page 18 of Randy Wayne White's Gulf Cookbook (published 2008).

The cookbook comes with memories and photos of Sanibel Island which makes it more than a book of recipes, delightful as a cookbook is in its own right.

It's the kind of book every vacation time share unit, condo or cabin should have on its coffee table. It's a reminder of the ease of life that once was the mainstay of paradise locales like the Gulf.

There was less then but more. And it goes double for the way love was expressed through homemade cooking.

The sea grape recipe isn't included here. I've listed instead some of the titles from the Florida cookbooks gone through. I wish I had time for each one. Perhaps with this roster I can. (Titles include date of publication and author or publisher).

THE FLORIDA COOKBOOK (Jeanne Voltz and Caroline Stuart, 2003)
SEMINOLE INDIAN RECIPES (Joyce La Fray, publisher, 1996) There wasn't a sea grape jelly recipe but two heritage recipes, sassafras jelly and ascerola cherry jelly, made me feel I was closing in on my search)
GULF COAST KITCHENS (Constance Snow, 2003)
A TASTE OF OLD FLORIDA (Florida Media, 2006)
SIMPLY FLORIDA (Florida Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, 2007)
COUNTRY COOKIN' (Joyce La Fray, 1990)
FLORIDA'S BACKYARD (Carrie Hanna, 2002)
THE SUNSHINE STATE COOKBOOK (George S. Fichter, 1985, 2002)
BEST OF THE BEST FROM FLORIDA COOKBOOK Selected Recipes from Florida's Favorite Cookbooks (Quail Ridge Press, 2004)

Sea grapes were the inspiration for this story. Sea grape jelly was the start of the quest. Perhaps Rebecca's interest, which has become mine, will keep the jelly pot boiling.

It's a great pastime to appreciate local tastes. It goes from pastime to passion to write down and share our recipes, rituals and our times.

Ro Giencke - January 28, 2012

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