Foraging for Wild Grape Leaves

Why, hello grape leaves.

Yes, you, draped over the guard rail, along Route 50.  You’re going to be my dinner tonight.

You don’t necessarily have to wander far or deep into the woods to find these beauties.  You don’t need any fancy tools, just a little know-how and a little time to wander through your neighborhood. Yes, neighborhood.  I live within a commuter’s reach of the great city of Washington D.C., in the city of Fairfax, off a busy highway lined with car dealerships, chain restaurants, laundromats and convenience stores. But my home is on a quiet little street, lined on both sides with parkland, and the winding Accotink creek runs through our neighborhood, parks, and playground.

And one day, when I was pushing a stroller through the woods, I spotted something that I thought could be a grape vine.  And after a little research and a call to a knowledgeable friend, the next day my children and I returned to pick grape leaves.  That night, we feasted on the Middle Eastern delicacy of waraqa dawali, or stuffed grape leaves for dinner (you can find my recipe and tutorial over at Bint Rhoda’s Kitchen here.)   These fresh tender leaves made for some of the most delicious stuffed grape leaves that I have ever had.  The taste of the dish was only made more sweet by the shocking discovery that I could find food, and that I could find it even in a relatively urban setting.

What is foraging?

Isn’t there something remarkable about leaving the house empty-handed and walking home with food?  And not food that you bought at a store, or at a farmer’s market, or even from a neighbor’s garden, but food that is wild and free, and growing over the hedge of azalea bushes behind your back fence?  Frankly, it is kind of shocking.  And strange.  But the more I look, the more I find:  mulberry trees, wild strawberries, a blackberry bramble, still green.  (I’ll be back for you!)

But foraging is, of course, the oldest way of finding food.  Long before we began cultivating food, foraging was the main way that we fed ourselves.  Today, foraging is growing again in popularity, as we realize that wild food is one great way to find wholesome, real food, for free.

So, how do you find grape leaves? 

In many moderate northern climates, June and July are the best months for picking tender grape leaves.  May brings young vines, tendrils and baby grape leaves, the size of a small child’s palm.  You can certainly pick those, but your crop will be small and your labor hard (try rolling a three-inch grape leaf!).   By late summer, fresh grape leaves are still delicious, but they take a little more time to soften in the pot.

The first thing that I did to forage for grape leaves was to look at my surroundings with fresh eyes.  When going on our daily walk, I started to look to the left and the right of the trail, searching for anything that looked like a vine.  I found that instead of generally taking in the beauty of the foliage, I stopped occasionally to investigate just what was growing around me.  When I found my first vine, growing over the guard rail off of Route 50, I was excited, but instead of picking them immediately, I took some pictures and then went home to do my research, and only then was I satisfied that I had found real grape leaves.  Since then, we have picked grape leaves several times and have been enjoying fresh, stuffed grape leaves for dinner.

Here are some tips for finding grape leaves:

(1) Hunt near water sources.  Wild grape vines almost always grow near water.  You will always find them near a stream, a river, or even a heavily-used storm drain.  Don’t bother searching in the middle of a dry wooded area or a field.  Since the stream winds through my neighborhood, I just followed the stream where possible and found the vines creeping up from the creek bed and over the other greenery.

Grape vines growing over the foliage, on the bank of the Accotink Creek.

(2) Look for a vine.  Now this may seem like common sense, but I’ll say it anyway. So, start with looking for vines.  If it isn’t a vine, it isn’t a grape vine.

(3) Look for three-lobed leaves.  There are hundreds of varieties of grape vines, so this is the tricky part of identifying a grape vine.  But don’t despair.  All grape vines have three-lobed leaves, that is, each individual leaf will have three lobes on it.  In some grape varieties, the lobes will be very distinct.  In others, the lobes will be less defined, but they will still be there.   I was initially confused by this, since the wild grape vines growing in my neighborhood have less distinct lobes, giving each leaf a heart-like shape.   One great tool:   search online for images of common local varieties of wild grape vines.  Once I found many, many photos of the wild varieties growing in my part of the country, I was reassured that I had the right leaves.

(4) Check for developing grape clusters.  Now here is a dead give-away that you have found a grape vine!  If you find clusters of wild grapes or cluster of grapes budding, you know that you have found a grape vine!  I found several such clusters on my first vine.

(5) Ask a knowledgeable friend to confirm your findings.  If you are lucky enough to have a knowledgeable friend, by all means, check with that person!  I texted photos to my friend, who grew up on a farm in Virginia.  She was able to confirm my findings.

Picking the leaves

Pick medium-sized leaves that are free from holes.  Remember, you will be rolling these leaves later, so pick ones that are large enough to work with easily.  Avoid over-picking any individual vine, so that you do not compromise the plant.  Stack leaves as you go, all facing the same direction, and place them in a basket or bag.  I aim to pick around fifty leaves at time, to make a decent batch when I get home.  I find it easier to pick them with the stem still attached to the leaves, but remove the stems later.

When you get home

When you get home, you can store your grape leaves in the refrigerator for a day or two, wrapped in paper towels to wick away moisture, and placed in a sealed container or bag.  If they begin to darken in color in your fridge, you can still use them, but don’t wait any longer to process them.  Wash the grape leaves thoroughly, remove the stems (if still attached), and then blanche them in a small pot of boiling water until tender, for 3-10 minutes (depending on how tender your leaves are).  I found that leaves picked in May only needed a minute or two to tenderize, whereas leaves picked in June needed five to ten minutes to become tender.  Once blanched, they are ready to be stuffed,  or you can freeze them for use later.

Oh, and one last tip that I learned the last time I was out.  You know what else likes to hang out near the banks of creeks?

These.  Watch out for these.  They are usually harmless (like this water snake), but they might still make you jump! 

Happy foraging!

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