Lovely tart berries hold rich memories, history
by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
Image Coutesy of Massachusetts Horticulture Society
The currant bushes that grew in our yard live on in memories of high summer. We three children picked berries, pulling stems and bunches from beneath the bright green leaves. It was not our favorite chore. The bushes were prickly, the rows long, the sun hot. And the berries were too tart to eat along the way, so the plinking soon quieted and the cans filled.
Our mother would hang heavy cloth bags of the pulpy cooked berries for the scarlet juice to drip, drip into pots below before she turned it into jelly. I was unaware of any method, only the piquant fruity smell, the speckles of red on our white enameled stove and the brilliant array of jars on the windowsill like stained glass. All these sensory memories of childhood are part of my family’s rite of summer.
Decades later, when my father as an elderly widower prepared to sell the house, I came to help him one hot summer weekend. on finishing our sad business, I remembered the currants. The rows of bushes were laden with their hidden ripe fruit, lower and not as long as I recalled. Of all the childhood mementoes I took away late that summer afternoon, the currants were the treasure.
Ribes rubrum is the botanical name of the red currant, Ribes referring to its tartness and rubrum to its ruby color. The brilliant berries on their slender green stem indeed look like gems on a string. The pearly white currant is a variant with a milder flavor and translucence that reveals the delicate veins inside. Mixed together, red and white currants show off each other like glistening jewels. The gooseberry, a close cousin in the same family, is larger, scratchier and pale green ripening to yellow, red or purple.
Black currants, R. nigrum, are larger, opaque and stronger in taste, with spectacularly high vitamin C count. Medicines often contain black currant syrup as a cover flavor, so that some people find it distasteful by association.
In contrast, the French liqueur crème de cassis is black currant purée strengthened with alcohol. At the end of World War II, the Major of Dijon, Félix Kir, also a priest and hero of the Resistance, dealt resourcefully with the lack of red Burgundy wine, which the nazis had confiscated. For official delegations he revived the cocktail of white Burgundy tinged pink with a little crème de cassis, popularizing the cocktail which now bears his name. Currant berries are often confused with currant raisins dried from small black grapes. For both, the word “currant” is a corruption of Corinth, the city and region in Greece.
Of the three types, red currants are the most popular. Now that new hybrids are resistant to white pine blister rust, a disease that once curbed their sale, they are returning to farmers and specialty markets. Currants’ tart flavor makes them suitable for both savory and sweet dishes; their high pectin content for jams, jellies and shimmery glazes. Currants have been the base of many popular European sauces and condiments. Cumberland sauce is a traditional British game accompaniment, combining currant jelly with port, mustard and shallots. Bar-le-Duc preserve, with the seeds laboriously removed by means of a goose quill without bursting the skin, is named for the French lorraine village where it is made; Bar Caviar is another name for this luxury. Ribena syrup is an English fruit drink concentrate from blackcurrant (as it’s spelled in Britain), something like American children’s bug juice plus vitamin C. Red currant berries scattered on any salad, especially one with chicken, duck, lamb or pork, give instant sparkle, even glamour. Conversely, currants are beloved in country cooking and old-fashioned desserts like summer pudding. Here are several currant recipes, plain and fancy, for you to try.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely’s articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef’s Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), remains in print after 28 years. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Her article on “John James Audubon’s Tastes of America” is in the Summer 2011 issue of Gastronomica. Beth can be reached at elizabethriely@ gmail.com.