Friday, July 15, 2011

Black Currants

If you grew up in the United States, chances are good that black currants weren’t on your summer table. Probably, unless you traveled abroad or had a British granny smuggling them in, they weren’t on your radar at all. That’s because even now, the tart, musky little berries are still illegal to grow in some states, with other states only recently having lifted the ban (New York did so in 2003). Though popular in Europe and brought over to America by colonists as early as the seventeenth century, black currants were found to harbor white pine blister rust, and in the 1920s cultivation was banned nationwide. In the mean time, they were all but forgotten in this country. I don’t think I heard of them until traveling to France as a child, when we strolled through the farmers' markets and witnessed such marvels as jewel-like groseilles and live guinea pigs.

For my husband Ben, who landed here from England as a boy, black currants top the list of his all-time favorite fruits. That's not because they are succulent or delicious to eat out of hand (they’re not) but because of his beloved Granny, who grew them and simmered them into a compote for dessert, served with fresh double cream. He still goes all misty-eyed when he speaks of the willowy Granny Mildé, with her lush garden and simple yet impeccable cooking; her army of pugs and her passion for swimming icy waters, owing to a childhood spent splashing in the salmon-rich rivers of Northumberland (seriously. I think she once dove into the Long Island Sound in December). The first time I heard about her, I knew I had a lot to live up to.

It was Ben who introduced me to the powerful flavor of black currants, though at the time we had no access to the fresh fruit or any inkling that it existed in the U.S. at all. When we were first together, our refrigerator was never without a bottle of Ribena (blackcurrant syrup), usually brought back from England by a relative or scored for a pretty penny at Myer’s of Keswick. After work, he would come home and stir a spoonful of it into a glass of cold water, for a tangy purple drink. I learned
quickly that if anyone in his family showed up with a pack of Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles, there would be a fight to the death over the black ones. In those early days someone–probably Ben's sister, Chloe–took pity on me and gave me one of the blacks so I wouldn't have to duke it out with the rest of them.

I soon developed a fondness for the musky perfume–which reminded me in a weird way of elderflower. I fell for them without ever having sampled the real thing, and then one summer, black currants turned up practically in our back yard. We were over at Mrs. L’s farm, near our house in Connecticut, picking blueberries. In case you didn’t read this post from last July, picking blueberries at Mrs. L.’s
honor-system blueberry patch is one of my most favorite things on earth. Nine times out of ten she doesn't appear at all, but one day she did, and she was in a chatty mood. I don't remember how the subject came up, but she casually mentioned her black currant bushes. Ben perked up, not quite believing his ears.

“People don't really like them in this country.” She said, waving a hand dismissively. “They don’t understand them. You're welcome to pick some.”

So we set about picking, which is no easy task, and whenever we see her now we delicately wangle an invitation to take some of the fruit off her hands. They also show up some weekends in season–along with the blueberries–at the excellent Marble Valley Farm (Route 7 just south of Kent, CT).

In New York City, Wilklow Orchards sells black currants (along with red currants and gooseberries), as does Red Jacket Orchards. Both farms have stands at NYC greenmarkets, including Borough Hall and Union Square. Wilklow had some fine looking black currants yesterday, but I was told they won't be around for much longer.
How to best eat these dusky little fruits? Cooked! You really do not want to eat them raw, as they are intensely tannic with a strong, almost resinous flavor. My friend Kamila tells me that when she was a child in the Czech Republic, her family grew them in their yard, where she and her sister would hold contests to see who could endure eating the most raw black currants. They also enjoyed them cooked in desserts and in jams, and would use the tines of a fork to “comb” the berries off the stems, which can be an arduous task.

Every summer, I have experimented with and enjoyed black currants in various ways. I have made a concentrated syrup to mix with water (still or sparkling), kind of like Ribena. You make the syrup by stewing the black currants with sugar and a bit of water, then mashing and straining them. Mrs. L. tells us she likes to serve black currant syrup over slices of lemon cake.

I have also made an alcoholic version, using vodka, to fashion a sort of homemade Crème de Cassis, for kirs and kir royals (mix a small amount with crisp white wine or champagne, respectively). 

The venerable Elizabeth David recommended adding black currants to summer pudding, that English dessert fashioned from berries and white bread and served with cream. My mother-in-law, Pauline, makes a delicious summer pudding; she included it in a beautiful handwritten recipe book she gave to all the ladies in the family for Christmas one year. Some day I'll give this recipe a whirl with black currants instead of blackberries.

I have found the most simple, versatile, and delicious use of black currants is to make a puree, which can then be enjoyed over ice cream or folded into sweetened cream as a fool. I have also spun this puree into an ice cream base for a rich, violet-hued cassis ice cream, which my friend Michele also tells me her Swiss father makes every summer. 

Currants both black and red also make delicious jam, as well as lending themselves to savory recipes, such as sauces for meat and game. As for Granny Mildé, the compote she served contained all the seeds and skins, at least the way Ben remembers it–and he loved it that way. Little did he know, he was also getting incredible doses of vitamins and other nutrients as blackcurrants, already loaded with Vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants, have high concentrations of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in their seeds. In fact, black currant extracts are touted as medicinal, and black currant syrup was distributed to children in Britain during World War II, when citrus fruits were scarce. If you don't mind a bit of extra roughage, you can follow the recipe below without straining it.
Black Currant Puree
Adapted from Elizabeth David, Summer Cooking

  • 1 pound black currants, rinsed (stems are O.K. if you plan on straining)
  • 3/4 pounds natural sugar, plus more if needed
  • fresh lemon juice
Instructions: Put black currants and sugar into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat over medium flame until they begin to bubble. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring and mashing occasionally with a spoon. Once berries have broken down, pass them through a mesh strainer into a clean bowl, pressing to extract all the liquid. Use a spatula to scrape the outside of the strainer, as the fruit contains a lot of pectin and will begin to thicken. Discard solids. Rinse pan and return the strained puree to the heat, stirring in a squeeze of lemon. Taste and add a little more sugar if you'd like it sweeter, and serve hot or cold (puree thickens when chilled).


  1. Wow, what a yummy ice cream component. I had a black current jam given to me by a friend who made it, and with it made a sauce for a pork tenderloin. Yummy all around.

  2. Thanks for making this for us. I hope I don't have to wait until next year for another taste. Delish, as always.