Growing Black Currants

Grow a variety of black currants for a burst of antioxidants and vitamin C.

| January 2018

  • Black Currant
    To some, this berry has a sweet-sour flavor and curious scent with complex overtones of pine or cedar.
    Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus/Elena Rui
  • Black Currant
    Most black currant varieties come from northern Europe, where the berries have been a vital source of vitamin C.
    Illustration by Roger Yepsen
  • Black Currant
    This recently developed hybrid is a cross between a black currant and a gooseberry.
    Illustration by Roger Yepsen
  • Berries
    "Berries" by Roger Yepsen describes a variety of berries and provides advice on growing and maintaining them.
    Cover courtesy Countryman Press

  • Black Currant
  • Black Currant
  • Black Currant
  • Berries

Berries (Countryman Press, 2017), by Roger Yepsen presents a variety of berries to readers, including types that have nearly vanished from American gardens and diets. This book offers key advice on finding, identifying, growing, and preserving your own berries. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Black Currants.”

The black currant inspires a love-hate reaction in people, putting it in the good company of garlic, gin, licorice, and certain challenging cheeses. The flavor has been described as “off-putting,” “foxy,” “repulsive,” “flamboyant,” “peculiar,” “disagreeable,” “mawkish,” and perhaps putting too fine a point on it, redolent of cat urine. It has been said that while black currants may become more palatable with cooking, the same is true of old shoes. Fruit expert U. P. Hedrick, who wrote the profiles of hundreds of berry varieties, was unimpressed by this one. “Few Americans have tasted the black currant,” he wrote in 1925, “and few of those who have would care for a second taste.” In The Fragrant Path, published several years later, respected gardening author Louise Beebe Wilder placed both American and European black currants on her list of plants with an “evil odor.” More recently, Vermont nurseryman Lewis Hill dismissed them altogether in his book Fruits and Berries for the Home Garden. “I’d avoid these,” he wrote, and he promptly went on to discuss other berries.

And yet to some of us, the sweet-sour flavor and curious scent are ambrosial, with complex overtones of pine or cedar, sandalwood, black cherry, and mince pie. The tiny bell-shaped blossoms are an ingredient of Chanel No. 5. And in a recent New York Times article on an up-and-coming Manhattan street, the reporter mentioned the scent of cassis wafting through the air as evidence of gentrification. So this dark berry may be on its way to redemption.

It is true that somewhere in the mix of flavors, like the unsettling eleventh note in a modern jazz chord, there floats a meaty muskiness that just doesn’t seem berrylike. But our family has learned to love black currants, which we found growing on our property when we moved in. We find them the easiest form of fruit to grow and harvest, without exception. Our dwarf apple trees are pest magnets, the cherry trees were overtaken with a horrid black gum, the raspberries and blackberries run rampant, and we found strawberries to be too much bother. But our black currants can be counted on to come through every June with only an occasional, casual pruning.

Most black currant varieties come from northern Europe, where the berries have been a vital source of vitamin C. Russia, Poland, and Germany remain the leading producers of black currants. The French use black currants to produce crème de cassis, a liqueur with a grown-up taste missing in many other fruit brandies.

The British drink their black currants in the form of a sweetened nonalcoholic syrup marketed under the trade name Ribena. It can be diluted to make a refreshing drink with a good measure of vitamin C, or poured straight over ice cream, cereal, and pancakes. Originally developed for use in hospitals and maternity wards, Ribena was regarded as a “wartime tonic” during World War II when citrus imports became scarce. Because of Britain’s historical influence in Asia, your best chance of finding Ribena may be in a local East Asian food market. British kids continue to drink a lot of Ribena, enough so that bottles bear a warning that it shouldn’t be given to the young who still are using a “dummy” — not of the ventriloquist’s sort, but a pacifier. The acid in Ribena may harm young teeth, and a low-acid variety of Ribena is now marketed for this reason. The British also enjoy black tea scented with the berry and black currant preserves. The oddest use I’ve seen for black currants is as the flavoring for enormous candy slugs sold in a shop in Yorkshire. The things were supple and black, and remarkably similar to the ones you’d see crawling along the local hiking trails.



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