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.
Not all of Europe is in love with the black currant. The farther south you go, the less their appeal, presumably because citrus fruits become more available. According to the Italian authors of The Complete Book of Fruits and Vegetables, black currants “are not particularly good”; and as if to support that opinion they added that the berries once were thought to spawn stomach worms.
Black currants never had been very popular in the United States, and then production plummeted in the early 1900s with concern over white pine blister rust, a disease hosted by currants and afflicting white pine trees. With the development of resistant varieties, the federal government lifted its restrictions on selling the plants. But some states still have regulations in place, as you’ll see if you page through a mail-order nursery catalog. Here and there around the country, amateur and commercial growers are trying to stimulate the nation’s appetite for black currants. Ed Mashburn, who grew a number of varieties in a Pennsylvania plot, found a range of flavors nearly as broad as that offered by apples and grapes. He predicted that American supermarkets might one day stock black currant candy, yogurt, ice cream, and cough drops. Among his favorite varieties were Ben Lomond (Ribena, the sweetened black currant concentrate, is made from this one) and Minaj Smierou, a Bulgarian introduction.
Among the plants that Lewis and Clark brought back from their trip to the Pacific Coast were the golden or buffalo currant (Ribes aureum) and the clove currant (R. odoratum). The golden yellow trumpet-shaped flowers are their chief talent. Their berries are fruitier and milder than those of European black currants, and they are better enjoyed in recipes than eaten fresh. Thomas Jefferson was delighted with the discovery of these bushes and he grew them at Monticello. Native black native currants eventually became a popular foundation planting because breezes would bring the clovelike fragrance of the blossoms in through open windows. (With this in mind, we’ve planted a clove currant shrub just outside a kitchen window, along with fragrant moonflowers, clematis, and an old-fashioned rose; the pleasant scents do enter the home, if subtly and for a short period of the year.) A variety of R. odoratum, Crandall, selected back in 1888 for its large berries, is still commercially available. Unlike another early-blooming shrub with yellow flowers, forsythia, these currants won’t spread aggressively and become a nuisance.
The Mild-Mannered Jostaberry
If you find the flavor of the black currant to be too assertive, give jostaberries a try. This recently developed hybrid is a cross between a black currant and a gooseberry, wedding their flavors while sparing you the intensity of the former and the thorns of the latter. Our jostaberries grow vigorously and are highly productive without fail, so that we always have some stashed in the freezer — and they hold up well when frozen. Set out two or more plants to ensure pollination.
Black Currants in the Yard
Black currants are best planted in the fall. They can be arranged as a hedge, spacing the shrubs every three to five feet. By growing a mix of currants and gooseberries, you’ll have the luxury of a long harvest period. First to ripen are black currants, then red and white currants, and finally gooseberries.
Prune the plants in spring by cutting back branches to maintain the shrubs’ form and leaving only a half dozen or so shoots to grow from the plant’s base. You’ll note that the berries appear on both the pale new shoots and the darker two-year-old branches. Remove older branches that are no longer producing. You can use a shovel to chop off unwanted canes that have developed roots and grow new plants from them. I set out a hedge along a stone wall by using these free plants, and within a couple of years they were well established and productive. Currants benefit from annual applications of manure or a complete fertilizer, along with a layer of mulch.
Currants grow on strigs, a word that looks like a typographical error but describes the thin stem from which the berries hang. To make harvesting a little easier, pull or snip off the strigs, then bring them indoors to remove the individual berries. You can prolong the harvest by draping fabric dropcloths over the bushes; ripening takes longer in the shade.
Black Currants in the Kitchen
Black currants become milder with cooking because the heat reduces the acidity, contributing to a better sweet-sour balance. Don’t overlook the leaves, if you have access to the plants; try using them sparingly in any black currant dish or beverage. They have a strong scent that’s similar to the berries but with their own fresh, green character.
We keep black currants on hand, fresh and frozen, to toss into any dish that might benefit from a kick of exotic flavor and brilliant color. For example, a handful of them works well with butternut squash in the sweet-sour Kashmiri pilau that’s become a favorite recipe of ours. We also use black currants in oatmeal, muffins, homemade ice cream, and a vodka-based liqueur.
Ounce for ounce, black currants have from three to five times the vitamin C of oranges — as you might expect, given the intense flavor of the berries and their relatively small size. Black currants also rank near blueberries in their level of antioxidants. Long before nutritional studies established just what made the berries healthful, black currant jelly was used as a remedy for sore throats. A drink of jelly or jam stirred in water was considered to have a cooling effect on fevers.
By the way, although black currants look as though they might shrivel up into the dried currants that come in boxes at the supermarket, there is no relation between the two. Dried currants are in fact grapes. They got their misleading name in a roundabout way, having been associated long ago with the Greek city of Corinth. In a centuries-long version of the parlor game Rumor Down the Alley, Corinth became currant.
Excerpted with permission from Berries (Countryman Press, 2017) written and published by Roger Yepsen, published by Countryman Press, © 2017.