Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Currants

We have a few whitecurrant bushes in my Brooklyn community garden. This year, I was lucky (and industrious) enough to harvest some before the birds got to them. Translucent off-white with a hint of pink blush, the fruit was tart but still edible out of hand, and so brilliantly beautiful and jewel-like that I used them to top my daughter's first birthday cake.  

A Brief History

Currants are native to temperate regions across the globe, including North America, Asia and Europe. In North America, several Native American groups ate the over 75 different currants native to the continent. As this article explains, some groups mixed the fruit with meat and fish to make cakes. Other groups made pemmican and soups with currants, and used them to season stews. Many Native American groups also used the berries and leaves as medicine to treat snakebite, menstrual troubles and coughs and colds.

As the Oxford Companion to Food explains, cultivated types of the fruit are primarily derived from European and Asian varieties. The redcurrant was domesticated in the Netherlands and Denmark in the 16th century, and the blackcurrant almost a century later. During World War II, Great Britain's supplies of oranges and other citrus fruits were cut off, so Churchill encouraged British growers to cultivate blackcurrants, which are high in Vitamin C, to stave off scurvy. Blackcurrant drinks, like Ribina, are still quite popular in Britain today.

Factual Nibbles 

  • Dried black currants - the kind you see in scones and sweet buns - are not actually currants at all, but a type of seedless grape.
  • Currants bear fruit on a long, flexible stalk-like growth called a "strig."
  • According to the California Rare Fruit Growers association, the word "currant" has been in use for the fruit since the 1550s.
  • Currants are pollinated by honeybees and hoverflies, nectar- and pollen-eating insects that look a lot like wasps.

Cultivation

Currants are shrubby plants in the genus Ribes, and count gooseberries as their closest relatives. They grow in temperate areas and are fairly cold hardy. 

According to Cornell University, currants were banned from cultivation in the US in the early 1900s to stop the spread of a tree disease called white pine blister rust, a fungal disease that attacks both currants and white pine trees. The federal ban was lifted in 1966, but there are still statewide bans on currant growing in Maine, Massachusetts and several other US states.

Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Austria and France are the top global producers of the fruit.

Seasonality

A quintessential summer fruit, currants are available from early June through August (or September, in some areas).

Environmental Impact 

Currants are not grown on a large-enough scale to have a major environmental impact. Although they are susceptible to a number of insect pests, the UK's Blackcurrant Foundation notes that most growers are increasingly committed to utilizing integrated pest management (IPM) practices, like deploying predatory insects instead of insecticides to kill aphids, and using row plantings such as clover to control weeds instead of herbicides. (*And check out our Real Food Rule of Thumb, below, for more info.)

Characteristics and What to Look for 

There are a number of different types of the fruit, including black, red, white and pink varieties. Red, white and pink types are translucent, while blackcurrants are a deep, shiny, purple-black. Red, white and pinkcurrants can be eaten out of hand (whitecurrants tend to be the most mild in flavor and least acidic) but are commonly turned into jams, jellies and desserts. Most blackcurrants are grown for their acidic juice, but are also made into delicious preserves and desserts. They, too, can be eaten out of hand - but be ready to pucker up. All currants are tart and acidic, with a hint of delicious berry sweetness.

Currants are a specialty fruit that can be hard to find in conventional grocery stores. They're difficult to harvest, don't travel well and are highly perishable. Your best bet is to look for them at farmers' markets (in states where growing them is legal!) or at specialty stores. Choose currants still attached to their strig. They should be shiny and plump with no signs of mold or shriveling.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body 

One cup of red or whitecurrants gives you about 77 percent of your daily Vitamin C intake. The fruit is also loaded with fiber, Vitamin K and manganese, and also has a little bit of iron, potassium and even protein.

Blackcurrants are even higher in nutrients. One cup of the fruit gives you about 338 percent of your daily Vitamin C needs - in fact, they contain more Vitamin C than any other natural food source. Blackcurrants are also loaded with antioxidant anthocyanins, and blackcurrant seed oil is used in herbal medicine to treat premenstrual syndrome and menopause symptoms. The leaf and fruit is also used to treat coughs and colds. 

What to Do with It and Cooking 

Some currants can be eaten out of hand (especially if you are down with tart fruit), but they are most commonly turned into sauces, jams, jellies and desserts. They pair beautifully with other summer fruits (think blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and peaches), mint, hard cheeses (like cheddar) and meat, especially pork and game birds (like duck).

Try topping fruit tarts with a mixture of currants and other berries, or substitute fresh currants for blueberries in muffins. Toss them into salads for a pleasantly tart pop of flavor. Turn them into pies or sauces for ice cream (see below for a recipe) or roasted meats.

Storage 

Currants are highly perishable. Keep them in the refrigerator in a shallow, ventilated container loosely covered with a paper towel or plastic wrap for no longer than two to three days. Like other berries, avoid washing them before you stick them in the fridge - moisture hastens mold and decay.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

High in pectin and usually in need of a sweetener to make them more palatable, currants are perfect for jam and jelly making. Check out David Lebovitz's redcurrant jam, this blackcurrant jelly recipe (from 1962!). Currants also make perfect chutneys - their sweet-tartness is the perfect foil for savory ingredients. Serve with a salty cheese and crusty bread. Or have a go at making your own pemmican with juniper and currants!

Booze is also the perfect way to preserve summer fruit, so I think my next kitchen project is going to be homemade crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), so I can treat my guests to fancy kir royale cocktails.

Recipe

Redcurrant, Lemon and Star Anise Sauce with Bourbon

I love using lemon and star anise with tart fruits like currants and cranberries. Get yourself some good vanilla ice cream and top with this super-easy sauce. Or reduce the amount of sugar slightly and serve with pork roast.

Ingredients:

2 pints redcurrants, pulled from their stems (stems discarded)
4 tablespoons organic sugar (or more if your currants are especially tart)
2 strips of lemon zest, about an inch wide and three inches long, cut using a swivel-blade peeler (taking care to not peel any of the bitter white pith)
2 star anise pods
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
3 tablespoons water

Method:

  1. Combine all the ingredients except the bourbon in a medium pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.
  2. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the currants have started to fall apart and the mixture has thickened slightly, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking. (If the mixture starts to stick, turn the heat to low and continue cooking.)
  3. Remove the lemon zest strips and the star anise pods. If you'd like a smooth puree, force the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Stir in the bourbon.
  4. Let cool slightly before serving with ice cream.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them - agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)