For something as tiny as a currant, they certainly pack a punch when it comes to flavour – and it turns out they also put the ‘super’ in superfoods. Tangy, sweet and highly distinguishable from other berries, currants can be very polarising due to their pungency and smell. Yet they are incredibly rich in nutrients.
Currant berries are from the Ribes family, and are not to be confused with Zante currants, which are small, dried grapes from Greece used in baking. Ribes include black currants, the distinctive small sour berry; red currants, with more sweetness than the black, and white currants, which are the albino version of the red. Gooseberries also belong to this family, and are slightly larger but not any sweeter than the currants.
Ribes have been cultivated for thousands of years, and are native to countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Germany. This gives a good indication of the kind of cold they need to grow. Currants are not liked nor grown in any of the southern Mediterranean countries of Europe, nor the hotter countries in the South Pacific or Asian continents.
These berries grow on long wooden canes, with maple-shaped leaves. They grow in a chain or ‘strig’ of berries, which can carry 20 or more small fruit. In each individual fruit there are over a dozen seeds, hence they are termed ‘false berries’ – as a real berry only has one seed per fruit.
Black currants contain four times the amount of vitamin C than the same weight of an orange, and six small black currants have more vitamin C than a large lemon. This incredible potency has made them extremely sought after in medical research.
Traditionally, herbal medicinal healers have used Ribes to assist with liver disease, kidney stones, gout, mouth inflammation, stomach and bowel disorders, lung ailments, and fatigue. Mrs Beetson, the late English domestic goddess said: “blackcurrant tonic will fix everything”.
Black currants also provide vitamin E, carotenes. potassium, iron, vitamin B and phosphorous. Plus, each seed in the berry is also a rich source of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) – a rare essential fatty acid used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The fruit also contains high levels of anthocyanin, which can be used to help control inflammation in arthritis. Research
is being carried out to see if black currants can help asthma.
Sadly, red currants do not have the same intensity of health properties as black currants, and white currants hold no ascorbic acid and therefore contain no vitamin C. The leaves of red currants can also contain cyanide-like compounds and should not be eaten in large quantities, though the fruit is quite safe. However, black currant leaves can be made into teas or used in the production of crème de cassis.
Currants need a cold winter to thrive. They will like the heat of the summer sun, as long it is not too intense. These bushes are relatively easy-care fruiting plants, only needing pruning every couple of years. They require shaded areas with heavy acidic soil – similar to where hydrangeas or azaleas grow. Ribes plants are normally self-fertile, meaning even one plant should grow successfully, without the need for a cross- pollinating partner.
HOW TO BUY
The fresh berries themselves are available from November through December, and well into January in some cooler districts. Black currants can also be bought frozen, or as freeze- dried powder, juice or extract powder. Red and sometimes white currants will appear in some fruit and vegetable shops in the middle of summer, but never in a large supermarket, as they have such a short shelf life.
HOW TO STORE
Handle fresh currants with absolute care. They do not need layers of plastic packaging, as they will sweat and turn to mush. They will not keep for long periods of time, even in a fridge, unless frozen. To freeze currants, remove fresh berries from their strigs, place on a tray in a single layer, then freeze. Transfer to a container and keep in a freezer for up to three months. After that they lose flavour rapidly.
Grow your own in a shady spot of the garden that needs filling. As long as it gets a little morning sunlight, and a trim every now and then, a black or red currant will make a welcome berry to pick. As the fruit ripens, put it straight into the freezer until there is enough to make a jam. The only waste will be the berries that the birds get.
HOW TO EAT
Currants have a much sharper taste than raspberries, blackberries or even blueberries. They are best partnered with creams, cheeses and other berries. Black currants can be used to make wine, and are high in natural pectin so they’ll always make a great jam or jelly. Red currant jelly is a good pantry staple and can be used to flavour meaty sauces or to glaze sweet berry tarts.
Black Currant Vinaigrette
Place 1 tablespoon black currants in a large bowl and mash with a fork. Add 2 well-minced shallots, 2 tablespoons black currant or red wine vinegar, 1⁄4 teaspoon caster sugar, 1⁄4 cup olive oil, 2 teaspoons crème de cassis and 1⁄2 teaspoon soy sauce, then whisk until emulsified. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes 1 cup.
Black Currant Cordial
Rinse 1 kg black currants and place in a pan with 500ml water, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 teaspoon citric acid. Heat gently until the black currants burst. Strain off the mixture through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Add 12⁄3 cups caster sugar and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes. Skim off the foam. Pour the cordial into a clean, sterilised glass bottle. Seal and store in a cool, dark place. To drink, dilute with cold water to taste. Makes 3 cups.
Wash and dry 1.5kg black currants. Place in a container, adding a few black currant leaves if you wish. Pour over 1L vodka, cover, and keep for 2 months. When ready to bottle, boil 750g sugar and 500ml filtered water for 10 minutes. Strain berries and vodka. Add the cooled sugar mix to this. Pour into sterilised dark glass bottles to store. Makes 3 litres.
Red currant compote
Rinse 900g red currants and remove strings. Arrange them in a bowl. Sprinkle with 90g raw sugar and add the juice of 1 lemon. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Mix gently and serve with yoghurt, ice-cream or thickened cream.
Black currant salsa
Simmer 200g black currants with 4 teaspoons caster sugar and 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar for 3 minutes, then take off the heat and cool. Add 400g skinned, de-seeded, and chopped tomatoes , 4 finely sliced spring onions and a handful of finely shredded mint. Stir and leave to sit for at least half an hour. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and garnish with more mint leaves. Serve with beef or venison steaks.
Take 1.6kg white, red or black currants and strip of their strings. Boil 1.7kg sugar with 600ml water for 6 minutes. Add currants and quickly bring back to boil and boil for 4 minutes. Pour into hot sterile jars and top with cellophane covers and rubber bands.
Red currant jelly
Simmer 450g fresh or frozen red currants in 300ml water until very tender. Pour into a jelly bag or muslin cloth and leave overnight to drip. Do not let any sediment drip through. Allow 500g sugar for every 500ml of juice. Boil the sugar with the juice for 15 minutes, until setting point has been reached. Pour into sterilised jars. Makes 1 litre.
Currant and honey fruit mince
Combine 2 cups frozen black currants, 2 cups chopped mixed dried fruit, 1 cup chopped medjool dates, 1 grated Granny Smith apple, 1⁄4 cup manuka honey, 1⁄4 teaspoon mixed spice and 3 tablespoons brandy in a large bowl. Mix well, cover and allow to rest for 2-3 weeks. Use small spoonfuls in Christmas mince pies or as a flavouring in ice-creams or other cream desserts.