Nigel Slater suggests ways to enhance the intense flavours within these tangy fruits.
Going through some old papers the other day, I came across the first plant order I ever put in for my garden. It included fruit bushes; four each of whitecurrant ‘Versailles Blanche’, blackcurrant ‘Ben Connan’ and redcurrant ‘Laxton’s Number One’. Together with a note for several bundles of raspberry canes, I obviously had the making of a summer pudding on my mind.
It is probably no great surprise that my favourite fruits are cook’s fruits rather than ones for the fruit bowl. Blackcurrants, gooseberries, damsons and quinces – fruits that have little to offer without the intervention of the cook – mean far more to me than the strawberries and peaches we can eat straight from the garden. That currants should play a starring part on that first list is due also to my passion for the smell of blackcurrant foliage, an instant reminder, especially during pruning, of happy weeks spent ‘curranting’ for pocket money as a teenager.
Just as I find it difficult to envisage a garden without roses I feel the same about a kitchen garden – that it doesn’t look quite right without a wigwam of runner beans and a currant bush. Currants – red, white (Ribes rubrum) and black (R. nigrum) – are jewels of the kitchen garden, glistening in the bright sunshine of midsummer, when they are ready for picking. The translucence of the red and white fruit is fascinating, as is the ability to see the seeds through the flesh: a lesson in botany as you pull the berries from their stalks. Despite being a kitchen fruit, you can eat them raw; I often pull off a sprig or two as I wander the garden.
I find my currants like a feeding with comfrey once a year but, as a rule, I look after my bushes according to the book. The advice of more experienced growers has served me well and although I have fewer bushes than I started with (so little room in city gardens) those that are left are faring well, a decade on. Red and white currants I prune lightly in spring; the blackcurrants in early winter, when I cut crowded, old or weak stems to the ground.
A little sugar
Of course you can’t do much with just one bush, though you might be able to make a jar of jelly with a good crop. I make jelly each summer, partly because I enjoy letting the juice slowly drip through the cotton jelly bag into its jars, but more importantly because it allows me to make a jelly with more of the fruit’s natural bite than the commercial jellies, which I usually find too sweet. This is important because the point of a fruit jelly is often to balance the fatty qualities of meat or the richness of game birds, and too much sugar stops them doing that.
Having said that, blackcurrants in particular are nothing without heat and sugar. I tip the fruits into a stainless steel or enamelled saucepan (their intense acidity makes aluminium unsuitable), pour in a shallow layer of water and then a mean sprinkling of sugar before bringing them to the boil. More than a tablespoon or so per 100g (3½oz) of fruit will dull their flavour. Once heat is turned down, they can simmer for 10–15 minutes until their skins have burst and the sugar has dissolved. The intense purple juices are exceptionally richly flavoured and can be served as a compote with muesli or yogurt, or spooned over a piece of sponge cake. Red and white currants take less readily to cooking, and are probably best in a fruit tart where they can glisten under a thin layer of fruit jelly.
It is my hope that new gardeners who are so keenly embracing their cabbages and pumpkins will go on to appreciate the charms of a currant bush or two and start a renaissance of these lovely old cultivars. Many selections of currants have been with us since Victorian times, including my ‘Laxton’s Number One’ (1914). ‘Versailles Blanche’ is older (1843) and both produce long strings of tart-tasting fruit. The blackcurrant bushes available tend to be more recent cultivars, as this fruit is constantly being improved for the bottled-juice industry, which takes most of the British commercial crop.
I have yet to grow the charming pink currants (such as ‘Hollande Rose’) that look so elegant, like Victorian jewellery – unfortunately stock is not always easy to find. The white have much the same flavour as the red, though are occasionally less sharp. I sometimes warm my whitecurrants through with a little sugar to make a compote. It is an elegant way to start the day or a finish to a meal. Generally, the less you do to a red or white currant, the more clearly their flavour can be appreciated.