After dinner one night this summer, I served currants as a garnish on dessert. The pink, round, little fruits from a newly planted bush rolled off the cake slices like BBs out of a gun—quite a few of them shot onto the floor. Only a couple of dinner guests gave the ones still on plates a try. My mistake: Our guests were Americans, darn it. I needed Europeans.
Europeans eat all colors of currants fresh, without the sucking-a-lemon facial expression shown by my ingrate guests. The European palate seems to be more accepting of acidic things. Lee Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, notes that German visitors to his garden eat black currants off the bush as if they were M&M's. Black currants have a strong, earthy taste, slightly resinous.
What we're talking about here, to be clear, are the beautiful red, black, pink, and white fruits from the family Ribes—no relation to the small raisins sometimes called black currants. Cultivated varieties are being bred for sweetness. The red and pink currants have always been sweeter than the black ones—Reich recommends "Pink Champagne."
All of them are nutritious, but it's the black currants that are really good for you. They have higher levels of antioxidants and total vitamins and minerals than blueberries or pomegranates; black currants also have more vitamin C than oranges. The Brits turned to black currants in World War II, when it was hard to get citrus fruit. Generations of English children have gotten vitamin C, and probably decayed teeth, from drinking Ribena, a beverage made from black-currant syrup.
A better way to consume currant nectar is in an aperitif called kir (the favorite drink of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot). It's one part black-currant liqueur to four parts dry white Burgundy wine. I can safely say, from long experience, that two of these per adult family member before Thanksgiving dinner will make things go swimmingly. Include a serving of kir during your next get-together, and maybe the taste of currants will start to catch on stateside.
You can't really blame us Yanks for our aversion to currants—they had a strange reputation as forbidden fruit around these parts. Some currant species are hosts to a fungal disease called white-pine blister rust. The fungus doesn't bother the currant much but is devastating to white-pine trees. This caused the federal government, in order to protect the lumber industry, to establish a ban in the 1920s on growing and selling the enabler berries. Currants, which might have become as popular here as blueberries, were ripped out of gardens, farms, and woods. The red, white, and pink currants aren't very susceptible to the disease, but they suffered guilt by association to the black ones. But since that time, rust-immune black currants have become available, and many of the growing restrictions have been lifted.
Currants would be worth planting for the antioxidants alone. But they're also pretty and one of the easiest fruits to grow. They're small enough to tuck into the corners of a vegetable garden or plant between apple trees.
Vegetable gardens, basically composed of annual plants, look tragically bare in winter and early spring. Currant bushes, though deciduous, give some year-round definition to the space, and they leaf out very early in the spring. They flower at the time the vegetable gardener is likely to be wearing a sweater while putting in lettuce, spinach, and pea seeds.
The two bushes (one pink, one red) I bought this summer, before my ill-fated dinner, look a little ratty as fall approaches. The reason is that currants put out one flush of leaves in early spring, instead of adding new leaves through the summer. I got the two bushes after they'd been hanging around a crowded nursery for a while, unloved. I expect them to look much nicer next summer.
A currant bush, which will usually stay 3 to 5 feet tall, looks like a pretty shrub with maple-shaped leaves. The flowers are small, and the bushes are at their best in late spring when they have dangling strings of glowing berries that look like earrings.