The cultivation and consumption of currants.

All things green.
Sept. 3 2008 12:41 PM

Currant Affairs

The formerly forbidden fruit stakes out a spot in American gardens.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

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.

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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."

Ribena. Click image to expand.
Ribena blackcurrant drink

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.

The best time to plant is very early spring or fall (with plenty of mulch to prevent the soil from freezing and thawing and pushing the roots up). Currant bushes don't mind clay soil, though it's good to loosen it up with organic matter. They do object to poorly drained soil. In late winter or early spring, cut a few of the oldest stems to the ground to encourage new growth. You do need to water attentively in dry times, especially when the berries are ripening.

Currants are one of the few fruits that don't need full sun to ripen. Like blueberries, they thrive in cold climates, growing best in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, climate Zones 3-5. A lot of breeding stock comes from Russia. Lee Reich's favorite currant is "Kirovchanka." If you buy one of the disease-resistant strains, you can avoid having to spray. The whole Ribes family, which includes gooseberries, is deer resistant.

Currants make good jam and jelly, which taste great to Americans as well as Europeans, and are the crucial ingredient in summer pudding—the particularly spectacular dessert that I plan to make next summer if my two little currant bushes cooperate. 

So go forth and grow berries, but check your local laws first: The federal restrictions on cultivating currants were lifted in 1966, but some state laws are still on the books. It's good to check with your local Cooperative Extension office about state regulations. The tale of crusader Greg Quinn, who got the ban lifted in New York state, can be found at www.currants.com.

Currants have literary connections as well as legal and social ones. Red currants figure prominently in the opening pages of the fantastic novel The Stone Diaries by the late Carol Shields. As the story begins, the main character's mother is making summer pudding, combining red currants, raspberries, and blackberries.

Tragedy follows. However, our heroine, after many trials, eventually finds happiness and fulfillment in writing a garden column. It's a believable plot line.

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