7.14.2009

The Local Food Report: a rabble-rouser

Everyone, say hello to a Mr. Black Currant. He's sort of an outlaw around here, a rabble-rouser of sorts, but he's worth getting to know. So are his cousins, White and Red.


Black Currant got into trouble when he started bringing White Pine Blister around—a miserable, highly contagious rust that can cause a white pine tree to heave its last breath. Red and White and another cousin, Gooseberry, got in on it too, and trees started keeling over left and right. These were tall, stately, important trees—ship's masts and dining room tables and whole staircases worth. So the government intervened, told the whole Ribes family to pack their bags and leave almost every state in the U.S. The worry, of course was that the tart, juicy berries would topple whole commercial forests, collapsing an industry as they went.

Instead, they collapsed the berry supply.

Sixty years later, in 1966, once the hubbub had quieted down, the feds shifted the decision to the states' realm, letting them decide whether they were comfortable with the berries or not. In New York in 2003, nearly a century after they'd been sent away, the outlaw Black Currant was let back in. Vermont, Connecticut, and Oregon followed suite, but the rest of New England still hasn't allowed that.

For the other members of the family—Red Currant and White Currant and Gooseberry and even a fellow they call Jostaberry—Massachusetts has a tangled, tricky set of laws: they're banned in 137 cities and towns statewide; anyone else is free to go online and order up a plant. But this really doesn't help much. As you might imagine, between all the yellow tape and the hunting around for legal terms, the Ribes berries still aren't particularly popular. Hardly anyone grows them, and those that do tend to eat their whole stash or turn it into jellies and desserts.

Except for Andy Pollock, who grows in Dartmouth and sells at the farmers markets in Provincetown and Falmouth and Vineyard Haven and Plymouth. He has the tangy red berries, the dark, veined gooseberries, and the ivory, champagne-tinged whites. He started growing them, he said, because they were unusual, and this year the plants will turn three.

He sells the fruits in tiny, 1/2-pint containers, for $3 and $4. He says it depends on the day—sometimes they sell like hotcakes, other mornings they hang around hour after hour, languishing in the heat. He looks for Northern Europeans—Brits or Swedes or Ukrainians—because they know the fruit well. Over there, currants are still prolific, common wild and in markets all summer long. Here, between the bans and our preference for sweet over tart, we never really got acquainted very well.

It's a shame we didn't, because though they might be rabble-rousers, currants are good. The red ones are good plain, in a pop-in-your-mouth sort of way, and the white ones are excellent in a glass of champagne. The black currants I find a bit strong, much better suited to topping a lamb chop or a duck breast as a rich, simmered sauce than to eating raw, but good nonetheless. As for the gooseberries, well, I think they fall somewhere in between.

(I've never seen a jostaberry in my life. If you have, do tell.)

I'm still very much in that awkward, getting-to-know-you phase with these fruits, but one thing I do know is they make very good jam. I tried my hand at a batch the other day—half red currants, half white currants, and plenty of sugar—and it came out just right. Currants naturally have plenty of pectin, so it was a breeze to set, and the flavor is the perfect balance of tart and sweet. There are more ideas for what to do with currants over here, but if you're just getting introduced, this jam is a very good place to start.

CURRANT JAM

Most people make currant jelly, not jam, because they don't like the seeds, but I've always preferred to leave them in. (Call me crazy, but that feeling you get when raspberry seeds are stuck between your teeth on a lazy summer afternoon? It makes me absolutely delirious.) If you're more of a goes-down-smooth type, this recipe can be easily adjusted. Simply heat up the berries alone, without the sugar, and once they're soft, strain out the seeds and skins. Save the juice and for every cup of liquid add a cup of sugar. Cook the mixture over the stove in a small, heavy-bottomed pot, following the instructions below for figuring out when it has set and is ready to put into jars.

This recipe doesn't make much—just about a cup of jam—but it can be easily multiplied. I didn't buy many currants, as they're kind of expensive and I wasn't sure just yet if I would like the results of this jam foray, but I can now say that it was well worth it. In fact, next time I think I'd buy at least a quart of berries, maybe even two.

Oh! and I wouldn't try this with black currants, if you can find them, because they have a very, very different taste. Gooseberries might be okay, but I think I'd mix them with red currants for that characteristic bright taste.

1 cup currants (I used equal parts red and white, which I thought worked quite well)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water

Combine the berries, sugar, and water in a small, heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over low heat, mashing the currants into a pulp with a ricer or a fork as they cook, and stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer until the jam sheets off a spoon. Take care not to overcook it, as currants have plenty of pectin and can firm up a little too much, into a substance much more like rock candy than a condiment if they're left on the stove too long.

(If you're nervous that you might not be able to tell when the moment arrives, try dribbling a bit of jam onto a plate every now and again and letting it cool. Tilt the plate, and if it moves like jam rather than water, you're there.)

Pour the hot fruit mixture into a Mason jar* and let it cool overnight. It makes an excellent topping for a hot English muffin with butter, and is also good combined with a bit of horseradish and mustard as a sauce for rich meats like beef and lamb.

*Be sure to take the proper sterilization steps for the jar and the lid if you're planning to keep the jam in the cupboard; these instructions are intended for a jar that will be tucked into the refrigerator and eaten up very soon.

5 comments :

Rebecca said...

i love your writing...thanks for the recipe.

Elspeth said...

rebecca, that is very kind of you to say.

as for the recipe, i highly recommend giving it a try if you can find those little trouble makers. they are well worth it!

all the best,
elspeth

Anna said...

At Frontier, we use black currants in our baked goods. Our black currant scones are deeeee-lish, and I imagine they'd be even better with fresh (not dried!) currants. Yum.

Kelly said...

oh yum! Currents are on my 2010 'wishlist', I couldn't find any this year. My CSA has been been offering them to full share holders, but I am only a measely half and therefor get none. 8(

Elspeth said...

anna, you will have to sneak the recipe out of that kitchen. i will bring my black currants to you!

and kelly, good luck! if you live around here, try the markets...

all the best,
elspeth

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