I had never eaten a real currant until my sister started growing them. Like nearly every other American of the past 100 years, I thought currants were those mini-raisins in the Sun-Maid box — the ones called for in recipes for muffins and scones.
But no, those mini-raisiny things are not currants, they’re raisins, dried small black grapes grown in Greece, near Corinth. When they began to be imported to the United States in the 1920s, someone saw “Corinth” on the boxes, transcribed it as “currant,” and the rest is history. The name stuck, perhaps, because the growing of real currants had been outlawed in the U.S. since 1911, so no one said, “Hey, those aren’t currants!” as they surely would have done in Europe.
Our European and Russian customers at the farmers market in Evanston, Ill., tell us that in their towns nearly every house is surrounded by currant bushes. The same was true of the homes of most European colonists, many of whom brought currants along with them when they came to the “new world.”
But at the beginning of the 20th century, currants were banned in the United States because the bushes were hosts to the fungus that caused white pine blister rust, which threatened the thriving lumber industry of the time. This ban stayed in place until 1966 when individual states were allowed to decide whether they would allow currant cultivation.
Colorful and healthy
Even though the ban has been lifted, these delicious and nutritious berries are still rare in the American diet, which is a pity. Red currants have an irresistible jewel-like color and shine as if there were a small light inside each berry. White currants also seem to be luminescent and glow softly with undertones of pink and gold.
While red and white currants are quite acceptable to the American palate, black currants are another story. Raw, they have a complex aroma and taste. It’s somewhat musky, somewhat piney, with a funkiness that many people find off-putting. Indeed, even a 1925 book entitled “The Small Fruits of New York” stated that black currants were “of a stinking and somewhat loathing savour.” However, lightly cooked or combined with another fruit or a little sugar, they are delicious, especially in a mixed fruit smoothie or cobbler.
All currants are high in vitamin C, but the antioxidant levels of black currants are almost twice that of blueberries, and one serving gets you 302% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C.
Researchers have found black currants to be very effective in reducing inflammation and swelling, and they may also stave off Alzheimer’s disease according to researchers at Tufts University.
Ripe for sorbet
Because of their rich color and sweet-tart taste, currants are used in all sorts of dishes throughout Europe, and more and more in U.S. restaurants. While they are in season, it is not unusual to find them scattered in green salads, or accompanying meat courses. And of course they are often found in preserves, juices, pies, cordials such as crème de cassis and, my new favorite, the super simple, intensely flavored, and beautifully mauve black currant sorbet. Just don’t try to make it with dried raisins!
Black Currant Sorbet
Makes about 6 cups of sorbet
3 cups granulated sugar
3 cups water
3 cups fresh black currants
1. Combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stir until sugar dissolves, and remove from heat.
2. Place currants in a clean saucepan and add 2 cups of the sugar syrup. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes.
3. Purée with an immersion or regular blender. Strain through a fine sieve, discarding solids.
4. Cool completely. This can be done either slowly, or quickly in a bowl set in an ice water bath.
5. Taste, and stir in water to taste (about ¼ cup water to ¾ cup or 1 cup of the black currant syrup).
6. Freeze in an ice cream maker, according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Top photo: Red and white currants. Credit: Terra Brockman