Every year we look forward to the arrival of fresh currants and gooseberries. Like gooseberries (see last week's Yum! blog: Gooseberry delights) tiny, sour currants grow well in our northern climate but are less common in Canada than in Europe. Though it seems that most Canadians who know currants grow their own, they are becoming increasingly familiar at fruit markets and roadside stands. So, we want to get the word out about our favourite underused summer fruit before it's too late.
One of the complications with currants is that there are two very different fruits with the same name. Fresh currants are small clusters of berries (black, red and white) with smooth, shiny skins and rich, tangy juice. They are popular for making cordials, jams and jellies. The more familiar dried currants are tiny, raisinlike fruit (made from the Corinth grape) that are baked into fruitcakes and scones. While dried currants are available year round, fresh ones have a short window of availability from early to mid-summer.
Black currants are prized for their intense and distinctive sharp-sweet berry flavour. They are almost always too tart to eat raw and this makes them ideal for preserving. Because of their high pectin content, they make excellent jams and jellies whether alone or combined with other fruit.
Black currants' concentrated flavour makes them popular for liqueurs, syrups and infused vodka. The Dijon region of France is famous for its cordial CrÃ¨me de Cassis. This sweet black currant aperitif (first produced by French monks in the 16th century as a cure for snakebites, jaundice and wretchedness) is often mixed with white wine, soda water or, best of all, champagne to make a Kir Royal. Some lovely versions of cassis are also made in Quebec, as well as fruit-wine-style by Southbrook Winery in Ontario. A similar, nonalcoholic British cordial called Ribena (named from the botanical name for the blackcurrant, Ribes nigrum) makes a refreshing drink when mixed with soda and lime.
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Red currants are the most common currants. Though the pretty clusters of ruby berries make them popular with chefs and food stylists as garnishes, it's their high pectin content and perky flavour that is really prized for jams and jellies. The tangy-sweet juice makes a striking bubblegum pink sorbet or crimson tart. But, because many people find the seeds too crunchy, they are less used in baking. We have found that slivered almonds in a red currant pie provide the perfect camouflage for the otherwise seedy filling.
Though red currants can be eaten out of hand, they are best combined with other sweetened fruit (especially berries) or added to a rum pot.
White currants are large, pearl-coloured berries with a translucent pale yellow-white skin, sweeter flavour and lower acidity than other currants. Though not as common as black and red currants, they are increasingly available in farmer's markets, specialty stores and garden supply outlets. Their light, sweet flavour blends well with that of the tarter red ones to make a beautiful clear pink jelly, while their delicate flavour adds sweetness and crunch to salads and fruit salads.
When buying (or picking) currants, look for plump, brightly coloured berries. Store in the refrigerator for up to three days; wash just before using. Currants freeze well and should be used partially frozen. To prepare, gently pull berries away from fine stems and discard leaves. Here are a few ways to enjoy currants this summer:
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