A Wealth of Health

Last Chance Foods: Currant Affairs

Published: Friday, July 22, 2011 5:00 pm By: Joy Y. Wang Source: http://culture.wnyc.org/articles/last-chance-foods
Joy Y. Wang


In Brooklyn, it’s illegal for donkeys to sleep in bathtubs. It’s also against the law in New York to walk around with an ice cream cone in your pocket on Sunday or to wear slippers after 10 P.M. While these are some of the sillier examples of arcane laws leftover from bygone days, up until 2003, it was also illegal to cultivate black currants in New York state.

The ban, which was enacted across the nation in 1911, sought to prevent white pine blister rust, which at the time was believed to be fostered by currant bushes. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Greg Quinn (pictured below), the law was overturned in New York several years ago.

Quinn has a background in horticulture and, by working with Cornell scientists, he discovered that only certain kinds of currant bushes were susceptible to white pine blister rust. He found that the type of plant that would produce fruit for harvest wasn’t a variety that would carry the disease.

In recent years, currants have grown in popularity, and, during the summer months, they can be found in farmers' markets throughout the city. Quinn, who has more than 10,000 currant bushes on his farm in the Hudson Valley, said that he recently harvested the season’s last crop. Now is the time to look for black currants before they’re gone for the year.

“[Black currants are] probably the last food that everybody in the world knows and loves except America, because of the ban,” said Quinn.

He first discovered black currants while working as a chef in Bavaria and, after getting the ban overturned in New York, he founded CurrantC, which sells black currants and products made from the fruit.

In Europe, Quinn’s friends and colleagues touted the fruit, which they claimed could help with everything from gout to psoriasis.

“Low and behold, there’s been extensive research done outside of the United States — because, again, it doesn’t exist here — that has proven this to be the case,” he said.

Black currants, which are small, plump and slightly smaller than blueberries, are tart and usually need to be sweetened. Red currants, and the white and pink varieties they're related to, are less tart. Quinn said that black currants were the healthiest of the varieties.

“The black really is the big gun for health benefits," he said. "As we all know, the darker the food, the darker the fruit, the more antioxidants. So black currants have twice the antioxidants of blueberries, four times the vitamin C of oranges, more potassium than bananas, calcium, iron. I mean, it’s this little powerhouse.”

Fresh currants bear little resemblance to the so-called "dried" currants found in scones and fruticake. Quinn said there’s a very good explanation why: they aren’t currants at all. The case of mistaken identity goes back to the 1920s, when currants were still banned.

“Importers started to bring in a small dried grape — a raisin — from Greece, specifically from the Ionian region of Corinth and Zakynthos, and back then labeling laws weren’t so stringent," he said. "And the Greek writing for Corinth was mistranslated to currants. So we’ve got 80 years of cookbooks telling us to put half a cup of currants in our scones and they’re not currants — they’re raisins.”

Quinn said he sells real dried currants, but they're rare.

Black currants are mostly found in jam, and Quinn recommends using them in sauces and smoothies. Below, get his recipe for Low Sugar Black Currant jam.

Greg’s Farm House Low Sugar Black Currant Jam

"You don’t need a farmhouse kitchen for this recipe. It’s simple, quick and in about an hour, you’ll feel like you’ve been making homemade preserves your whole life. You’ll have wonderful homemade  jam for yourself and your family and the best last-minute gift ever.