Last Chance Foods: Currant Affairs
Joy Y. Wang for NPR
Originally Published July 22, 2016
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. There’s nothing like a gift you made yourself from fruit grown on the farm and best of all, it’s the finest jam you ever tasted. Unlike many soft fruits, black currants have a high amount of pectin and so don’t need to add any processed pectin. This is a low-sugar recipe compared to most, but I find it just the right balance." —Greg Quinn
Recipe: Low Sugar Black Currant Jam
- 5 cups (1 quart) of Greg’s farm fresh frozen black currants
- 4 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 2 cups good tasting water
- Makes roughly 6 x 8 oz jars
(For large batches, I usually triple this recipe. Any multiple will work)
- Place a small plate in the freezer.*
- Run clean Mason jars or preserving jelly jars through the rinse cycle of the dishwasher or fill with boiling water and set aside. Dry before use.
- Gently rinse the black currants and remove the stems (a few are not a problem, they’re all edible and some say good for your skin).
- Place fruit in a heavy saucepan with 2 cups of water. Make sure pan is several inches deeper than the fruit water mixture to allow for some foaming.
- Bring slowly to boil, uncovered, stirring to break down fruit into a pulp. Cook for 10 minutes or until soft.
- Turn down the heat to low and add the sugar and lemon juice. Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
- If desired, add a teaspoon of butter (not margarine) to curtail foaming.
- Raise heat back up and bring to a full rolling boil, stirring often.
- Boil hard, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat, test for jam stage.* Cook longer if needed and test again.
- Let the jam stand 5 minutes, skimming off any foam with large metal spoon and stirring occasionally to incorporate any floating fruit.
- Pour into hot sterilized jars and heat seal (See below).
Method 1: Take the plate out of the freezer. Pour a small quantity of jam (about 1/8 tsp) onto the cold plate and chill it in the freezer for about 30 seconds. If the test jam is firm to the touch and has the texture you want for your batch of jam, then it is done. Remove from heat.
Method 2: Use a candy thermometer and cook to 220 degrees F/104 degrees C.
Tips for safe, long lasting preserves:
- Use only jars and lids that are designed for preserving such as Ball or Mason.
- Run clean jars through the rinse cycle of the dishwasher or fill with boiling water and set aside. Dry before use. If jars are being reused, run them through a complete cycle of the dishwasher first. Do not reuse the inner dome lids.
- Immerse the dome lids into simmering water (180 degrees F) according to the package directions. Keep them hot until use.
- Fill the hot dry jars, one at a time, with the finished jam or preserves. Inexpensive wide mouth funnels are available where most canning supplies or kitchen items are sold and make the process a lot easier and less messy. A big spoon is necessary with or without the funnel.
- Clean the rim of the jar thoroughly with a damp cloth.
- Immediately place a hot dome lid onto the filled jar.
- Firmly (but not with super strength) screw down a dome lid ring onto the filled and lidded jar.
- Allow your jars to cool. You’ll hear the dome lids popping down as they cool. After they’re cooled, press down on each of the dome lids. All that stay down or are already down are properly sealed.
- Reheat and try again or refrigerate any jars of jam that did not seal properly.
- Remove the dome lid rings. Wipe the jars clean with a warm damp cloth, and store the jam in a cool dark place until ready to use.
- Refrigerate after opening.
- I love to tie on a square of thin fabric with some rattan for the perfect gift.