Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Currants: The forbidden fruit?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you get to the farmer's market late, you will find that all the most ruby red strawberries and the crispiest heads of lettuce are gone. Perhaps that is why college students like me, a late-night late-morning breed, are not that common at such markets. That is also why I generally like to buck that trend and be one of the first ones there, before there is a long line to weigh and buy the nice snap peas (which are sadly out of season now).

However, a couple of weeks ago I did sleep late and found the time hovering around 11 am, a late hour in the world of farmers. I raced to the market and found that all the raspberries, cherries, and blueberries had vanished.

But aha…here were some berry-looking thingamajigs. Currants, both black and red, and gooseberries, were still available. I am not usually in the mood for making complicated preserves and I don’t really have a real kitchen, so I asked the farmer whether or not they could be snacked on raw. She said yes, but she told me that most people don’t like them that way since gooseberries are sour and she said black currants have an indescribable and pungent taste most people find unpleasant. I tasted some and bought them anyway.

The farmer told me that she couldn’t really describe the taste of black currants. After a week of eating them I can say it’s a gamey nearly wild taste that milds out as the berries ripen. That is what makes them a good accompaniment as a sauce for meat dishes.

Both berries also are wild for another reason: their fruit to seed ratio. Open one up and the pulp that comes out is inundated with seeds. Also, if you eat them raw you spend a rather long time removing the stems. Strawberries, blueberries, and cherries do have seeds and stems, but they are much easier to deal with which probably accounts for the fact they are so much more popular than currants and other menus of the genus ribes. The latter fruits have been bred to be bigger and easier to eat, but no one has bothered to truly domesticate the currant.

However, the currants are worth trying if only for their unique tastes and beauty and if you are willing to cook you can do some really interesting things with them. They are also supposed to be high in a group of potent antioxidants called anthocyanins, which is thought to be more concentrated due to the small size of the berries.

If you are committed to eating local in a climate where fruit output is not high, they can be an important source of vitamin C. During WWII in Britain when imported vitamin-C rich fruits were difficult to obtain, the popularity of blackcurrants soared and the government encouraged their cultivation.

An interesting anecdote for the lack of popularity of blackcurrants in the US is that in the 18th and 19th century they were banned in several states because they were thought to be a vector for spreading a disease called blister rust to white pines, which threatened the nascent logging industry. Because of this, they were banned in the United States in 1911. It wasn’t until 1966 that the nationwide ban was shifted to state jurisdiction and even now they are still banned in several states. I suspect these bans will be challenged since rust-resistant varieties of currants are available and many farmers want to break into the market for specialty crops.

I never suspected a late morning would lead into a story about law. Here is a fascinating NYT article on the subject.