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Red currants: A mid-summer’s dream

August 4, 2012

With the Summer Olympics upon us, this seems a good season to try fruits and foods that are more popular outside the States. To be grown well in our local conditions, of course, plants typically need to have come not across the border but across the pond. Red currants are one of these: Commonly served as jelly at Sunday dinner in the U.K., this berry is just gaining a fan base in the U.S. And, like any new sensation, people are clamoring to say that they discovered them first.

Currants are so attractive you’d almost rather gaze at them than eat them.

A foodie blog I came across describing red currants as an under-used fruit got several incredulous comments: “Under-used, really? Because I have currant bushes in my backyard and I’ve been baking with them for years!” (Everyone likes to have a “before-they-were-famous” story.) The Internet is also full of posts from adventurous eaters who wanted to jump on the bandwagon but then were stymied once they had currants in their possession. (Typical post in a cooking forum: “I couldn’t resist picking up some truly beautiful red currants at the farmer’s market this morning even though I have no idea what to do with them.”)

I had no such quandary. I had black raspberries in the fridge off my dad’s vines at home waiting to be used. I thought the colors would be gorgeous together. I made a pie.

Currants grow on a deciduous bush in the gooseberry family. Native to western Europe, they come in three colors (red, black, and white), each with their own flavors and combination of tart and sweetness. The red and white versions can be eaten raw or mixed into salads, yogurt, or cereal. Currants are typically made into jellies, custards, or puddings because they coagulate when boiled, but this was my favorite traditional use: In Germany, syrup from red currants is combined with soda water to make a refreshing drink called Johannisbeerenschorle (say that three times fast). Why the long name? They’re called “John’s berry” in German, because it’s said they ripen on St. John’s Day, or Midsummer Day, June 24.

For years we’ve been able to time the coming of Independence Day (and deep summer) by the blooming of our red Monardas in my dad’s yard (or as I like to call them, firework flowers). So I find the idea of red currants as the midsummer berry irresistible.

And, as it turns out, this German girl celebrated Midsummer Day in America without even knowing it. I just went back and looked at the date I decided to make the red currant pie. It was–you guessed it–June 24th. Talk about eating seasonally!! We managed to try red currants on just the right day.

I can’t remember which online recipe I adapted now, but that’s OK. I pretty much winged it anyway.

I couldn’t wait to see how these colors and textures combined in a pie.

What they look like: Small, perfectly round and smooth red berries arrayed on a woody stem. The skin is translucent so the seed and bright red juice within seem to glow, especially in the sun. You can understand why so many people buy them on a whim without knowing what to do once they get home. They are exceptionally pretty.

What they smell like: Summer, with a faint sharpness like cranberries.

Just throw some sugar, butter, and flour in there.

The recipe:

1 pie shell (pre baked or make your own)
2 cups black raspberries
1 cup red currants (I made the berry proportions more like half and half because that was what I had, which produced a tarter pie than most people probably would like; this 2:1 should be better)
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2-3 Tbsp. cold butter or margarine

“Stem” the currants. (Basically, this means gently pop them off the stem one at a time. Freezing them a little supposedly makes them come off more easily. But I found they detached like a dream without even spilling any juice.) In a bowl, mix the sugar and flour and cut in butter until it’s in coarse crumbs. (I already had a sugar-flour-butter mixture leftover so I am not sure what the true proportions were. This should be close.) In a large bowl, combine the raspberries and currants and gently fold in the sugar mixture. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake 30 minutes more. Serve chilled! (my addition)

The taste: When warm out of the oven, the filling didn’t hold together well and it was tasty but incredibly tart. Unlike other fruit pies, you want to chill this one first for the best flavor and easy serving. After the fridge, it was the perfect tartness. The currants hold their shape in the pie so you get a sweet mouthful of raspberries, then little bursts of sour flavor from the currants as you bite into it. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream goes well on top.

Conclusion: No need to try to puzzle out the meaning of the Olympics opening ceremony when you can absorb plenty of European culture with this little-known berry. A tart midsummer pleasure for pagans and locavores alike.

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