The blackcurrant has been cultivated in Britain for something like 500 years – and has long been thought of as having healthy properties.
They have good levels of potassium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin B5 – and various other things that won’t do you any harm either.
Work published in the likes of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and Molecular Nutrition and Food Research is also showing that they might have benefits in preventing heart disease, cancer and even conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
Blackcurrants are a particularly good source of vitamin C.
According to Roy Vickery’s Dictionary of Plant Lore (Oxford 1995), blackcurrants were well known as a cold cure, even if people didn’t really know about vitamins.
He recorded anecdotes of people putting blackcurrant jam into hot water for just this purpose.
During the second world war, with the shortage of availability of fruits high in vitamin C, blackcurrant production was encouraged by the British government.
And from 1942, almost the entire blackcurrant British crop was made into cordial and distributed to the nation’s children free.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Ribena, the company famous for its blackcurrant drinks (and which made that cordial in the war years) boasts in adverts and on its website, that “nearly all of British blackcurrants are used in Ribena”.
Now setting aside the recent history of concerns about the amount of sugar in Ribena’s drinks – and about claims of vitamin content – that’s just a damned shame.
Because blackcurrants are fabulous in more ways that just heath ones – and can be the basis of some supremely grown-up treats. Once you’ve tasted a real blackcurrant dish, you’ll realise that this is not a humble fruit, but a quite magnificent one.
Last year, I made a big error. Having only really discovered blackcurrants as a grown-up delicacy on our trip to France, I missed most of the season.
When I got back, desperate to find some, I was almost too late. So utterly had I relegated this gorgeous fruit to the back of mind, that I lost a sense of just when the season is.
Indeed, a reader of this blog pointed that out to me when I posted about it.
There’s been no such issue this year. On Saturday, on Broadway Market, the Chegworth Valley stall had plenty of punnets, so I grabbed an initial half dozen.
I’ll be getting more next week, if they’re available again.
There really are so many things that you can do with this wonderful fruit.
And here are just a few ideas.
Take approximately a kilo of blackcurrants, rinse gently and then pop into a large pan with approximately 75ml of water and 300g of caster sugar.
You can pick them over carefully and put each one individually into a bowl, or you can pull them off the stems with a fork – or you can actually pretty much just decant the lot into a pan, since you’re going to sieve it all anyway.
Put the lid on and bring gently to a simmer, stirring once or twice to make sure everything is cooked evenly.
Once the sugar has dissolved, strain it through a sieve, using a ladle or spoon to press as much of the goodness through.
Here’s where you do the tasting. If you like it sweeter, then add a little more sugar. It’s worth remembering that the freezing process will cut the sweetness a little.
Check it after an hour and give it a whisk to break down any ice crystals, then return to the freezer. And continue until it’s fully frozen.
Blackcurrant fool (for four)
Make the syrup as above, using approximately 250g fruit to a heaped teaspoon of granulated sugar, and a dessertspoon of water.
Now this really is where you do not want to add extra sugar – you’re going to combine the fruit syrup with rich, naturally sweet cream, so there’s no need. You want that tartness to still come through.
Once you’ve got your syrup and allowed it to cool, whip into approximately 280g of double cream until you start getting soft peaks.
Then decant and chill for an hour or two.
If you feel so inclined, decorate with a sprig of mint.
Blackcurrant sauce (for use with duck or venison; serves two)
Make the syrup as above, using around 150g fruit with a dessert spoon of water.
Once you’ve got your syrup, add a pinch of salt and a glug of a gutsy red wine.
Many recipes for fruit-based sauces like this use cassis, the blackcurrant liqueur, but as it’s essentially a boozy Ribena – and sweet – the red wine gives more body and a much more complex flavour.
Simmer gently to thicken and serve as needed.