Making the most of currants

The Ribes or currants are the poor relations of the kitchen garden relegated to shady places and planted in otherwise unproductive areas if grown at all. Not often are they regarded as one of the more important inhabitants and rarely esteemed as fresh or dessert fruits. Which is rather a shame as they are easy, reliable, nutritious and indeed even quite tasty when fully ripe. The currants, Black (R. nigrum), and the Red (R.rubrum) with their thorny sister the gooseberry (R. grossularium) are really very distinct and different sorts and need treating in rather different ways for the optimum results. Their most common similarity is their bird appeal and unless nets or a fruit cage are provided you may as well forget any crop from either the thornless currants though the thorny gooseberry may carry ripening fruit for a short while. Their second similarity is in their willingness to crop heavily even in adverse conditions. This ability to crop even on a cold north wall works against them as then too often they are not given prime positions and allowed to show their full potential. The currant family are also remarkably willing to root from cuttings and layers and even to grow from seed. The last though easy is rarely done. Chance seedlings are often found -these can be grown on to fruit within a couple of years; unfortunately though these will usually be found to have returned to the wild smaller berried originals but do occasionally show improvement. There are apparently no hybrids between the black and red which indicates a greater dissimilarity than at first apparent. Indeed blackcurrants seem closer to gooseberries as there are some crosses with these but none between gooseberries and redcurrants although these are closer in habit and treatment. Many other species have contributed genetically especially to redcurrants and to the many American varieties. As currants are mostly woodland species they thrive in light dappled shade and a well mulched moist soil. Blackcurrants will tolerate very wet conditions and can even be grown in boggy ground and ditch edges. In very dry soils blackcurrants drop their yields more than do redcurrants and gooseberries which last then also tend to suffer dreadfully from mildew. Unlike the others in order to get the biggest crops you need to feed blackcurrants heavily, indeed they will take more ‘nitrogen’ than almost any other crop. However although the total yield is increased by very large fertiliser applications this simultaneously depresses the percentage of vitamin c contained in each blackcurrant pro rata -so lighter amounts should be used. The redcurrants need far less feeding but do require more potash as do the gooseberries which need more potash than most other crops. Although all these fruits enjoy dappled shade their fruits are undoubtedly sweeter given full sun and less so when in heavier shade. However the lower sugar and increased acidity of shade grown fruits is not necessarily a problem for jamming or juicing as sugar will be added and the tartness increases the taste appeal. Also; currants grown in shade especially against cool walls ripen later and hang longer in good condition which can extend their useful season. Gooseberries can be trained on cool walls but resent the poor air circulation and tend to get mildew unless their roots are kept well moistened. All the currant family benefit from fairly hard pruning as this improves air circulation. By reducing the total amount of fruiting wood this does reduce the crop somewhat but concentrates it in fewer larger berries with less waste on seeds and skins. However the blackcurrants need completely different pruning methods to gooseberries and redcurrants. Blackcurrants need the harshest treatment with no wood allowed to survive more than a couple of years. Ideally the plants are planted deep to form stools with many shoots coming from below ground. These stools should be treated rather as if they were ‘dwarf’ raspberries with the canes thinned as they grow to just the strongest and all of them are pruned out immediately after they have finished fruiting. The harder you prune the better the quality and the bigger berries resulting are even good for dessert once fully ripe. Old overgrown blackcurrant bushes should be replaced as they pick up virus diseases and it is rarely ever worth saving them. Redcurrants and gooseberies are different and need a frame with spurs building up much like an apple or pear on a smaller scale. They are very amenable to training and can be grown as cordons, espaliers or fans quite easily and productively. And unlike the black the redcurrants and gooseberries do not pick up virus diseases and it is always worth renovating old bushes. However then it is better to rework a whole new framework from the roots up rather than to try and rework the old one. After a quarter of a century I still have my original redcurrant roots but they are now on their third set of tops! I think most of us hardly need informing of the nutritional value and delight that blackcurrant jam offers however fewer of us bother to make the cordial which is sold commercially as Ribena. I find adding up to a fifth of redcurrant to the blackcurrant cordial makes it tarter and even more pleasing than the blackcurrants on their own. Redcurrant juice is not so good you would want it on it’s own but mixed with cherries, strawberries or raspberries it then makes fantastic juices, jellies and jams. That extra tartness helps bring out the other fruit’s flavours without altering them. And when used in jams and jellies it helps them set. Redcurrants have a sub-variety known as Whitecurrants (and also the rare Pink currants). These are simply white versions identical in every way but which makes their clear juice more suitable as a substitute for lemon juice and their jelly as a superb medium for carrying other flavours such as mint or ginger. They are exactly the same in all other ways though they may escape bird damage slightly longer while the feathered fiends wait for them to redden up! Although they are not usually eaten as dessert either red or white currants get less acid and more pleasing as they ripen. They do not need be picked immediately either as if they are protected from the rain and birds the berries will hang on in good condition well into October. (Blackcurrants and gooseberries treated likewise drop off.) And of course they are invaluable in dishes such as Summer pudding and as garnishes on both sweet and savoury displays. Something rarely made nowadays but nutritious and delicious is fruit leather. Any of these fruits, singly or mixed is cooked down to a puree with the skins and seeds sieved out. This puree is then dried as a flat sheet in a cooling oven and turns into what looks and feels like a bit of tough leather. This can be cut into pieces and chewed as a sweet. The concentration improves the flavour and tartness so much that many prefer to dilute it down (and bulk it out) by mixing in apple puree before drying. Fruit leather keeps for years if kept dry in a tin. Gooseberries have long been disregarded as a dessert fruit. This is probably because they are never sold in the shops except as those under-ripe hard green bullets you see. However left to fully ripen on the bush then gooseberries become globes of sweetness every bit as delicious as grapes. I especially like the small white Langley Gage and others such as London, Crown Bob, Gunner and Yellow Sulphur which are forgotten gems of the fruit kingdom. A simple tip; pick the gooseberry, hold it by the stalk end and pick off the flower stub with a bit of the skin then suck out the contents while simulataneously squeezing the skin. All the goodies will be forced out and you can throw away the tough hairy skin. Goosebrries also make the most delicious jam. This is best when they are picked acid and under-ripe and is a good way to use up mildewed fruits as the fungus will come off with the scummings. Alternatively I have found you can get the matted felting of the mildew off by careful washing with soapy water, or I use my potato rumbler. This machine is a sandpaper drum designed to take the skins off potatoes but it will also remove the hairs and tops and tails from the gooseberries just as easily and very quickly. Mildew rarely affects the other currants as most modern varieties are fairly resistant but gooseberries may suffer badly especially if they are in stagnant air or dry soil. Early treatment with sulphur dust can prevent attacks as can any permitted fungicide. One of the most unusual, and not cleared for use in the UK, is Sodium bicarbonate. This common ingredient of baked products is remarkably benign but the solution sprayed on the gooseberries suppresses the mildew almost completely if applied soon enough. Gooseberries also suffer from defoliation by a sawfly caterpillar which may also attack the other currants. The attack starts on one leaf which will show two dozn tiny holes each eaten by a tiny grub. The grubs then move to a stem each and grow into caterpillars that strip every leaf of the bushes. They fall to the ground if disturbed and can be collected on sheets. The other currants sometimes get attacks but rarely badly. However the redcurrants in particular sufer from apparently horrendous leaf blistering, reddinging and yellowing caused by aphid attacks. These do not affect the plant’s cropping though, indeed the leaves are removed with the summer pruning aphids and all. Blackcurrants pick up a mite that causes big buds to occur, these do little harm directly but the pest carries a virus (Reversion) that makes the leaves resemble stinging nettle leaves and the crop yields disappear. Eradiation and new stock is the answer. Fortunately this pest rarely affects the other relations. Two very similar relations to blackcurrants are the Worcesterberry, now thought to be a species, and the Josta berry, R. nidigrolaria which is one of the few blackcurrant x gooseberry hybrids. The Worcesterberry is a thorny suckering brute with drooping lax branches that root wherever they touch. Ideal for the garden security fencing the black purple fruits are produced and look like gooseberries but taste like blackcurrants and make excellent jam. The Josta is a far better proposition and makes a huge bush resistant to most pests and diseases with a heavy crop of gorgeous purple black fruits with a high vitamin c content. Well worth getting- but do remember to give it twice as much space as any of the others And for those with an interest in the widest variety of these fruits there are a host of other species it’s possible to find through specialist nurseries and seed companies. Even that standard of the shrub border, the Flowering currant, R. sanguineum has a variety glutinosum which berries well –sadly though these are edible they are not actually tasty! The yellow flowered Buffalo berry is an American currant with several closely related edible and tasty varieties developed from R. aureum and R. odoratum such as the Clove Currant and the Golden currant. These have sometimes appeared spontaneously in old kitchen gardens as they were used as rootstocks for other currants and gooseberries in the past. A black currant that is not even related is the Chokeberry from North America; Aronia melanocarpa Viking is a small shrub with very blackcurrant like berries that given some apple puree to help them set makes a very high vitamin c jam with a similar though more piney flavour. This is little known but a good addition to the gourmet’s garden and can be grown with the others and treated much the same. Finally for those with nimble green fingers- an interesting challenge; it ought to be possible to graft a ‘family’ espalier with limbs of red currant, white currant and a couple of choice gooseberries. (Because of their different treatments I reckon you’ll have to leave the blackcurrants out.) That should be a really neat specimen for a small garden!