The blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) is a woody shrub in the family Grossulariaceae. Bunches of small, glossy, black coloured currants grow along the stems in the summer and can be harvested by hand or by machine when grown commercially.
Blackcurrants became a domesticated crop fairly recently in fruit history, about 500 years ago. The blackcurrant, a native to Europe and Asia, was cultivated in Russia by the 11th century when it was grown in monastery gardens, towns and settlements. The earliest records in the UK date back to the 17th century when the leaves, bark and roots of the plant were used as herbal remedies in the medicinal world. By 1826, 5 cultivars were listed by the Royal Horticultural Society. Most of the subsequent cultivar development during the 19th century was based on the introduction of plants raised by private individuals or nurserymen from the open-pollinated seed of cultivars that already existed. By 1920, 26 cultivars were classified into four main groups of similar or synonymous cultivars in England (look at the ‘Blackcurrant Foundation’).
During World War II in the 20th century, most of the UK’s overseas supply of citrus fruit, such as oranges, were blocked by U-boats and the population was in danger of being starved of vitamin C. Afraid of a poorly country, the government started to encourage the people to grow blackcurrants themselves as they are impressively high in this nutrient. From 1942, blackcurrant syrup was distributed free of charge to children under the age of 2 and at the same time most of the country’s crop were made into the cordial we all know today from our childhood. Today, the commercial crop is completely mechanised and about 1,400 hectares of the fruit are grown, mostly under contract to the juicing industry. In Britain, 95% of the blackcurrants grown end up in that fruit juice, ‘Ribena’ (the brand’s name is derived from Ribes nigrum) and similar fruit syrups and juices.
In Russia, blackcurrant leaves may be used for flavouring tea or preserves, like salted cucumbers and the berries for homemade wine. Sweetened vodka may also be infused with the leaves colouring the beverage a deep greenish-yellow and giving it a tart flavour and astringent taste. Blackcurrants were once popular in the USA as well but became less common during the 20th century after current farming was banned when blackcurrants, as a vector of white pine blister rust were considered a threat to the USA’s logging industry. Since the ban drastically reduced the currant production nationally for nearly a century, the fruit remains largely unknown in the US and has yet to regain its previous popularity to levels enjoyed in Europe but time will tell – it is difficult not to like these punch tasting little dark jewels. Owing to its flavour and richness in essential nutrients, awareness and popularity of the blackcurrant is growing with a number of consumer products already entering the US market.
Blackcurrants and their crosses (we grow Jostaberries – a cross between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant that we stew and use in jams and jellies) are self-fertile, making them a pleasingly simple fruit to look after. It is happiest in a sunny, fertile place but will also do well in a damper spot where most other fruit would struggle to thrive. Most varieties get quite large, they average about 1.5m in height and spread so plant your bushes far apart so that they get adequate space, nutrition and so that you can pick the delicious harvest easily. Blackcurrants will be fine to be neglected now and then but they are generally hungry and thirsty plants so keep them well fed and watered to get the best results. Treat blackcurrant bushes as you would treat raspberries or fruit trees – feed them every spring, probably around March, with some very well-rotted manure and Blood, Fish and Bone and a layer of mulch to hold all of those nutrients there for the fruit bush/tree, especially if it is a wet spring otherwise it will all be washed away. If your blackcurrants are going in all directions and falling onto paths and other crops as their branches get heavier with the currants, prop them up against a poll or strong cane and tie them gently with string in a fashion so that you still pick the fruit. If you lose most of your harvest to birds, try investing in some netting to cover the bush with. We fortunately have so many blackcurrant bushes from them spreading themselves during the garden’s years of neglect that blackcurrants are one of the few fruits we never need to net (that and raspberries) but birds do love them, we are just lucky to have enough to share with them! Our blackcurrant collection has drastically increased over the years due to the marvellous ability our bushes have of producing ‘babies’. If a branch buries itself into the soil, it will produce a whole new bush. If you have enough of these plants, tie up any branches embedding themselves into the soil and producing roots or lie them on a hard surface, like a large rock or tile to prevent them from producing more bushes.
You should be able to harvest your blackcurrants from July-August. It is quite a short season, merely a couple of weeks. The blackcurrants are ripe for picking when they are large, darkly coloured and ever so slightly squishy in your fingers and will come of the branch with less fuss than an under-ripe one (that will be small, coloured red or green still). You should be able to prune from August through to January. You can combine harvesting with pruning – if you have time. As the currants ripen, snip off the short trusses of fruit with secateurs or chop out the oldest third of the plant down to the crown with the trusses still attached to the branch. It will encourage good growth on the plant and help you harvest a good portion of fruit at the same time. In the River Cottage Handbook, ‘Fruit’, Mark Diacono recommends placing the cut branch in water to extend the life of the fruit to give you a little longer to use it. He also recommends using a fork to strip the fruit from the trusses.
As a crop, the blackcurrant suffers from several pests and diseases. The most serious disease is reversion, caused by a virus transmitted by the blackcurrant gall mite. Another is white pine blister rust which alternates between two unrelated hosts, one in the genus Ribus (blackcurrant included) and the other a white pine. As I mentioned before, this fungus caused damage to forests when the fruit was first introduced into North America where the native white pines had no genetic resistance to the disease. Gall midge maggots and blister aphids love blackcurrant leaves. Pick off any leaves that discolour or distort. Bud mites inhabit the buds, making them rounded instead of long. Cut off any affected stems when you notice this happening in spring.
The raw fruit has a high vitamin C content (218% of the Daily Value) and moderate levels of iron and manganese (12% Daily Value, each). Other nutrients are present in negligible amounts (less than 10%).
Phytochemicals in the fruit and seeds, such as polyphenols have been demonstrated, with ongoing laboratory studies, that the fruit has potential to inhibit inflammation mechanisms of heart disease, cancer, microbial infections or neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. Blackcurrant seed oil is rich in nutrients, particularly vitamin E and unsaturated fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid and gamma-linolenic acid.
In Europe the leaves have traditionally been used for arthritis, spasmodic cough, diarrhoea, as a diuretic and for treating a sore throat. As a drink, blackcurrants are thought to be beneficial for the treatment of colds and flu, other fevers, for diaphoreses and as a diuretic. In traditional Austrian medicine, blackcurrants have been consumed whole or as a syrup for treatment of infections and disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, the locomotor system, the respiratory tract and the cardiovascular system. Blackcurrant seed oil is an ingredient used widely in cosmetic preparations, often in combination with vitamin E. The leaves can be extracted to yield a yellow coloured dye and the fruit is a source for a blue or violet dye too. This fruit has a lot of potential for us all.
Blackcurrants can be eaten raw but I prefer them cooked as they are intensely tart in taste. In my opinion, the best way to use blackcurrants has to be blackcurrant jam. The fruit has a high content of pectin (all currants do) and a strong, flowery taste which makes them delicious on their own or as an addition to other fruit jams, like Jumbleberry Jam. My next favourite use of blackcurrants is to stew them with a little sugar to taste in a saucepan over a high flame before leaving them to simmer for a little bit. I then pour it either hot or cold over Greek yoghurt or another plain variety for a delicious pudding or snack (scatter more of your berries like raspberries, strawberries or tayberries over the top if you have an abundant supply to get through, they go very well with the mixture). My cousin loves her blackcurrants raw in her muesli for breakfast. She looked after our chaos while I was on holiday and she was successful in harvesting lots of blackcurrants to take home to have in her cereal and to use for jam. She is very happy that Dorset Cereals have made a variation of muesli that includes blackcurrant already as she can never find the fruit in the supermarkets at home.
I came across an interesting idea of making a blackcurrant trifle-styled pudding (minus the alcohol and custard, but feel free to add them in yourself and to experiment with the recipe). The ingredients go surprisingly well together – ginger, cream and blackcurrants. When making the pudding, I served the fruit separately because my brother doesn’t like blackcurrants (I gave him raspberries and strawberries instead) but I would otherwise recommend pouring the blackcurrants over the top of the ‘trifle-mess’ when assembling it at the end to make it look pretty and scatter some raw ones on top too if you like them that way. Serve small slices, it is overpoweringly strong. When stewing blackcurrants, add the sugar little at a time to taste – people have varying opinions. My mum loves hers to have very little sugar and to be tart, I prefer mine slightly middling, my dad likes his a little sweeter.
For the cake: -100g golden syrup – 100g salted butter – 100g dark brown sugar – 2 tsp ground ginger – 2 large eggs, beaten – 280g plain flour
Additions: – 600ml double cream – 4 tbsp elderflower cordial – 500g blackcurrants – Granulated sugar, enough to taste, start with about 100g – 200g raw blackcurrants or other berries to garnish, optional
- To make the cake: preheat the oven 170C and line a 1kg loaf tin with baking parchment. Put the golden syrup, butter and sugar in a non-stick saucepan over a high flame and melt, bringing it to the boil before allowing to cool for 5 minutes.
- Stir in the ground ginger and the beaten eggs until combined. Fold in the flour.
- Scrape the contents of the saucepan into the lined loaf tin and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. The cake will be done when a skewer inserted into the centre leaves clean and the top is firm to the touch and golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave it to cool in the cake tin before turning it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
- Once the cake is cold, whip the double cream in a large bowl until it forms soft peaks.
- Stew the blackcurrants but putting all of the fruit into a pan and turning it onto high heat, stirring it with a wooden spoon. Once the fruit starts to ooze liquid, add a little sugar at a time, stirring it in, until you have enough to taste. Leave to simmer for a few minutes until the currants have released enough liquid and are soft and squidgy.
- In a large bowl, break up the ginger cake into cube shapes and scatter over the bottom. Cover with the elderflower cordial. Scrape the whipped cream over the cake-layer. Pour the blackcurrants over the top and scatter more raw blackcurrants or other berries to garnish. To serve, use a large spoon to scoop out all of the layers. Store in a fridge with clingfilm over the top.