Currant affairs

The fruits on my two blackcurrant bushes are so abundant their sheer weight sags the shrub’s woody branches almost to the ground. I’ve been picking daily for a week and have already harvested a kilo, but have barely made any inroads into the vast quantities still to fully ripen. Last year both the bushes were quite disappointing, hardly providing enough berries for a couple of feeble sorbets. Since I’ve not altered my horticultural habits (benign neglect and a March mulch), this year’s fantastic bounty can only be down to the ideal climactic conditions of last winter and spring. The blackcurrant (Ribes Nigrum) likes a cold winter and a mainly frost-free spring and that’s exactly what we’ve had in Cardiff. Factor in damp, fertile alkaline soil and a sheltered position in the lee of a shed and you’ve got blackcurrant bliss. No wonder the violet vintage is so voluminous!

What to do with all these blackcurrants? Well, eat the little beauties of course. Few edible plants can match that unique flavour; somehow acidic yet sweet, earthy yet aromatic, floral yet arboreal, and palate-cleansing fresh yet darkly powerful and complex. Why, I’ve been eating so many I’ve left a trail of undigested seeds across Splott! Blackcurrants have a multitude of culinary uses: jams, jellies, mousses, ice creams, crumbles, cakes and cordials, fools. Sorry that should read cordials and fools. My favourite, perhaps because it evokes my mother baking in her kitchen when I was a kid, is blackcurrant pie.


For pastry:
170g (6oz) plain flour
100g (3½oz) butter/marge
1 egg yolk
approx 2 tbsps cold water
a little milk and sugar to glaze
For filling:
350g (12oz) blackcurrants, washed, topped and tailed
150g (5oz) sugar
1 tbsp cornflour

■In a bowl rub/cut the butter into the flour until it forms crumbs, beat in the egg yolk, add just enough water to form a firm dough, chill for 30 minutes.
■In another bowl mix the blackcurrants with the sugar and cornflour until entirely coated.
■Split the dough in half, roll out into two flat rounds, line an 8″ pie dish or deepish metal plate with one, fill with the blackcurrants, top with the rest of the pastry pinching the edges together, glaze with milk, sprinkle on sugar, pierce the top with a sharp knife to make a couple of small vents.
■Bake in oven on medium heat for around 40 minutes.
■Serve hot or cold with extra-thick, artery-clogging double cream (in the event of a massive coronary, try to avoid going up the Heath unless you don’t mind sitting in an ambulance for hours listening to a paramedic tell you to go private).

Given that blackcurrants are delicious, versatile, prolific, easy to grow and very expensive to buy fresh, it’s surprising so few people cultivate them let alone cook with them any more. Come to think of it, it’s not surprising at all. Gardening and cookery are two of the many basic crafts lost in deskilled, uncultured 21st century Britain, where passive couch-potatoes much prefer to gorge on ready-meal slurry and watch someone else do the work on an ever-burgeoning roster of gardening and cookery programmes. Who these days has the attention-span, perseverance or willpower to top and tail each individual berry when that time could be spent posting some dull banality that nobody will read on Facebook? Admittedly, topping and tailing is fiddly and requires precision – but the stalk comes off with the slightest tug and the vestigial calyx is simple to remove with a sharp scissors. I get into a rhythm snipping away at my kitchen table while working out rude anagrams of the names of the powerful…what do you mean, you are unaware of the myriad delights of my twitter feed…?


Blackcurrants are also, in the invidious lingo of a Mail on Sunday health column, a ‘superfood’ – crammed with beneficial vitamins, trace elements, minerals and antioxidants. The therapeutic qualities of blackcurrants have been folk knowledge for centuries throughout northern continental Europe and western Asia, the native territory of the Ribes genus (which includes redcurrant, whitecurrant and gooseberry). Because they didn’t arrive in the British Isles as a cultivated plant until the 17th century there was no Welsh word for blackcurrants until some idiot coined the dreadful ‘cyrren duon’, a linguistic dog’s breakfast which commited the crime of attempting to Welshify the English word ‘currant’ – in itself a confusion of ‘Corinth raisin’ (a grape) with the berries of Ribes (the reason why the unpleasantly oily, vacuum-packed dried grapes some put in fruitcakes are also called currants). It was a pointless exercise because there were already plenty of Welsh words for ‘berries’: ‘aeron’, ‘grawn’ and ‘rhyfon’. The last is the most precise, so here I unilaterally declare that from henceforth the Welsh for blackcurrants is ‘rhyfon duon’. Come and argue the point if you think you’re hard enough.

In the independent, creative, free-thinking Wales of my dreams rhyfon duon would be a staple crop. That sort of change can’t happen while our agriculture is determined by free-market mandarins in London and Brussels and our land is in the grasp of absentees, corporations and aristocrats. There are growers in Radnorshire, but on nowhere near the scale required for self sufficiency in the world’s richest source of vitamin C.  It’s a pity because, as my garden testifies, Wales has precisely the right conditions for rhyfon duon to grow superbly. More confirmation of that is the fact that the UK’s largest producer is just over the border at Coleford in the Forest of Dean, where the tooth-rotting travesty Ribena is manufactured.

Invented in 1938, Ribena was originally made in Bristol by drinks company H W Carter. During WW2, when fruits rich in vitamin C were hard to obtain, the UK government virtually requisitioned Carters and distributed their blackcurrant syrup free to all children (the only time we’re allowed socialism is during a war). The Ribena habit was thus established, and hasn’t really diminished. However the drink modern children imbibe bears no relation to the genuinely healthy drink wartime children enjoyed. In the usual race to the bottom that is such a feature of profit-motivated, economies-of-scale capitalism, there has been a steady reduction of vitamin C and relentless increase in sugar content – through Carters takeover by Beechams in 1955, Beechams takeover by SmithKline in 1989, SmithKlines takeover by GlaxoWellcome in 2000 and Glaxos takeover by Suntory in 2013. Today, just 5% of the ingredients in the Japanese multinational’s purple cartons are actual blackcurrants (pulp from concentrate – yuck!).

There is an infinitely superior drink extracted from rhyfon duon: Crème de cassis, Burgundy’s speciality liqueur. It’s great in cocktails like kir but I prefer it neat – always remembering that, at 20% ABV, it ain’t Ribena.

Picture: Stephen Lea