I got this text in mid-July: “Dani says to tell you that she has ripe currants if you’re interested.”
Currant cultivation was, I had thought, forbidden in Massachusetts. But legal or not, I wasn’t about to pass up an invitation to pick my fill of luminescent red berries.
“They might be illegal,” Dani says when I turn up at her garden gate, bucket in hand. “I’m not really sure. But they were here before I was.” She leads me to a brambly patch on the north edge of her Provincetown potagère.
Dani won’t let me use her real name, though later I learn that keeping her identity secret for fear of the currant police isn’t necessary.
While the birds had clearly discovered her trove of berries, they had mostly fed from the higher branches; lower down and toward the interior of the bramble there were tons of shiny clusters. It was sweaty work, but I ended up with about two pounds of berries along with a fair number of bug bites. It was worth it.
Currants are woody perennial shrubs known for being easy to grow, requiring little maintenance, and offering high fruit yields. The berries — they grow in black, red, or clear-white clusters — taste simultaneously tart and sweet and are high in fiber and full of vitamin C.
I had tasted currants for the first time just a few years ago. We were in Copenhagen, and while Christopher was trapped inside a conference room, I roamed the city’s markets where little wooden buckets overflowing with berries were everywhere. At dinner, we would encounter them again, in a sauce served alongside venison. I resolved to plant currants as soon as we got home.
That’s not so easily done, I discovered. The cultivation of currants is highly regulated in many states, including Massachusetts, because they are part of the genus ribes (along with gooseberry), which plays a part in the life cycle of white pine blister rust, a nonnative fungus. The disease doesn’t affect the berry bushes, which serve as its hosts, but it attacks all varieties of American white pines.
Although the fruit had been cultivated for centuries in Europe and North America, the government here set out to eradicate it early in the 20th century when white pine blister rust threatened the American timber industry. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture banned the cultivation of all varieties of currants in 1912 and devoted enormous energy to rooting out existing stands, so currants are now hard to find, and many Americans aren’t familiar with them.
The ban was lifted in 1966 and regulation left to the states. Massachusetts continues to ban black currants and to regulate red and white currant as well as gooseberry cultivation. The Mass. Dept of Agriculture website lists municipalities where currants are still forbidden, and since Truro didn’t appear on the list, I had tried ordering plants online from a couple of growers but got shot down once I put in my address. I moved on to other projects.
My interest revived by this Provincetown berry expedition, I set out to get the 411 on currants. Howard Vinton of the Mass. Dept. of Agriculture described a simple process for ordering them: the nursery contacts him by email about an order, he compares the mailing address of the purchaser to his list of permissible municipalities and then issues a permit.
Since they’re legal here, now’s the time to think about ordering plants, or, if you happen to know someone like Dani, you could butter her up now in hopes she’ll share cuttings in the fall. They’re very easy to propagate.
As for what to do with my two-pound haul of Provincetown currents, I decide on a straightforward jelly. In the fall, maybe I will turn it into something more complicated to serve with a roast.
It’s hard to imagine an easier recipe than the one in my go-to for preserves, Mary Anne Dragan’s Well Preserved: Small Batch Preserving for the New Cook. It turns out currants contain a lot of pectin and don’t need any added stabilizing agents. And if your currants are on the stem, rejoice, as that will not only help the fruit set but also add some desirable tannins to the mix, balancing sweetness with a little astringency. (Don’t worry, you can make currant jelly without the stems.)
I had to scale down the recipe for my two pounds of fruit and ended up with about two pints of jelly.
Red Currant Jelly
Makes about six 8-ounce jars
2 pounds ripe red currants, stems on if possible
½ cup water
About 3 cups of sugar
Wash the currants and place them, stems included, in a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot — not cast iron, unless it is enameled, and not aluminum. Gently crush the currants with a potato masher (or use the bottom of a wine bottle). Add the water and simmer over medium heat until the currants are soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and gently crush the fruit a second time to help currants release their juice completely.
Drain the pulp overnight. You’ll pour the mixture into either a dampened jelly bag (available at most hardware stores) or into a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth, over a large bowl. Do not squeeze the jelly bag or cheesecloth because that will result in a cloudy jelly.
When you’re ready to make the jelly, place a small plate in the freezer. You’ll use it to test for doneness.
Once strained, measure the red currant juice into the same heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot, adding ¾ cup of sugar for each cup of juice.
Bring mixture to a boil over high heat and boil rapidly, stirring constantly, for about 10 to 15 minutes. At about 10 minutes, begin testing the temperature with a candy or instant-read thermometer. The jelly is ready between 218 and 220 degrees F. As soon as the mixture reaches 218 degrees, place a spoonful of it on the cold plate and return it to the freezer for 2 minutes. If the jelly is ready, it will gel on the plate. If it remains runny, allow the jelly to cook for another couple of minutes and test again.
When it’s ready, pour the jelly into clean jars and store them in the refrigerator for several weeks or in the freezer for six months, or follow a hot water bath canning method to make them shelf stable.