Currant Challenges

I’ve written in past posts about the challenges of interpreting period recipes. I know I’m not alone in this. If you have tried making sense of some of the old recipes, you know what I’m taking about. It can be a recipe for frustration.

Let’s start with a spoonful of obscure weights and a bunch of measures about the size of a turkey egg. Then let’s add one each of all of the tools and implements that have long been lost to time and modern conveniences. Next, let’s talk about how our modern versions of the most basic ingredients such as milk, flour, meat, and many vegetables are nothing like what they used to be a few hundred years ago. And of course, we would be amiss to forget the fact that so many recipes relied on the good judgment of the reader to make a dish that was agreeable to their own personal tastes — tastes that were much different than modern preferences that have evolved over generations of sugar and processed foods.

Truly, this is a recipe for frustration.

Some of the challenges we face when interpreting period recipes can be overcome if we are willing to apply enough mental and physical elbow grease, but others cannot. Techniques can be researched and refined, and equipment can be procured or reproduced. Replicating mindsets and matching ingredients, however, can be real problems. All too often we simply have to settle with guesses, approximations, and “close enoughs.”

I suppose I need to remind myself of that reality on occasion. This very moment may be one such occasion as I have spent the better part of three weeks focusing on currants in the context to period cooking. I fear my quest has turned into somewhat of an obsession.

Currant(s)

Red Ribes Currants

Red Ribes Currants

Let’s first define the term currant. Many people swear that the “true currant” is a juicy berry of the Ribes genus, closely related to gooseberry. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties that can be classified into three over-simplified groups: red, white (the albino version of red), and black.

These berries grow in clusters or strings — somewhat like grapes. They can be used fresh, frozen, dried, or preserved in sugar. Dried currants look very much like little raisins. The red and white currants were traditionally preferred by most 18th century diners for their sweet/tart somewhat-raspberry-like flavor. The blackcurrant, however, was still popular in the kitchen, just not nearly as much. Blackcurrants are very tart…somewhat like an unripe blueberry or mulberry…and in the fresh state, present a slight hint of ammonia (according to this palette). Currant jelly, made primarily of red currants, was a very popular condiment in the 18th century. It was used as a complementary sauce on poultry, venison, beef, pork, mutton, and rabbit.

IMG_2013

Ripe Blackcurrants

Blackcurrants were also called squinsyberries (or a dozen other variations on that word). Their extreme tartness triggers saliva production which can help sooth a soar throat. Blackcurrants were used as lozenges or reduced to syrup in the 18th century to treat quinsy, or chronic tonsillitis. What they didn’t know at the time was that they are also high in vitamin C. Six berries contain an equal amount of vitamin C to that found in an entire lemon.

The Impostor?

Ribes Currants (left), Zante Currants (right)

Ribes Currants (left), Zante Currants (right)

Now before any fisticuffs break out among the readers, let me give you another definition: currants are also small seedless raisins. They are called Zante currants in the United States. Zantes belong to the genus Vitis, but for sake of this article, I’ll stick with the name Zante.  They taste like…well…they’re raisins. Yeah, they taste like little raisins. At least that’s what modern Zante currants taste like.

Zantes were wildly popular in the 18th century — even more so than raisins, as period importation and taxation records would suggest. But why? Surely it wasn’t simply the novelty of having cute little raisins. I wondered at first if their popularity had to do with the fact that they were seedless. Can you imagine how tedious it would be to stone pound after sticky pound of raisins?

My second theory for their popularity focused on taste. Maybe they tasted differently than modern Zantes. Perhaps there was a significant enough different in taste from that of normal raisins.

John Payne chronicled how currants were processed in his 1796 travel journal, Geographical extracts, forming a general view of earth and nature. After reading that account, it really made me really wonder about their taste. Grapes of Corinth were first laid out on the dirt to cure in the sun. Then they were carried on the backs of horses and donkeys into the city where they were packed into underground cisterns until they were sold for export. At that point, men with bare feet (courteous enough to at least oil them first) stomped the raisins into kegs. The kegs were loaded onto ships and allowed to “cook” during their journey, often stinking up the entire vessel.

This may give insight into why so many recipes suggested washing the currants well before using them. Throw in a bit of dirt, maybe a pebble or two, some mule sweat, a little toe jam, and whatever stowaway may have hopped aboard those wooden shipping kegs, and sure, 18th century Zantes may have tasted a little different from our sanitized version today.

My theory, though, seems to have little support in period texts. I’ve scoured dozens of books looking for something…anything that would suggest an peculiar flavor other than that of raisins. Nothing. The few descriptions that I managed to find were in the period apothecaries, The Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1801) and Ralph Thicknesse’s A Treatise on Foreign Vegetables (1749). They were described as having “a sweet taste with a pleasant and agreeable acidity.” One of those texts also warned consumers to avoid using raisins that had been sweetened with honey in an attempt to conceal their spoilage. They were obviously meant to be primarily sweet.

The Dilemna

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right). Which is more accurate?

New College Puddings using Blackcurrants (left) and Zante Currants (right). Which is more accurate?

Sooooo…what do we have here? We have two very different fruits with the same name. In one hand, we have Ribes berries in various forms that have a flavor profile ranging from sweet-tart to extremely tart; and in the other hand, we have little raisins that taste like…well…like little raisins. So which do we use in our 18th century foodways interpretations? Ribes or Zante?

Surely there’s an easy answer. Surely there’s a way to figure it all out. Surely there’s historical context to analyze or hints that can be found by reading between the lines. All we have to do is cross reference multiple period cookbooks with dictionaries and travel journals and horticultural encyclopedias and tax-court records. Surely, right???

I am left only with more questions.

My brain has turned into a giant raisin.

O.K., so can I at least figure this out:

Which Came First, the Currant or the Currant?

Grapes of Corinth

Grapes of Corinth

The Zante currant derives its name from the Ionian Island that was once called the same, off the coast of Greece. The word currant, according to the 1390 collection of English recipes, A Forme of Cury, is a phonetic corruption of the word Corinth, the area of origin for the miniature grapes from which these raisins are processed.

Karen Hess, in her commentary to Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (1981, page 263), claims that Zante Currants were introduced to English cuisine during the Crusades. The O.E.D. cites the first published reference in the 14th century.

Contrary to the claims of berry loyalists, it wasn’t for a couple of hundred years after the Zante currant that Ribes were finally cultivated in English gardens. Historically speaking, Ribes are the impostors, not Zantes.

Now, the popularity of Ribes berries burst across northern Europe and spilled across the ocean, threatening to overshadow Zantes altogether. Some of the earliest settlers in America considered them important enough to include in their cargo for their journey to the New World. According to Penn State’s 2013-2014 Mid-Atlantic Berry Guide, Currants (and gooseberries) were introduced to North America in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629.

Vulgar Confusion

Grape leaf (left) blackcurrant leaf (right)

Grape leaf (left) blackcurrant leaf (right)

Production, both east and west, grew rapidly, as did confusion over the plants. A common misconception was that they were one and the same plant — that the Ribes plant was a horticultural victory — a northern European adaptation of the Corinth grape. It became known as the raisin tree.

Attempts were made to keep the fruits separate. Zante currants eventually became known as currants of the shops or currants of the grocers, while Ribes became known as garden currantsBut these distinctions seemed to do little to stem the pervasive confusion in society, and seldom made their way into cookbooks. This confusion continues among many even to this day.

A Conspicuous Ambiguity

So as I said, I am left with a number of questions. From numerous period texts, it’s obvious that both types of currants were used in 18th century cooking. A few cookbook authors were thoughtful enough to specify, while it’s fairly easy to guess with other recipes. Many other recipes, however, are conspicuously ambiguous regarding which fruit to use.

A boiled plum pudding using raisins and Zante currants

A boiled plum pudding using raisins and Zante currants

Some types of foods are more perplexing than others. Puddings are a prime example. The resulting flavor of a pudding using Ribes berries would have differed greatly from that of a pudding with Zante currants, yet there is very seldom specific instruction given as to which to use.

So which is more appropriate, Ribes of Zantes? The answer may be both…or either.

If you are trying to interpret a period recipe, I have a few suggestions. First, pay close attention to the context of the recipe you’re reading. What recipes surround it? If they are for other types of berries, you’re likely suppose to use Ribes.

Along with that, if your recipe calls for juicing your currants, again, you’ll need Ribes.

Mincemeat recipes typically use Zantes, which, like other raisins, tend to resist spontaneous fermentation.

But for recipes such as puddings…hmmm…ask yourself which would you have had on hand at the time? And don’t hesitate letting your own personal preference be your guide.

So many 18th century recipes were mere suggestions in contrast to our typical modern recipe which is in essence an exacting formula designed to guarantee consistency. There are numerous hints across the spectrum of period cookbooks that suggest readers were expected to refine the recipe, developing their own preferences with practice. Having said that, a caveat would be appropriate at this point: be careful about being too rigid in following period recipes.

A Recipe for Ribes

Nearly every 18th century recipe for a red currant tart is the same:

Preheat your oven. If you are using a modern oven, set the temperature to 375-degrees (F) or 190-degrees (C).  You can also bake your tart in an earthen oven or Dutch oven. I talk about both of those methods in my White Pot post.

Start by coating your tart tin well with lots of butter. Line it with a short crust. (Here’s a hint: as you roll out your pastry crust, be very liberal with your dusting flour. This extra flour will help thicken the excessive amounts of juice in your berries.) If your baking dish is metal, line the entire bottom as you would a modern pie. Period recipes suggest that if your dish is glass or ceramic, line only the sides.

Fill your lined dish with a sufficient amount red (or white) currant berries that have been well washed and picked free of stems. Weigh your berries ahead of time, or pour them out to be weighed, then return them to the lined baking dish. Pour over your berries an equal amount of refined sugar (by weight). One cookbook cautioned against using raw sugar as it will alter the taste of the tart.

You can leave your tart open (without a top crust), or you can cover it with a lattice crust.

Be sure to set your tart on a baking sheet. Lining your sheet with a piece of aluminum foil will save you quite a bit of elbow grease later. Bake your tart for approximately an hour, or until the crust is golden brown. Allow your tart to cool completely before serving.

Where to Buy Ribes Currants

If you live in the United States, currants can be difficult to find. Black currants were discovered in the early 1900’s to be a vector host of the White Pine Blister Rust — a devastating disease that threatened to wipe out the pine industry. Cultivation of black currants was outlawed by the Federal government until the late 1960’s, when jurisdiction was transferred to the state level. A number of states still outlaw black currant cultivation, and some outlaw currant cultivation altogether.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find currants in your local farmer’s market during the months of June and July. Otherwise, check out these options:

Dried Black Currants:
http://www.nwwildfoods.com/dried-berries-c115/dried-black-currants-p218/?gclid=CMKkicjBz78CFdNxMgodewUAiw
or
http://www.currantc.mybigcommerce.com/dried-black-currants-no-added-sugar/

Red Currant Jelly:
http://www.nuts.com/cookingbaking/spreads/jelly/red-currant.html

Really nice Zante Currants:
http://www.nuts.com/driedfruit/raisins/currants.html

Fresh Frozen Currants (black, white, and red):
http://www.nwwildfoods.com/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=currants&x=-867&y=-1309

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4 Responses to Currant Challenges

  1. Larry says:

    Dear Kevin,
    First, I believe you and Jon should be locked up for having too much fun!!!
    I like your latest take on cooking, ie. for the troops. I most certainly enjoy not being the general public when the cooks ring the supper bell. I often use uour offerings for my gigs and as yje mystery dish at our holiday celebrations.
    I’ve a question and suggestion for future episodes.
    I now use suet in all your resciepts but struggle with quantities. How much grated suet = a tablespoon? Need it be melted first? Must it be weighed?

    As a brewer I have, occasionally, made a batch of bad beer (not often but misteaks happen). Yankees, being frugal (cheap?) would not waste a drop. What did they do with it? I know cocktails (flip. Who drinks hot beer with cream?) but what else? Might be an interesting vid.
    Keep up the good work. My best to Jon and Ivy (the bringer of chocolat !!!) whose inspired biscuts were a hit at Christmas.

    I am your most obedient servant,
    Larry Leonard
    Sudbury Companies Militia and Minute
    Brother Jonathan’s Tin Shop

  2. Kevin Carter says:

    Hi Larry. Thank you for your kind words!

    Regarding Suet, the answer to your question really depends on a number of things, so I’ll try to provide as concise an answer as possible. If you are using raw suet (kidney fat) or Atora suet (available on our website at http://jas-townsend.com/atora-suet-p-1372.html), You can measure it in solid form. 8 oz. of solid suet is approximately 2 cups, crumbled and lightly packed. That means 4 Tablespoons equals about an ounce. Atora happens to come in 200-gram packages, which equates to just over 7 ounces, or about 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 cups. So, If you’re following a recipe that calls for, let’s say, a 1/2-pound of suet, you can use two cups of lightly packed raw suet, or I’ve found in ever case so far that one 7-ounce box of Atora will do.

    Regarding the use of bad beer: first, of course we know that the best remedy is prevention, and generally speaking, brewers of the 18th century knew this as well. While, they did not understand the chemistry of brewing as we do, through best-practice experience they knew the importance of cleanliness, quality ingredients, correct fermentation conditions, and proper storage management. A few of interesting primary resources can be found found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=GENKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA41&dq=bad+beer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=zmPWU9rJN5ONyASu9oH4Cg&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    and here: http://books.google.com/books?id=63FZAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=thumbnail&q&f=false

    and here: http://books.google.com/books?id=fLM6AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA79&dq=foxed+beer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0obWU43hD8y0yATA4YKQAg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAzgK#v=onepage&q&f=false

    In his 1783 book, “The London Art of Cookery,” John Farley speaks of the ill effects of sour beer on the harvest laborers. So, apparently, at least in some cases, bad beer wasn’t wasted. On the other hand, Farley also speaks of good storage management being the best prevention to having to discard your bad beer. So, apparently in other cases it was.

    I wondered about the possible use in vinegar production. There are a number of 18th century picking recipes that used alegar (vinegar made with ale). The few recipes I have seen for alegar, however, started with good ale. As important as a good vinegar was, it’s unlikely they would have started with bad-tasting ale.

    I happened to find in my cursory search a couple of remedies for bad beer, one in the 1778 edition of Encyclopaedia Brittanica: http://books.google.com/books?id=iahbAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA400&dq=sour+beer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=K2XWU534Oc6qyASF6IHwDw&ved=0CFAQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=sour%20beermay%20be%20restored&f=false

    The focus of this remedy seems to be the neutralization of acids (that we know today could possibly be caused by the phenolic effect of wild yeasts and bacterial infections. Off-taste, however, as I assume you already know, can be due to a number of other reasons that this remedy would not address (e.g., esters due to old yeast, insufficient aeration, and elevated fermentation temps, or yeast autolysis from leaving the beer on the lees for too long, or the production of hydrogen sulfide by certain strains of yeast). As you said, mistakes do happen, and there is such a broad selection of mistakes to make!

    The other remedy is here: http://books.google.com/books?id=dYIEAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA307&dq=sour+beer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=BIXWU9vbJoqYyATpkYHACA&ved=0CCoQ6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q=sour%20beer&f=false

    And I am fairy certain from previous research that there are others.

    As for other uses for bad beer, the only one I’ve found is in the tanning of leather: http://books.google.com/books?id=HWcDAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA175&dq=sour+beer&hl=en&sa=X&ei=PoTWU9GGKISPyASOuYHQAQ&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=sour%20beer&f=false

    Finally, here’s an article I ran across written by Hoag Levins: http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews116.shtml

    This guy has been brewing 18th century beers for a while now. Of course, I cannot speak for him, but he may have additional information.

    Hope this is helpful!

    Kevin

  3. Terry Thompson says:

    Hi,
    I enjoyed the article. It got me to wondering about elderberries since they are bearing heavily this year, at least here in California. Have you ever come across historic uses of elderberries?
    Terry

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Hi Terry.
      Interesting you bring up Elderberries. I was discussing them just a couple of days ago. We have a sprig of unripe berries in our office. Jon is presently working on either a video or a blog entry on them as well as many other plants and their culinary and medicinal uses. There are numerous period references to elderberries, most are related to wine and pharmacia. They were also frequently used in pemmican — another topic we are presently researching. One thing to keep in mind, while they may have had limited appearances in period cookbooks, that does not mean they weren’t used. People would often use what was a available. I’m looking forward to the elderberry harvest as well. Keep an eye out for more information in the future.

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