Currants in 18th century cookery has presented a bit of a quandary for me.
I guess I ought to start with some clarification on the term “currant.” There are two basic kinds of currants used in cooking: the half-pint raisin type, and the cousin-to-the-gooseberry type. The former is a raisin processed from small seedless Corinth grapes. The latter is a berry belonging to the Ribes genus of shrubs and is simplistically divided into three broad varieties: black, red, and the albino cultivar of red — white. Both the raisin and the berry existed in the 18th century and were distinguished from each other in period botanical journals. Very seldom, however, is there any clarification in period cookbooks as to which should be used.
So the question immediate arises in my mind, when it comes to interpreting period recipes, which is the correct fruit to use?
History of the Currant(s)
Nearly all cultivated currant berries find their origins in northern Europe and Asia. Even today, these regions grow the vast majority of the world’s currant supply. Early production, however, was not limited to Europe. 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. By the end of the 19th century, production had reached nearly 7,000 acres.
North American currant production hit a major roadblock in the early 20th century. It was discovered that the black currant was a vector host for an extremely aggressive and destructive white pine fungus — that is to say, both the white pine tree and the black currant bush are needed to complete the fungus’s life cycle. Federal laws soon prohibited the cultivation of black currants in the U.S., and the Civilian Conservation Corps was assigned the duty of extirpating the plant. While the ban was lifted a few years ago, various state laws still exist, some of which ban the cultivation of all varieties of the plant, not just black.
According to Penn State’s booklet on berries, there are strains of currants native to North American. These wild currants are called “Buffalo currants,” and are thought to be more closely related to gooseberries than European currants. According the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), wild currants were used by some Indian nations in the production of pemmican — a perfect survival food, which is of particular interest to me, since I’m presently writing another post on the role of pemmican in early North America history.
The raisin-type currant is also referred to as the Zante currant. This name is derived from the Ionian Island now known as Zakynthos, off the coast of Greece. The word “currant,” according to the 1390 collection of English recipes, A Forme of Cury, first published in 1780, 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. Currant berries, on the other hand, were introduced to English gardens in the 16th century, and according to Hess, quickly became popular, threatening to predominate the shared name. It’s historically clear that Ribes berries were named after currant raisins.
Early attempts to grow Grapes of Corinth in Northern Europe failed. Some sources suggest that upon the successful cultivation of Ribes bush, a common misconception arose that the Ribes bush was the plant from which Zante currants were derived. The name “currant” was misapplied as a result. The rapid growth in popularity caused the name to stick. This confusion appears to have continued for centuries — even as late as the 20th century. According to the California Fruit Growers and Farmers Convention “Monthly Bulletin, Volume 2” of 1913, there appeared to be a concerted effort on the part of Zante currant importers to convince legislators that Zante currants were one-and-the-same with currant berries. This was done to sidestep import taxes.
It’s easy to understand how people would have sought a “local source” for currants possibly even on the basis of economics alone. Zantes had been subject to import tariffs long before the aforementioned article from 1913. The 18th century British government had a fairly complicated system of taxation on raisins.
Currants were most frequently used in puddings, but they were also included in recipes for mincemeat, porridge, broths, wines, vinegars, and jellies and jams. I once thought that one could determine which currant to use simply by the type of food they were used in, e.g., jellies called for Ribes berries, and puddings called for Zantes. The more I read, however, the less convinced I became.
The Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 22 (1827, page 73), suggests that when dried, the Ribes currant was used interchangeably with the Zante currant. Several period cookbooks instruct readers how to dry currant berries. This would have extended their use far beyond their growing season. By appearance (as you can see in the photo above), dried currants look very much like raisins.
Redcurrants and white currants appear to have been more popular than the more stringent tasting blackcurrants. Blackcurrants were still preferred by many for its stronger flavor. They are extremely high in vitamin C. On average, six blackcurrant berries contain the same amount of vitamin C as does an entire lemon. Blackcurrants were also used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a throat lozenge. They often went by the name “qunisieberries,” used to treat quinsies — a chronic tonsil condition.
But back to their culinary use, while people were possibly eager to find a substitute for the more expensive “currants of the shops,” it remains somewhat of a mystery to me how these two fruits continued to share the same name. When it comes to flavor, Zantes and Ribes are worlds apart from each other. Redcurrants taste somewhat like tart raspberries; blackcurrants, like unripe blueberries. Some period cookbooks suggested that raspberries and currants could serve as substitutes. Zante currants, in contrast, have only a slightly tangy flavor compared to raisins, but their flavor is still predominately raisin. I conducted a blind taste test with folks in the office. I used high-quality Zantes; even so, more times than not, participants said it was a raisin they were tasting.
It’s clear from period texts that the Ribes berry as well as the Zante raisin were both used in 18th century cooking — even for the same dishes. A pudding made with Ribes is very different from one made with Zantes. Some cookbook authors were kind enough to be specific which to use. Most apparently saw no need in spite of the drastic differences. After experimenting with dried blackcurrants, I can see why many pudding recipes called for both raisins and currants — something I could not quite understand before. Zantes and raisins are simply too close in flavor to justify in my mind going to the trouble of using both. Using black currants with raisins, however, provides a most interesting combination of sweet and tart, and I can also see how a pudding sauce of equal parts sugar, melted butter, and sack (or wine) would provide an equally suitable sweet contrast.
So, having said all of that, the question still begs to be answered: Which is more appropriate in 18th century cooking, Zante currants or Ribes currants? Until I see further evidence to the contrary, I believe the answer is either one — understanding that both will provide very different results. I would encourage you to do your own comparisons!
By the way, if you’re interested in finding high-quality Zante currants, check out nuts.com. If you would like to try a pudding recipe using dried blackcurrants (Ribes), check out Northwest Wild Foods.
If you would like to read more about puddings, check out my previous post. You’ll find there a recipe for New College Puddings (also called “Puddings in Haste”) that’s not only quick and easy, but very delicious. I made these again this morning using blackcurrants as well as Atora Suet. They were out of this world!