Posted on July 21 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 currants. But 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.
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:
Red Currant Jelly:
Really nice Zante Currants:
Fresh Frozen Currants (black, white, and red):