Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Ribes not Ribs

This has been the most extra ordinary year in Vermont for what the English call "soft fruit" and from which they make their great dessert, summer pudding. A recipe will show up in a few days--I hope before the end of the currant season.

I have never seen quite so many currants: red, white and black as well as their relatives the gooseberries. I know how to make jelly and jam and did almost all weekend. I did discover what I am sure is known to many that it is a good idea to add some water to the sugar and fruit at the start of cooking. A little lemon juice at the end helps them set up. Generally, I use a proportion of one-to-one fruit and sugar. It is important to use a pan that is stainless steel or enameled as the fruit is very acid and interacts with othe metals. The pan should also be wider than tall for evaporation and at least twice as tall as the layer of berries or the sugar is liable to boil over. After boiling and then simmering for about forty-five minutes or as long as it will take to bring the canning jars and lids to a rolling boil and boiling for at least ten minutes covered with water but without a lid, I put the whole thing through a fine, but not China cap, seive over another stainless steel pot and press on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. This is the jelly and can be boiled and put up. The solids can be cooked up with a little more water and jarred as well--not as fine, but still good particularly between cake layers with whipped cream.

Red currants are beautiful and often used by French and other chefs as decoration for both savory and seet foods. For sweet foods, a sprig can be dipped in extra fine sugar and set to dry on a cake rack or othe mesh. It is the usual component of currant jelly and is the flavor that most people think of as "currant."

White currants are actually a very pale yellow and almost transparent so that the numerous seeds that dwell inside all currants can be seen. The most expensive of French preserves, Bar-le-Duc from the eponymous town, is made with them and sold in tiny, thick glass jars. What makes it so expensive is the way it is produced or at least used to be. Before cooking, the seeds were forced out, one by one, with a fine needle. It was said that the ladies who did the work often went blind like the makers of extremely fine carpets. When cooked, the jelly will turn a light apricot in color or even almost red just as the light colored pulp of quinces does when cooked. It is often said that this is a less intense flavor than that of red currants. I don't think so and delight in the flavor which has a slight hint of a good Gewurtztraminer. This year I made twenty-four quarts--some in pint containers--and didn't totally void the bushes.

No one could say that black currants are weak in flavor. They are the making of cassis liqueur and are dark and winey as jelly or jam.

All of these fruits are ribes. Red (rubrum, European), white (petraeum, European) and the slightly different species, black currants (nigrum, european and ussurtiense, Asian) grow on spreading bushes with attractive leaves not different looking from those of maples.

I reccomend growing them. It used to be thought that they carried a disease, the white pine blister rust. I never pulled mine out from around the barn's stone wall. clearly they had been planted at least a hundred years before by some intelligent farm wife. My white pines were doing fine. Later, it turned out that the alarm had been a mistake. Now, they can be grown with a clear conscience. They are easy but like some afternoon shade and water. They must be netted before ripe or the birds will pick the bushes clean. they got most of my red currants this year.

In northern Germany and Scandinavia, they are a common accompaniment to venison and other meats.

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