Food & Drink: Tarts and jellies, cassis and fresh cream

JUST OUTSIDE the front door of our house in France is a thriving whitecurrant bush. No one planted it. It just began to grow there many years ago, seemingly of its own accord. My parents always assumed that it came from seeds dropped by a passing bird after a gluttonous binge in some neighbour's garden. Whatever the origin, its presence is welcome. Year in, year out, it yields a generous crop of whitecurrants, more than enough for a few pots of jelly and a week or so's worth of puddings.

Whitecurrants and the latest addition to the clan, pinkcurrants, are merely differently coloured varieties of redcurrant, Ribes rubrum. Much as I would like to imagine a slight difference in flavour, I doubt I could tell one from another in a blind tasting. As well as taste, they share a jewel-like translucence that makes them among the most beautiful of fruit.

Blackcurrants, Ribes nigrum, though closely related (and a little more distantly related to the gooseberry), stand out on their own. A touch larger, matt purple-black, their strange, earthy tartness is quite unique - a powerful flavour that should be used with care, as it may not be to everyone's liking.

I happen to think that a handful of blackcurrants is essential to the perfect summer pudding, though some people I know prefer to use redcurrants. Either way, a summer pudding without fresh currants falls short. But if you cannot lay your hands on currants at all, then boost the flavour of the other red fruit with a generous slug of creme de cassis.

This strong, sweet liqueur, often simply called cassis, the French for blackcurrant, is all too often relegated to the drinks cabinet and brought out only to transform white wine into a 'Kir', a very good use for it, but it also deserves a place in the kitchen. I sometimes pour a little over a plain ice-cream to make it more glamorous, and it can also be used to deglaze pans or flavour sauces for meats, particularly duck.

Perfect strings of redcurrants make the most elegant of decorations, both for sweet and savoury foods. If you have the time, you might even frost a few for contrast - dip the string first into egg white (beaten lightly to loosen, though not to make it froth), then roll gently in caster or granulated sugar.

For any preparation (eg, jelly making) where the currants are to be heated and sieved free of debris there is no need to 'string' them (pull them off their stalks). If you have only a small quantity to string, strip them from the stalk with the tines of the fork. With larger quantities, it may be easier to freeze them for an hour or so first - all types of currant freeze well anyway, and you will find the frozen fruit falls away from the stalk with almost no coercion.

Redcurrant mayonnaise

This is one of the few recipes I can honestly claim to have invented from scratch. The pink 'mayonnaise' emulsifies to a rich, thick sauce, just as an ordinary mayonnaise would, but without the egg yolks. Serve it with cold meats as part of a summer buffet.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 2oz (55g) fresh redcurrants

1/4 - 1/2 pint (150-290ml) groundnut or

sunflower oil

1tbs caster sugar

salt and pepper

Preparation: String the redcurrants. Liquidise with a pinch of salt, and sugar. Keep the blades running and trickle in the oil to give a thick mayonnaise-like emulsion. Begin with just a 1/4 pint but, if the flavour is still too strong, continue adding more oil to soften. Sieve, add pepper and extra salt or sugar if needed.

Leith's blackcurrant jelly

My first taste of this intensely flavoured jelly was at the restaurant Bibendum. I asked chef Simon Hopkinson for the recipe and he directed us to Leith's Cookery Course by Prue Leith and Caroline Waldegrave (Fontana). If you want to turn the jelly out, use the larger quantity (1 1/2 sachets) of gelatine. If serving in individual glasses, 1 sachet is enough.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) blackcurrants

8oz (220g) caster sugar

1/3 pint (190ml) ruby port

1-1 1/2 sachets ( 1/2 - 3/4 oz/11-18g) powdered gelatine (see above)

to serve: single, clotted or whipped cream

Preparation: Put the currants (no need to string them) and sugar in a pan and place over a low heat, warming them gently until the juices begin to run. Bring slowly up to the boil, then draw off the heat and push through a sieve. Stir in the port and enough water to bring the liquid up to 1 pint (570ml).

Sprinkle the gelatine over 4tbs of hot (but not boiling) water in a small pan. Leave for 3 minutes to soften, then stir to dissolve. If necessary, warm gently to dissolve any stubborn globules. One at a time, stir in 3tbs of the blackcurrant juice, then tip into the remaining juice and stir to mix evenly. Either pour the jelly into 6 glasses, or rinse a 1 1/2 pint (850ml) mould out with cold water and pour the jelly into the damp mould. Leave in the fridge to set.

If serving in glasses, run a thin layer of single cream over the top before serving. If turning out the jelly from the mould, dip briefly into hot water, dry, then invert on to a plate.

Frangipane currant tart

I made two tarts, one with redcurrants, one with black. Opinion was divided over which was best, but we all agreed that they were both excellent. Of course, you could also use white or pinkcurrants. Whichever you choose, the natural tartness of the fruit offsets the sweetness of the pastry and filling admirably.

Serves 6-10

Ingredients: Pate sucree: 6 1/2 oz (200g) plain flour

pinch salt

3 1/2 oz (100g) butter

2 1/2 oz (75g) caster sugar

3 egg yolks

Filling: 1lb (450g) red or blackcurrants

3oz (85g) butter, softened

3oz (85g) caster sugar

1 egg

1 egg yolk

1oz (30g) flour, sifted

2tbs single cream

3 1/2 oz (100g) ground almonds

icing sugar

Preparation: To make the pastry, either use the processor or sift the flour with the salt, then rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, then the egg yolks to form a soft crumbly dough. Gather up into a ball, then knead briefly to smooth out. Wrap in clingfilm and leave it for an hour in the fridge.

Line a 10-10 1/2 in (25-27cm) tart tin with the pastry. Rest it for half an hour in the fridge, prick base, then line with silver foil or greaseproof paper and weigh down with baking beans. Bake blind at 200C/400F/gas 6 for 10 minutes. Remove beans and paper or foil, and return to the oven for 5 minutes to dry out.

String the currants. Cream the butter with the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in the egg and yolk, alternating with the flour. Mix in the cream and then the ground almonds. Spread just under half in the pastry case. Sprinkle over the currants, then spoon remaining filling over, smoothing down roughly (it will settle down in the heat of the oven so you do not have to be too meticulous).

Return the tart to the oven for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 180C/350F/gas 4 and cook for a further 20-25 minutes until the filling is just set. Do not worry if it looks messy. Serve hot, warm or cold, and dust generously with icing sugar (for a little extra sweetness and to disguise any oozy bits) just before serving.

Red, white or pinkcurrant jelly

The naturally high pectin and acid content of red, white and pinkcurrants means that jelly making (the jam-jar variety, rather than the gelatine sort) is a cinch and a quick one at that. This is the most straightforward recipe for redcurrant jelly and produces an intense, pure flavour.

Ingredients: red, white or pinkcurrants

granulated sugar

Preparation: Weigh the currants and place in a heavy-based pan with an equal weight of sugar and just enough water to moisten the base. Stir over a medium-low heat until the sugar has dissolved completely. Stop stirring, bring to the boil and boil hard for 8 minutes.

Tip the contents of the pan into a muslin-lined plastic-meshed sieve, or a jelly bag, over a bowl. For a really clear jelly, pot the juice that drips into the bowl without pressing down at all on the debris. If you are prepared to exchange pure clarity for greater yield, press down gently, to extract more of the liquid.

Either way, ladle the hot liquid straight into hot sterilised jars, seal quickly and label.

To sterilise jars: Wash in warm soapy water then rinse in hot water.

Without touching the insides, sit them upside down on a wire rack in the oven, set to 110C/225F/gas 1/2 . Leave for at least half an hour, until the jam is ready to be potted.

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