Urban gardener: Currant affairs
Saturday 12 January 2008
Rummaging through the dark corners of our freezer last week not only saved me having to dodge sale-crazed shoppers just to get a meal, but also revealed two frosted containers of plump blackcurrants. Quite how we'd forgotten about this treasure trove is a mystery, seeing as they were plucked and stored in the summer of 2006; while I'm a little picky about freshness when it comes to food, any thought of the ruby-jet beads being past their sell-by-date didn't cross my mind. Blackcurrants are one of my favourite fruits, especially when cooked and made into jam or cassis, the vital syrup to make champagne palatable for heathens like me.
I'm also a sucker for the emotional joy-ride it gives from its fragrance. Anyone who has explored the hidden depths of an abandoned garden as a child will know the sharp, edgy aroma of blackcurrant, the faintest whiff of which is potent enough to open a portal back to long forgotten innocence and adventure. The astringent aroma, from the leaves and stems as much as the berries, is not immediately recognisable as a "good" smell but neither is it unpleasant. It's as if the acerbic pungency has been stripped of all pretence to be anything but a latent raw state of the earth's primitive musk.
Lately, the worldwide obsession for "superfruits" has given this popular wartime crop a new status to rival Goji berries and blueberries. Research by Dr Derek Stewart of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) suggests that blackcurrants – with more minerals, vitamins and antioxidants – are set to become important in the battle against heart disease, cancer and even Alzheimer's disease.
Originally found in the northerly regions of Europe to Asia, the blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum) has been grown in the UK for around 500 years and has been used by herbalists to treat a range of ailments. British varieties are particularly potent because of their darker colour, a clue that they possess a higher content of anthocyanins (crucial to stimulate antioxidant activity), and breeders are constantly looking to select the best attributes to improve the berry's health-giving properties even further. In the early 1900s, cultivation was banned in the United States when it was found that they helped spread the disease White Pine Blister Rust, threatening the nation's lumber market. It's only beginning to make a comeback in some states where the ban has recently been lifted.
Strains that also carry gooseberry and redcurrant ancestry have been selected by the SCRI for their disease resistance, colour and form and are mostly named after Scottish Munros – Ben Lomond being the first in 1975. Ben Hope, being more resistant to gall mite, has become the most widely grown variety particularly for commercial growers together with Ben Tirran, a late cropper to extend the season. The larger, sweeter berries of Ben Sarek and Ben Connan have been geared towards amateur growers who are also looking forward to the arrival of Big Ben, which could be the biggest and sweetest yet.
If you already have a blackcurrant shrub, increasing your stock couldn't be easier as 20cm (eight inch) cuttings taken in September are easy to root in either a pot or open ground. If you know someone locally with healthy stock that has consistently produced good fruit don't pass up a chance to perpetuate a variety that you know will do well in your locality.
My freezer stash is from two Ben Lomond bushes I planted four years ago. It was our first crop of real significance, most of which was made into a jam so tasty that I'm about to short-circuit my computer by salivating. It's been our only crop to date, as last summer we lost the whole lot to scrumpers or birds – in order to keep down the blood pressure it's preferable to assume it was the latter. There isn't enough for jam from this welcome find so we'll make a little cassis. At the very least it will enable us to drizzle some over vanilla ice cream or crack open a bottle of Bollinger (an unwanted present, you understand), and belatedly toast the New Year without gurning.
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