Currants are glossy red or black berries that grow on thornless upright shrubs. To be classified as a currant, the bush must be in the genus Ribes. Native to the Northern Hemisphere, these plants have been cultivated throughout Europe and Asia for centuries. In the United States, commercial cultivation of currants was banned until 2003 because of concerns that they could harbor a disease that had the potential to devastate American timber stocks. For this reason, many Americans confuse Zante raisins with currants.
A true currant grows in a shrub form and is extremely hardy. These plants also have a strong will to live and have been known to propagate themselves from cuttings. Most climates are friendly to currants, which thrive under lower light conditions. As long as they are protected from a hard freeze with plenty of mulch around their roots, these plants will live to bear fruit year after year. The plants also are used decoratively in some gardens.
The best time for currants is late spring through late summer. The berries should be plump, glossy and a little bit firm when they are purchased, and they can be stored for as long as three days under refrigeration. The fresh, tart flavor is excellent in fresh fruit dishes and can be used to make jams and preserves. These berries also lend themselves well to savory dishes, because the tart flavor makes a strong contrast. Currants are high in vitamin C, phosphorus, calcium and iron.
In some places, the dried fruits sold at grocery stores as “currants” are actually dried Zante raisins from Greece. It is believed that the name “currant” is a corruption of Corinth and might have originated when the raisins were first imported into the U.S. during the 1920s. The raisins are much smaller and more flavorful than conventional raisins, and they are a popular addition to currant cake and other slightly savory dessert items.
U.S. Ban Lifted
The U.S. ban on currants was put in place in 1911 out of concerns about a plant disease called white pine blister rust, which uses currants as an alternate host. It was believed that eradicating currants would help with the problem. Greg Quinn, a farmer in New York, helped overturn the ban in 2003 with the assistance of state lawmakers. Quinn believed that currants could revitalize family farms in New York state by providing a source of income through a somewhat unusual berry. He also helped to breed varieties of currant that would be resistant to the parasitic white pine blister rust, demonstrating that these plants could be cultivated without threatening the U.S. timber industry.