26 June 2008

Currant Events

I was a kid when I tasted the flavor of black currants for the first time — in tiny little candies offered to me by my godmother. I eyed them warily. They were purple, which was a good thing according to my boyhood aesthetic, but they were in disguise: the box didn’t even say black currant, it said cassis. My godmother tried to reassure me. “The taste is a bit like grape,” she explained, “only better.”

My faith in my godmother was as immense as it was justified. It was she who got me hooked on opera, for example, and why would she be wrong about these little candies? So I took one, and almost instantly, black currant became my favorite sweet. Happily, the flavor turned out to be as far from Welch’s as Paris is from Dallas. Black currant is the essential ingredient that turns white wine to a Kir, and if there is anything on earth better than the cassis sorbet at Berthillon in Paris, I am unaware of it. But in suburban Dallas in the 1970s, my opportunities to explore this curious fruit were scarce.

Flash forward to the present, and join me and about eight dozen flocks of songbirds in admiring the currant bushes in the garden here at Beynes. We have both black and red currants (groseilles), and from mid- to late June, they gleam like jewels. The birds enjoy our currants perhaps even more than I, and it’s a race to snap up the ripe berries before the birds eat them all. The trouble is that, once you’ve gathered the berries, you’ve got to do something with them.

If you are an American expatriate who lives in the north of France, and not an industrious native in the south, then you do not know how to make liqueur out of your cassis. At least, I don’t. I looked up a couple of recipes, and they seemed entirely too easy. Instead, I resorted to the northern alternative: I made jam.

This is a difficult process, requiring the delicate picking of berries, followed by the tedious examination and cleansing of every goddam berry, one by one, followed by the precise measurement by weight of the fruits and the confectioner’s sugar (at a ratio of 5 to 4 parts, using a rusty 19th-century balance scale missing several of its metric weights), followed by the watchful stirring of the pot and skimming of the froth, followed by the ungainly transfer of the boiling hot jam from the pot to little jars, which must be sealed and upturned immediately in order to sterilize the contents.

Pre-jam Session:
Waiting to put the
shmuck into Smucker’s

While waiting for the jars to cool, you clean up the catastrophic mess you have made of the countertops, your clothing, and the floor. Open every window in the house to release the heat into the heavy summer sky. Afterward, put the jars in a cupboard and stare at them. All five of them. Five.

If you are lucky, you will have used only the ripest berries, which are already bursting with their sweet juice. Less ripe berries aren’t as juicy, and the juice they do contain is more bitter.

I am not lucky. The birds got all the ripe ones.

If you are conscientious, you already own a centrifuge, and you even know how to use it to extract the stem, seeds and skin, which is often quite tough and moreover attached to what’s left of the currant blossom, which is even tougher. With processed juice, you can make jelly, instead of jam.

I am not conscientious.

If you err in any step of this process, your jam will taste like crap. French people will laugh at you.

All of this, simply to have a shmeer on your toast in the morning, a few months from now. It is enough to make you want to rip up the bushes by the root.

The next time someone offers you a pot of jam — or even a little cassis-flavored candy — be sure to thank them.