My mother planted her first currants a little over a decade ago. She bought the plants from a farmer down the road named Chris who was in the process of finding his way out of strawberry farming. Chris had a plant nursery business with a focus on unusual and/or cold hardy fruit. Turns out was he was heading towards a wine grape growing business and founding one of Vermont’s first wineries. Before Lincoln Peak he was outfitting gardens in the Northeast with plants like black currants.
What grows well here in Vermont? A family of fruit called Ribes, plus aronia (Aronia melanocarpa), sea buckthorn, elderberries, apples of course, but my mother started planting fruit in the gardens around the house with a focus on the Ribes genus, which includes currants (red, white, pink and black) and gooseberries as well some gooseberry-currant crosses like Jostaberry.
I didn’t truly know these Ribes flavors until my mother started sending honey sweetened syrups and jam to me in Seattle. There is a musky, forest-floor sweetness blended with grassy acidity that all these fruits share. I think of the Ribes flavor as concave or round when contrasted to the spark of biting into a fresh cherry or sinking the teeth past resistant tart plum skin into drippy sweet yellow flesh. This isn’t to say that Ribes aren’t glorious eaten raw though most people won’t do this because they are at turns too tart and bitter for the average palate. Rather, the span of flavors in a bite of a Ribes fruit are more tightly packed. Vegetables also have a tightly packed set of flavors as opposed to say a raspberry which has this incredible loft; you start tasting red wafts and juice way down here and you end up all the way up here, at the tippy top, with a tangy send-off of perfume.
(I think of fruit as always having an upturned flavor, a perfect composite of low, middle and high notes that’s perfect on its own and makes us curious about the next bite. When I say upturned, I’m picturing a flower face tilted skyward. It’s sweet, hopeful and excited; unabashedly positive. This is why we love fruit so much. This is why I love fruit so much.)
Anyway, I was really smitten with the Ribes concoctions my mother sent me. I stored them in the walk-in closet of my apartment where we kept all my preserving work because it was completely dark and stayed cool. We also happened to have a lofted bed squeezed into this walk-in closet so finding a jar of gooseberry syrup to add to sparkling water involved a stooped search through the mason jars lined up on shelves under a bed frame. The gooseberry and currant musk shot through any drink or dessert I made. I tend to use the word inimitable a lot. Something that can’t be imitated, something so special, that can only be found in one place. These berries have got it! (If you are wondering about some other items in that inimitable category? They include Seville oranges, Bergamot oranges, elderberries, and pie/sour cherries like Montmorency.)
When my mother realized that Amy and I were moving back to Vermont she asked me what she could put into the ground right away, fruit wise, in anticipation of our arrival. I suggested she plant more currants and gooseberries. These were fruits almost impossible to find in Washington state although they grew well there. When currants and gooseberries did show up at the farmers market the scarcity of them meant the farmers could command a high price and had little reason to haggle with wholesale prices for a jam maker.