Black Currant Tasting & Varietal Comparisons

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Upon first taste black currants fascinated my palate and they’ve succeeded in doing so ever since. Over the years I’ve increased my collection to a dozen or so varieties. With white pine blister rust being a prevalent issue in Michigan my selection criteria has been narrowed down to only varieties which exhibit partial or full resistance to WPBR. I started with Consort and since then the collection has grown to include Crusader, Titania, Blackdown, Minaj Smirou, Ben Sarek, Belaruskaja, and various others that aren’t bearing yet like Kirovchanka, Vertti, Otelo, and a few that aren’t coming to mind.

There is a wide variation amongst varieties in both bush habit and fruit quality/flavor. That to me is very exciting as I love subtle nuances in flavor and its a fun way to broaden the palate. For the 2014 season I’ve taken tasting notes for the seven cultivars previously mentioned in an attempt to compare and assess the different traits of each and acquire first hand varietal information–

Crusader

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Large shiny jet black berries of Crusader.

Crusader was an early introduction from the Central Experiment Farm in Ottawa, Canada. It was released in the 1940’s as a rust resistant variety for North America. For me it has been a very consistent producer of medium sized fruit. They tend to be thicker skinned and very sharp(high acidity)…not one of my favorite for eating out of hand but still enjoyable, especially when dead ripe. Crusader holds onto its fruit for a long time and the thick skin slows down their perishabilty which is a nice quality. The bush itself, like all of the others developed by A.W.S. Hunter, is upright and open compared to some of the more dense varieties, particularly those from the Scottish Research Institute.

 

Consort

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Consort was released from the Central Experiment Farm to replace Crusader as a commercial variety in the 1950’s. Why,  I’m not sure…as I tend to prefer Crusader. Consort fruit are small and relatively poor quality in my opinion. They’re sharp and have that characteristic ‘musky flavor’ but lack depth and seem inferior to Crusader. Consort does produce long strigs that tend to ripen pretty evenly. Consort is entirely WPBR resistant. Coronet is another one from the Canadian breeding program that I’ve yet to try.

 

 

Titania

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Titania is a Swedish variety that was developed in the 1980’s using Consort as one of the parents. This is the first season I’ve had a substantial crop from Titania and so far it seems similar to Crusader and Consort both in fruit quality and bush form. It was very productive this year and is a vigorous grower; thus far it seems rather quick to mature compared to other cultivars that have been in the ground 1,2, and 3 years longer. Titania is reliably resistant to WPBR.

Minaj Smirou

Stem density on Minaj...always have to remind myself to prune more than less because of its vigorous nature.
Stem density on Minaj Smirou…always have to remind myself to prune more than less because of its vigorous nature.

I haven’t been able to find much information about this variety besides that it was developed in Bulgaria and is a more recent introduction. This has been hands down the most productive variety for me. Also the most vigorous grower that requires aggressive pruning. The branches tend to lodge when holding big crops and are more laterally dominant than varieties like Consort and Titania (conducive for layering). The berries ripen over a long period starting early in the season (need to take more notes on ripening times*); generally its the first to ripen here. This is a great variety for somebody new to black currants or for the more tamed palate as it is very mild. Thick skin can be a turn off for some folks, Minaj scores well in this department with the thinnest skin of all. It lacks the tart punch that almost all black currants have which makes it nice for eating out of hand. However, if you’re after that traditional black currant flavor than Minaj is probably not for you. I enjoy the berries because they ripen first and I always realize its blandness when compared to some of the later ripening cultivars. Minaj is reliably resistant to WPBR.

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I know— 5th grader hand writing, maybe worse.

Blackdown

Blackdown is an English variety that is reportedly not 100% rust resistant, however its never showed any signs in my trials. The bush is more compact than most with very close leaf nodes making the canopy dense. So far it has been a little less productive than the other varieties but produces the highest quality fruit in my opinion. The flavor of blackdown is outstanding– they have the same acidity thats common with varieties like Crusader except they’ve consistently had a higher sugar content which really supports the sharpness and makes for an overall more pleasant mouth experience. The berries are medium sized with moderatly thick skin. Higher sugar content would make Blackdown more acceptable for the average American palate I think. I am going to plant a lot more of this variety because I like it so much.

Ben Sarek

Ben Sarek is very compact and good for small spaces.
Ben Sarek is very compact and good for small spaces.
Large berries and signs of the unusual rot that hits even unripe berries sometimes. Any insights?
Large berries and signs of the unusual rot that hits even unripe berries sometimes. Any insights?

All varieties with Ben in their name come from the Scottish Research Institute. Ben Sarek is a more compact plant making it nice for the home garden. It bears resemblance to Blackdown in bush form and holds its berries in tight clusters. For me it has been only moderately productive. The berries are larger than all of the other cultivars and tend to have a unique flavor that I’ve yet to figure out. Less complex and less tart and almost a mild dirty flavor…as if they’re slightly rotten. It also gets this weird rot where the berries become very soft with an unagreeable flavor, unlike any other cultivar. Aside from the compact nature and large fruit size Ben Sarek doesn’t have much going for it. It is partially resistant to WPBR but has never shown signs in my trials.

 

Belaruskaja

Young Belaruskaja with dwarf comfrey.
Young Belaruskaja with dwarf comfrey.

This is a variety I added to my collection per request from Lee Reich and I’m happy I did. I planted it in the spring of 2013 and cut the bush back to a few buds and it put on considerable growth last season and set a small crop for this first time this year. The berries are somewhere in between Blackdown and Titania in flavor with a nice sweetness as described with Blackdown. So far I’ve only sampled a few dozen of these and look forward to further evaluation. I see good prospects for Belaruskaja as a premier fresh eating variety.

Summary

It has been a joy to compare these different varieties and if it weren’t for the diversity than the contrast would be minimum and there wouldn’t be much to judge against. I hope to pay closer attention in future years to ripening times and pest resistance, primarily regarding currant borer and aphids. Also, further experimentation in the kitchen will prove which varieties are best for cooking, juicing, etc. All in all black currant has been one of the most successful, less-maintenance fruits in my gardening experiments.

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New Moon: Ground Cherries, Orgonite, Black Currant Tincture, and More…

Its been a few weeks since my last post and I’ve been itching to release some fresh ideas and photos. Things have been a bit crazy lately with selling plants at the farmers markets and working on new Roots To Fruits jobs. Its all very good, just a bit tiring at times. So now, on this new moon, I’ve found some time to put out. Just as everything goes in phases and cycles so does my motivation to write, and with the waxing moon my energy towards writing and managing the blog is on the rise! So expect some frequent posting over the next few weeks.

Its mid-august and the groundcherries in my garden are starting to litter the ground once again. This has been a tradition for the past several seasons; in fact last year the garden was so inudated w/ self-seeded ground cherries, that access became an issue! But what are ground cherries? Being a member of the Solanaceae family they bear some resemblance to tomatillos or cherry tomatoes except with a much fruitier flavor. Botanically speaking tomatoes are technically a fruit, although  they’re often referred to as a vegetable…groundcherries, however, don’t fall short of the fruit category. The common ground cherry(Physalis peruviana), also called cape gooseberry, not to be mistaken with true gooseberries(Ribes spp.), is a self seeding annual that can become rather weedy. Physalis heterphylla is a perennial relative that grows wild throughout eastern NA. I have

Sea of ground cherries, 2011 garden.

found them growing a few times in MI, and Ken Asmus of Oikos Tree Crops now sells the perennial form. Even the annual forms seem to ‘perennialize’ in the sense that they volunteer each year and reliably come back. They’re called ground cherries because they fall to the ground when fully ripe. They can then be collected, dehusked, and eaten fresh. I’ve also heard them called husk cherries because they grow inside a papery protective husk. Nature’s wrapper. The flavor is like the sweetest of tomatoes with fruity-pineapple notes. They are about the size of a grape tomato and contain several small seeds which are barely noticeable. Ground cherries are great dehydrated and I’ve been toying with the idea of using them in salsa, jelly, and wine. Mmmm…

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Dehusked ripe ground cherries…yum!

Now that summer has peaked and is waning, we’ve concluded most of the berry pickin’; cane fruits are pretty much done, besides the fall bearing raspberries, blueberries are dwindling but still available, and the Ribes, besides the latest of gooseberries, are now a distant memory. Fortunately they’re blessings are preserved in jams and jellies! The

Dead floricanes removed from golden raspberry bed…

changing seasons can be difficult to deal with, but its a righteous reminder of the impermanence of all things. Actually its a good way to practice non-attachment. I really, really, am enjoying all of these wonderful zucchinis, but they too will pass! Nothing lasts forever and thats the beauty of it. As small fruits  and berries are largely coming to an end, the stone fruits are coming in, and early apples are beginning to ripen. I was in Detroit two weeks ago and was

Apical flowering on raspberry…I love these ‘everbearing’ raspberries!

delightfully surprised to find the number of ripe apples. The odd season paired with the Detroit microclimate created super conditions for tree fruit. Even the peaches weren’t phased by the early season warm spells and late frosts. We even found peach seedlings setting fruit in alleys. Want to start growing fruit? Move to Detroit.

Beehives amongst fruit trees at Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, MI.
Students at the 2012 permaculture design course in Detroit sampling some early apples…8/2/12
Autumnberries ripening mid august…quite early for these guys. At The Strawbale Studio in Oxford, MI.

My peach trees didn’t set any fruit this year. Fortunately a few local growers managed to get a small percentage of the usual crop…just enough to bring to market. So the past two weeks I’ve been buying containers of peaches at the market. I belong to a goat milk share where I get a half gallon of organic raw goat milk each week. This week I decided to make some fresh cheese… I was left with a lot of whey. Today I made a lovely smoothy with one cup blueberries, two peaches, and one cup whey. No whey, yes whey… rich in flavor and rich in nutrients!

Peach-blueberry-whey smoothie!!!

As promised, here is the blueberry-lavender jam recipe…very simple, no fuss recipe. Give it a try!

What You’ll Need:

  • 8 cups fresh blueberries
  • 1.5 cups organic sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lavender flowers
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice

Process:

Step #1: Crush washed blueberries in large cooking pot. Cook on medium heat for 5 minutes.

Step #2: Add sugar and lemon and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, add lavender and cook for 10-15 more minutes on medium heat. Stir consistently.

I used dried lavender from Yule Love It Lavender Farm, fresh flowers would be fine, too.

Step #3: Take off heat and fill jars; store in fridge or for long-term storage place jars in boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

Tips: some recipes suggest removing foam as the jam cooks; I’ve found blueberries to be low foam producers making this step unnecessary. 

Blueberry-lavender and blueberry-honey jam ready for the pantry…

I choose to plant based on the moon using the biodynamic calendar AKA the Stella Natura. I’ve found much satisfaction(not to mention great results) in following the solunar calendar for my gardening activities. I also make medicine preparations like tinctures and salves on the new moon as to foster the lunar energy put out increasingly from that time until the next full moon. Aside from food, I’ve been curious about the medicinal uses of fruiting plants. Strawberry leaf is a great astrigent used in skin care products, raspberry leaf is high in tannins and has a slew of medicinal actions, and lastly, what I’m concerning myself with today— black currant leaf.  Aside from the potent nutraceutical properties of Ribes nigrum fruit, the leaves also possess strong medicinal properties. According to one resource, “Black currant dried leaf is used for arthritis, gout, joint pain (rheumatism), diarrhea, colic, hepatitis and other liver ailments, convulsions, and disorders that cause swelling (inflammation) of the mouth and throat. Black currant dried leaf is also used for treating coughs, colds, and whooping cough; disinfecting the urine; promoting urine flow; treating bladder stones, and as a cleansing tea.” The leaves are astringent and have been used for treating skin blemishes like acne and eczema. Since the plants are just hanging out now and all the berries are long picked, I decided to harvest some leaves for making an alcohol extract.

Attractive ‘Ben Sarek’ black currant foliage… brush up against ’em and their foxy aroma will perfume the air!
Black currant leaves soaking in everclear…

The late Frank Cook talks briefly about the edible and medicinal uses of black currant…

An exciting new project recently sprouted forth after connecting with a local friend and fellow entrepreneur, Josh Cook. His company, Source Reality, offers products and service for facilitating individuals in connecting to their deepest nature, and reuniting with the source. They offer astrology readings, reiki healing, orgonite, and more. According to the Source Reality website: “Orgonite is the name given to powerful devices which attract negative etheric energy and transmute it into positive, life-giving energy.  This is done through a mixture of metals and crystals that are sealed in a resin and formed in specific molds…”

Small orgonite mold made by Source Reality…

Visit their website to learn more about these unique energy devices. We’re collaborating to do a research experiment using orgonite for influencing plant growth. I’ve conducted a small trial with two hardy kiwi vines grown in containers under identical soil, water, and light conditions… one, however, has an orgonite mold placed in the bottom of the 1gallon pot. We hypothesize that the energetic workings of the orgonite may effect plant growth in some way. Stay tuned for results.

Orgonite placed at bottom of container atop thin layer of potting mix.
Now lets see if the orgonite has any effect on the growth of these ‘MSU’ hardy kiwis…

The sun set is telling me to conclude this post and unwind for the evening. Please check back soon for more exciting posts, new articles, and upcoming audio podcasts! Happy growing…