Monday, December 26, 2011

Real Currants or Zante Currants?

Black Currant Photo by mwri

The first fruit bushes I ordered when I moved here 5 years ago included 3 black currant bushes and 2 gooseberries. Soon thereafter, I also planted several red currant seedlings, and a couple of "buffalo" currents from a friend. Slowly but surely they have all withered away. (Not sure what that's about, but that's not the focus of this post either.)

The compelling reason for growing black currants is my love of currant scones, and the very healthy benefits of currants. Black currants have some amazing properties... high in antioxidants (almost 2X most fruits), potassium (one cup has more than a small banana) and Vitamin C (one cup has more C than 3 oranges), plus iron, calcium, magnesium, and manganese.

Finding I had less than a cup of black currants from this year's pitiful harvest (I finally trashed the bushes) saved in my freezer, I picked up a box marked "Zante Currants" in the local grocery store so I could make some Christmas scones. 

Well, Pooh!! It turns out that Zante Currants are NOT currants at all, merely a very tiny dried small grape (a seedless variety of Vitis vinifera named Black Corinth), containing very few of the healthy properties of real currants, which are a Ribe. Now I wonder about the "dried currants" I buy in the health food stores since misnaming is so common.

There is a semi-legitimate reason for all the confusion in the name. A hundred years ago (1911), the US government outlawed growing currants (and gooseberries which are in the same family). It was believed that the White Pine Blister Rust threatening the pine lumber industry needed to have currants or gooseberries to complete it's cycle, and that the disease would wipe out the white pine lumber industry if those fruits were not banned. The ban was actually lifted in 1966 but few were ever aware it was lifted. (Regardless, the belief that currants are the cause persists even today.)

So, for a hundred years, almost no one in the US grew currants, and now we in the US really don't know much about currants at all. Very few are grown today, although there are improved varieties that have eliminated any possible connection to the pine disease. Happily, NY state is now seeing a few currant farms spring up. Well over a century ago currants were a huge cash crop in NY, and may be again!

The confusion about Zante Currants started about 90 years ago when a small Greek island named "Zante" exported a tiny dried grape called Black Corinth to the US. It was 1/4 the size of a normal dried grape (aka raisin) and accidentally named a "currant" due both to similar size and to language barriers at the import docks that changed the word "Corinth" into "currant".

Almost any American recipe originating in the last hundred years calling for "currants" surely intended "Zante Currants" and not real currants, since that's all that were generally available. I encourage you to try the real thing! (Besides, earlier this year a report out of Tuft’s University announced that “Black Currants may thwart Alzheimer’s.”) Source

There is a noticeable difference in the plants. Currants grow on a bush and are tart, and grapes (of all sizes, including the tiny Zante/Black Corinth) grow on a vine and are sweet. I am satisfied that what I bought and planted are true currants because they were bushes, but I'm not so sure that what I buy in bulk are real currants. Clearly, though, the box of Sun-Maid Zante Currants doesn't say anywhere that they are raisins. I guess it's implied when they say in the very tiny print that "raisins are mechanically processed and may have some stems".

(BTW, Crème de Cassis, the favored drink of the fictional detective Hercule Poirot created by Agatha Christie is made from black currants, as is the popular wine cocktail Kir.)


  1. Strange that your currants died. We've found them to be extremely tough. They are definitely worth growing although I can think of a much better way of using them with scones - jelly spread on top. Black currant jelly is one of my favourite jellies, right up there with rosehip jelly and wild grape jelly.

    Maybe the bushes that you bought had difficulty adjusting to your growing conditions. There's a fantastic source of edible plants in Virgina who carries currants - - although their prices are a bit high. One Green World's variety and prices are a great deal better.


  2. Mike, I'm beginning to think the area where they were planted has both tons of fill, and probably juglone from the black walnut trees just across the narrow creek.

    I've been to Edible Landscaping when visiting Charlottesville; he IS quite expensive. My bushes came from the quite reputable Nourse Farms. Never had enough berries for jelly!

  3. Thanks; I hadn't had time to look up juglone, as it was just a thought. Regardless, there will be a new planting area come spring.

    I know it isn't the plant stock because the one of the several original plants I gave a friend is doing great!

  4. Can you tell the difference between a "real" dried currant and a dried zante currant or do they look the same when dried?

  5. Great question... and I'm not sure. I do still have a few Zantes but I'm not sure I have any dried currants left off my bushes. I WILL check and get back with a response here.

  6. I never expected to get a great history lesson while searching for information on varieties of currants that work well in the vicinity of black walnut. Thanks so much for that! It's amazing how much of an effect a simple misunderstanding of language can have.

    1. Isn't it amazing the information that's presented to us when we least expect it?


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