A Victorian mainstay in both sweet and savoury dishes, white currants are seeking their way back on the menus and into retail aisles, following the general foodie trend of looking for the new in the old. Here, Produce Business UK takes an in-depth look at the redcurrant’s lesser-known cousin
Sweeter than redcurrants, white currants are a bit of a treat in UK restaurants, as supermarkets hardly ever sell them, leaving production to either large facilities in northern Europe or small local-serving holdings, and sales to a niche level. Used regularly in the summer months in the past and especially in French cookery, this small, sweet, translucent-white berry is making a comeback, as people search for the new in the familiar when it comes to food.
Other names: White berries
Botany: A sub-cultivar of the ribes rubrum, the white berry is an albino variant of the redcurrant, so not a separate species at all. The only difference between a redcurrant and a white currant is, as you might expect, the colour, however they are marketed as a different fruit. The white currant is a member of the Grossulariaceae family, which groups 150 species, including gooseberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants, as well as white currants.
Season: White currants are generally available from June to September, and are particular to the northern hemisphere. They mainly grow commercially in Holland and Belgium, although there is a big domestic garden demand for white currant bushes in the UK, with a few small plantations in kitchen gardens.
Varieties: Blanka, White Grape, Versailles Blanche, White Pearl
Origin/history: With both Asian and European ancestry, white currants are written about as far back as the 11th century, when Russia started to cultivate in monastery gardens, towns and settlements. The wild plant grows in many climates, anywhere within the northern hemisphere, and from the 1400s, herbalists collected wild currants for medicinal uses. By the 1700s, they were being traded throughout Western Europe.
Production: White currants are cool-climate plants and fruit well in northern areas, where they flourish in moist to wet, well-drained soil and once established, and survive with only a very small amount of irrigation. Relatively low-maintenance plants in general, white currant bushes do best in partial to full sunlight. The deciduous shrub grows to a metre tall and broad, and has palmate (hand-like with multiple points) leaves and spherical fruits in the summer months. Complete trusses (or stems) are harvested instead of individual berries, as they are very delicate and could easily be squashed before they get into the recipe.
Appearance and flavour: White currant berries are slightly smaller and sweeter than red currants, and they turn a delightful light pink colour when cooked in jams or jellies. Small, round and cream-coloured, the berries are translucent with transparently clear flesh and yellow-brown seeds inside. They grow hanging from a green stem, and are sometimes served in dishes with the stem attached, but just for visual effect, as the stem is inedible.
Where redcurrants can be tart, white currants are sweet and can be eaten raw in larger amounts. They look like tiny opaque gooseberries, with slightly darker veins inside, their thin, juicy skin, concealing an even juicer flesh.
Culinary uses: Eaten fresh, cooked or dried, white currants can also be easily frozen, as they don’t need any blanching and are small enough to sty intact when defrosted. Traditionally, they have not been used in savoury dishes, but there is a new wave of use in main dishes, such as stews, or with meats, see Sunday Times columnist and Polpetto chef Florence Knight’s Raw razor clams, white currants and fennel.
White currant preserves, jellies, wines and syrups have been popular in the past, and are an ingredient in Bar-le-duc or Lorraine jelly. Pairing well with spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, the white berries are also good with creamy dishes and vanilla, but also citrus fruits, tomatoes, juniper, ginger, strawberries and stonefruit. Meat-wise, they complement the sweetness in game, pork, shellfish and steak, and go well with fresh herbs, basil, lemon verbena and mint.
They are often poached for sauces or compotes or used to make cordials, as the berries are so sweet, and have even been used to make a semifreddo in cookery book Great British Food Revival: The Revolution Continues. They are, however, sensitive to scent transfer, so avoid keeping them near any strong tasting foods, as they will be over powered.
Health and nutrition: White currants are a good source of vitamins B1 and C, and are rich in iron, copper and manganese.
Dishes: You can make a white currant syrup for lemonade and ice cream, or add white currants to a Champagne or sparkling wine flute. White currants are good in tarts, with meringues, in crème brulée, mousses, in ice creams and sorbets. On the savoury side, the currants are good in rice or curried rice dishes, with smoked salmon or pan-fried mackerel, and various roast meats.
The next big thing: Yellow and pink currants