What does the color red taste like?
For centuries, most Westerners would have probably answered “red currant jelly.” While red currants might be difficult to find in your local grocery store today, they were once a staple fruit in their native origin, Western Europe. Their relative ease of cultivation, and resistance to disease and pests probably accounts for the fruit’s ubiquity in European culinary history, with uses ranging from savory meat accompaniment, to chilled soups, to colorful pastry glazes.
In France, the clarity of a homemaker’s currant jelly was long considered an indicator of her wifely skills. In fact the french are so enamored with this tart berry that a small town in Northeast France has been producing what might be the world’s most expensive jam since 1344. La confiture de Groseilles de Bar le Duc is a jam made in the village of Bar le Duc from red currants that have been de-seeded by hand using a goose feather quill. Yes, you read that right. Workers remove a dozen or more tiny seeds from each individual red currant berry using the sharpened tip of a goose feather. Why? So that the skin and flesh of the currant remains undamaged and pretty when suspended in jam. But pretty doesn’t come cheap. (Don’t we all know?) A mere three ounces of this specialty jam retails for more than $40 in the U.S.
While currants – and their relative, the gooseberry – were also popular in early American cuisine, they rather abruptly disappeared from U.S. kitchens in the early 20th century. At the time currant bushes were identified as hosts of “White Pine Blister Rust Fungus,” which while not harmful to the currant bush itself, is as deadly to White Pine trees as its name implies. With millions of dollars worth of lumber at risk, cultivation of currants was declared illegal by the U.S. government, and during the Great Depression over 11,000 workers were hired by the Federal government to comb American forests, pulling up any wild gooseberry and currant bushes that were discovered.
With a fungus that could travel up to 350 miles from its host, this effort had little effect on eradicating the disease. By 1966 the government eased restrictions, allowing individual states to decide if currant cultivation could be reinstated. Several states still have laws prohibiting the sale of currant bushes on the books.
Here at Beekman 1802 Farm, we don’t make a lot of fussy jellies. We prefer its quicker, unfussy sibling – jam. However, we do put up several jars of red currant jelly when we have a good crop. It’s the standard jelly for glazing fruit tarts (the resulting slight red tint makes most fruit look even prettier,) and we also use it all winter long as a bright accompaniment to hearty roast meats. Perhaps one of our favorite uses is adding a tablespoon to brown pan gravies – it enriches the color and gives it a more complex flavor.
Plus we like to keep a jewel-like jar of red currant jelly on our window sill in secret hope that one day someone will notice and declare us good french homemakers.
Click on any image below to begin a slideshow of our jelly making process.
Red Currant Jelly
This is a pretty standard currant jelly recipe that you’ll find everywhere on the web. There are also some that don’t contain pectin, since currants are already high in natural pectin. But we like to hedge our bets when we’re putting in this much time and effort, so we use the pectin version.
10 cups red currants
2 cups water
8 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter
1 pouch Liquid Pectin
Wash currants. Don’t worry if there are stems attached. Many old recipes actually encourage the inclusion of some stems. Pour currants into large, non-reactive saucepan (stainless steel,) add water, and bring to boil. Turn down heat to simmer and boil for 5 minutes, mashing berries occasionally with potato masher.
Pour mashed mixture into jelly bag and stand, positioned over a deep bowl to catch juice. (Pre-dampen jelly bag for best results.) If using old pillowcase or other similar cloth, hang from cupboard handle over bowl in sink. Whatever the set-up, be sure the cloth is finely woven. The tighter the weave, the clearer the juice.
Let juice drip for at least 3 hours. We prefer overnight. DO NOT SQUEEZE BAG, or small particles will be forced through cloth and make your jelly cloudy.
Place a few dish saucers in the freezer. (These will be used to test done-ness of jelly.)
You should be left with about 6 cups of juice after straining. Don’t worry if you have a little more or less. Up to a cup in either direction is fine. Pour juice in large non-reactive pot. Add all of the sugar and butter (the butter keeps foaming down.) Bring it all to full boil, stirring often. When mixture is boiling to the point that you can’t stir away the bubbling, add the pectin. Stir vigorously for one minute longer, then remove from heat. If there is any foam formed, skim it off.
Quickly drop a spoonful of the hot jelly mixture onto chilled saucer. Let cool for 1 minute. Run your finger though puddle. Is it still liquid? Or does it wrinkle? If it wrinkles, it’s ready to be poured into jars. If not, return jelly mixture to heat and boil for one more minute. Test again.
Once hot jelly passes the “wrinkle test,” quickly pour hot mixture into sterilized jars. Fill until 1/4 inch headspace remains in jars. Wipe rims of jars with clean damp paper towel, removing any drips. Rims must be very clean in order for seal to take.
Place lids on jars and screw on bands snugly. Do not over-tighten. Place jars in rack and lower into water bath canner. Cover with until until jars are submerged at least one inch. Bring to a boil. Once water is at rolling boil, set timer for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, remove jars and allow to cool. The lids will “pop” once sealed. (If any do not seal, place in refrigerator and use first. They will still be fine for several months.)
Resist the urge to open a jar for testing until 48 hours have passed. Jelly sometimes takes that long to set completely.
Don’t have access to fresh red currants? You can have frozen berries shipped to you from Northwest Wild Foods that will work just as well for jelly.