There’s a town in northern France called Bar-le-Duc that’s famous for the red currant jelly that’s been produced there since the 14th century. Bar-le-Duc preserve is still made the way they’ve been doing it for 600 years, with patient artisans (mostly women) using a goose quill to flick out each hand-picked currant’s tiny seeds while leaving the currant intact. No surprise, the preserve is the most expensive in the world — a small jar costs upwards of $40 over here.
This is by way of introducing today’s topic — and no, I don’t mean the mad, entrenched traditions of the French — but red currants, an intensely flavored fruit that looks like little clusters of translucent rubies. They’re in the gooseberry family, and are about as squinchingly tart eaten raw, but wonderful in all sorts of preparations. The red currant season lasts no more than a couple of weeks, but they’re in many markets now, so get ’em while you can.
In Europe, red currant jelly is often served as a condiment with game, lamb or foie gras. You can spread it on toast, too, and you can make it without that whole goose-quill business by squeezing the seeds out of each currant’s stem end. If you have more pressing things to do than spend hours squeezing currants, just leave the seeds in, as I do. My red currant jelly doesn’t have the stained-glass look of the exclusive Bar-le-Duc gourmet confection, but it’s pretty good.
You can also put red currants in scones or muffins or use them to add a little zing to apple, peach or cherry pies. Simmer some with equal parts sugar and water to make a syrup to pour over ice cream, or simply smoosh them with sugar for a topping.
One of the best uses for red currants is Summer Pudding, a mouthwatering, old-fashioned dessert that’s a favorite in the U.K. The original recipe from the 1700s called for a four-to-one ratio of raspberries to red currants, but you can use a mix of fruits. I like blackberries, raspberries and red currants. Sliced strawberries work well, too, but keep that sweet-tart ratio for the best results. And use good bread — you want it to absorb the fruit juices, but the cheap stuff will get pappy and spoil your pud.
Makes 6 Servings
A mix of red currants with blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, or sliced strawberries, about 2 lbs in all
3 Tbs sugar
3 Tbs water
7 or 8 slices of good quality, slightly stale white bread, crusts removed
Cut a piece of bread to fit the bottom of a pudding bowl. Cut the rest into wide strips and line the sides of the bowl, pushing the pieces snugly together to hold the fruit. Reserve some bread for the top.
Put the washed currants and berries in a pan with the sugar and water. Bring to a simmer and let the fruit cook for four or five minutes. It should keep its shape. Let cool slightly.
Spoon the fruit and juices into the bread-lined bowl, and form a top using the reserved bread. The fruit should be encased in bread. Lay a small flat plate on top and weight it down (a heavy can works well). Refrigerate overnight.
Remove the weight and plate. Put an inverted serving plate on top and flip the pudding over to unmold. Give it a little shake and it should slide out easily.
Serve with whipped heavy cream.