Mark Diacono states that blackcurrants are one of the best and easiest fruits to grow in your garden.
In a jar on the side of my desk are a few upside down items: a 6H pencil from my dad’s writing desk that I use to draw garden plans, a plant label pen, and a fork that’s more practical than pretty.
It is the fork, with its coarse teeth, which I resort to every summer for a month or two, to pluck the blackcurrant from every plant, when its fruit swells and stretches the branches into weeping contortions that threaten but never break the branches.
The fact that the plants bend so much speaks volumes about how productive blackcurrants are: now that they have taken root, we get about 9 pounds of juicy fruit from the bush, recouping the cost of the plant many times over every year. Not only are they very valuable, but the taste of home grown blackcurrants exceeds my expectations every year: when they are rich in color and fully ripe, they are complex, full of flavor, with a great balance of spiciness and sweetness.
Local birds are no less enthusiastic. They will likely line up along a good vantage point to determine when your currant is in the perfect moment; usually a few days after the appearance of the fruit tells you they are ready to be harvested. Allowing the berries to develop beyond this deep color point will give you more sweetness and depth of flavor. If you have the space and desire for a fruit cage, growing blackcurrants under a net will ensure you keep the fruit for yourself, but if your blackcurrants are outdoors, watch out for birds and start harvesting quickly.
In addition to a bountiful fruit harvest, you get one of the great side benefits of home growing: blackcurrant leaves. In the spring, when the leaves are fresh, soft and pliable, I pluck a couple of baskets from several bushes so as not to deplete them. Their taste is complex and difficult to distinguish by aroma: fragrant, heavy floral aroma of currant. A few leaves in hot water makes one of the few great herbal teas – I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t like much – as well as a really exceptional sherbet.
“Growing blackcurrants is as easy as you’d like”
Growing your own blackcurrant allows you to choose varieties with the richest taste. When choosing strains, you’ll be safe with any that have “Ben” in their name; I never knew one wasn’t hardy, reliable and great tasting. Careful variety selection can also give you a long season: ‘Ben Konnan’ and ‘Ebony’ are the earliest I grow, they start harvesting in the last days of June here in the southwest, with ‘Big Ben’ following. close behind. If you live in an area prone to late frosts, ‘Ben Tirran’ is a great option as it blooms later than most other varieties and produces a later harvest. Titania is another option to consider: this mid-season Swedish variety has large, juicy, aromatic and deliciously sweet fruits with just the right amount of spiciness.
Growing blackcurrants is as easy as it sounds. Provide your plants with the sunniest, most fertile spot you have and leave them 5 feet away from a neighbor. Water well the first year they establish and during dry spells, mulch with manure or compost over the winter and you should be fine.
Don’t be intimidated by the idea of cropping: you can do it very simply. Cutting off one-third of the branches to the base each year encourages new growth and maintains a strong plant: prioritizing older branches that are becoming less productive also ensures maximum fruit production. You can do it in the winter if you want, but I often follow Sarah Raven’s advice and prune when the currants are ready to be harvested, killing two birds with one flick of the pruner and plucking the fruit from the branches right in the kitchen. with my trusty fork.
Blackcurrant freezes well, so you can enjoy it at any time of the year. What’s more, once frozen, applying the top and tail—usually one of the most boring tasks—becomes much faster and easier: you can run your thumbnail or knife through both ends without fear of crushing the fruit. I freeze them in 250-300g yogurt cups until I’m ready to use them.
Mark Diacono grows edibles, both common and unusual, at Otter Farm in Devon (www.otterfarm.co.uk). His latest book Spice: A Cook’s Companion (Quadrille, £25) has been published.
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