I have mentioned before that when I was a little girl, I thought grosella (currant), was a made-up flavour, like “tutti-frutti” or “blue raspberry”, as opposed to a real fruit. Back then, a popular treat to buy at the zoo – and every other park or community centre in Mexico City – were raspados (literally “scraped.”) Similar to snow cones, they were made from shaved ice topped with a choice of jarabe (syrup, cordial), available in several flavours, such as lime, grape, etc. Currant was always a hit for its unique flavour, although us kids would mostly be drawn to its intense colour, and order “uno rojo, por favor” (“a red one, please.”)
In Canada, although fresh and dried currants are quite common and well known, and I even have access to the fruit in my own backyard, they still keep a little bit of their mystery to me, something special to prepare with care, more so since I received my blackcurrant as a gifted seedling a few years ago, from a very dear friend. I am enjoying a bumper crop this year, and remembering the raspados, I started by making some cordial. Then, I crushed ice in the blender, until very fine, and topped it with my syrupy elixir, trying to reproduce a Mexican raspado de grosella (photo at the top of the post). I am not sure whether the cordial of my childhood raspados was made with red currants or black, but mine had a deep, yet bright red colour, and the flavour was most definitely grosella, very satisfying and refreshing.
Blackcurrant Cordial – Jarabe de grosella negra
2 cups fresh blackcurrant berries (or frozen)
¼ cup water
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ tsp citric acid
Wash, drain and clean blackcurrants, removing stems, leaves and damaged berries. Place in a pan with the water. Cook over medium heat, simmering gently for about 3-5 minutes, just until the berries are soft enough to mash with the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and set aside. Prepare a strainer lined with cheesecloth, with a large heat-proof bowl or measuring cup below. Pour cooked and mashed berries, and keep pressing the fruit with the spoon, to aid the straining process. Finish this step by twisting the cheesecloth to extract as much juice as possible:
Measure the amount of juice and add ¾ cup of sugar for every cup of liquid; please note that the quantities on the ingredient list are approximate, according to what I got with my berries this time, but the actual amount of juice should always be measured. Stir until sugar has dissolved, then add citric acid (again, quantity based on the ratio of ½ tsp for every cup of juice). Pour cordial in a glass container with lid, let cool completely and store in the fridge for up to two weeks. I got about 280 ml (a bit over a cup) of cordial:
In addition to pouring on shaved ice for raspados, the cordial may be added to iced water or soda water for refreshing beverages, as a flavouring in dessert recipes, or mixed in cocktails (blackcurrant Margaritas, anyone?)
In Spanish, blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) are called grosellas negras to differentiate them from the red and white varieties, but are also known as casis, or cassis, from their name in French.
Another berry called Starberry (Phyllanthus acidus) – although botanically speaking not a currant – is also known as grosella in Southern Mexico, where it became naturalized from Asia, probably originally native to Magadascar. It is a yellowish acidic berry, used in preserves, but I have never seen or tried them.
Black currant (Ribes nigrum) was banned in the United States in the 1910s over the concern that the species carried a fungal disease that fatally affected white pine trees, the white-pine blister rust. Over the decades, it became clear that hindering the spread of the fungus, and developing varieties resistant to the disease, were more effective measures than the limited benefit from banning the blackcurrant, since it has been found that other members of the Ribes genus are carriers of the disease. The ban was shifted from federal to individual state jurisdiction in 1966, but only a handful of states have lifted the ban. In New York state, the campaign to reverse the ban was started about 15 years ago by Greg Quinn who had conducted an investigation to find a profitable crop for his farm, realizing that blackcurrants had been singled out based on incomplete studies; with the help of researchers at Cornell University, he managed to spearhead the repeal of the ban, and as a result, blackcurrants are becoming a flourishing crop in that state.