Currant Affairs.

Harvesting blackcurrants.

Some fruits have (understandably) demonstrated a dislike of 2012’s see-saw weather: Hot dry early spring, followed by weeks of cold and wet – but the blackcurrant evidently is not one of them, and we have a good crop this year.  The apples are putting on a reasonable weight of their versatile fruit.  The greengage and plums are relatively new trees in this garden.  It was, I suppose, good of them to yield enough for a few pots of jam last summer.  There are no visible fruits on them this time.  They can please themselves whether they do or die, as I have no emotional attachment to them – which is not, however, the case with my blackcurrant bushes.

Our family have always grown their own food.  Our garden at home in Aldridge, albeit fairly small and  suburban always had a superbly productive fruit and vegetable patch.  At my father’s childhood home, a rural smallholding at Footherly, near Shenstone, achieving near self sufficiency was an economic necessity, but also a source of great delight and satisfaction.  Tall rows of raspberries and fat bushes of blackcurrants grew near the well in the section of garden not far from the back door.  Grandad would gather some ripe fruit in a handle-less tea-cup, dredge it with sugar, and place it for a few minutes in the “slow” oven of his diminutive black cast iron range before passing it into my eager little hands during many a Sunday morning visit in the 1960s.  The fragrance and taste of the first fruit from my garden, warmed by summer sun, takes me straight back to those moments.

Twenty years ago I had a couple of “Ben Something” variety of blackcurrants in what was then my newly acquired kitchen garden.   One day my dad and my husband came home with some knobbly old roots of blackcurrant bushes to add to the row.  They had scrambled into the overgrown garden adjacent to the now sadly derelict Keepers Cottage, Footherly and wrested from its tangled depths some real treasures for me in the form of some of the plants my grandad had cultivated there for decades, and  I set them in the row with the others.

So, it’s Kings Bromley Village Show tomorrow, and I have picked, hulled and brewed the blackberry crop into jars of jam to grace the WI stall. It’s traditional you know!

I saved a few of the truly giant fruit from the vintage bushes just in case I found time to enter them into the show.  The deadline has passed now, but here is their image preserved for your delectation, just to prove how magnificent they were.  July will, I hope, come around again next year.

“Prize” currants which won’t get to show their mettle.

A lot of the most modern cultivars are “Ben” this that and the other, as are other soft fruit varieties. but I wonder whether I have got a “Black Naples” here.

A new variety in Victorian times, I understand, prized for the glorious size of its currants and illustrated and mentioned in my 1920s two-volume edition of “The Fruit Growers Guide”…but not in subsequent manuals of wartime and post war epochs. I consult  Raymond Bush,  a straight talking horticulturalist with one of those gardeners’ names ( I give you Bob Flowerdew). He does not mention Black Naples in his “Fruit Growing Outdoors” of 1952, but according to him, I am lucky to get such a good crop from such an old plant.  He admonishes:

 “Far too many of the country’s currant bushes are useless cumberers of the earth.  Some consist of a few scrawny shoots springing from a gnarled stem.  Others show the change of leaf-shape and veining known as “nettle-head”, ..while it is is uncommon to find an elderly bush in many private gardens which is not infested with big-bud mite and so deprived of most of its fruitful possibilities.”

Oh, OK, Raymond! Blackcurrants are also disparaged in the earlier book as being of limited use as a dessert fruit, but following the discovery of the importance of vitamins in diet, they were found to be the richest natural source of vitamin C, and became greatly valued during wartime, especially when citrus fruit was unavailable.  A generation became so familiar with the delicious tang of blackcurrant sufficiently sweetened to be palatable and its nutritional content preserved, that “Ribena” is with us still.  Blackcurrant jam was always my favourite.  And doesn’t everyone compete for that elusive black fruit pastille?

“The Fruit Growers’ Guide” by Horace J Wright, FRHS.

Was Black Naples a notorious martyr to “Big Bud” disease, I wonder?  Was there some attribute which made it unsuitable for commercial use? Why “Black Naples” at all, as the currant is a natively a Northern European plant, and hence heedless of our capricious summer weather? The “Victorian Kitchen Garden” book of the 1980s TV series which introduced my most favourite ever reality TV star, Harry Dodson, has it that “Black Naples” is just another (more romantic) name for “Baldwin”.

A little more about old varieties of blackcurrants from the blackcurrant foundation, which may answer my questions: 

“The mainstay of the blackcurrant industry for many years was the variety `Baldwin’. Of unknown origin, `Baldwin’ is thought to be over 150 years old, and whilst generally outclassed now in terms of agronomic performance, it is still grown on a reduced scale today. `Baldwin’ has a mild flavour, and reasonable levels of vitamin C, but it is very susceptible to many foliar diseases, including mildew, and the flowers are extremely sensitive to damage by spring frosts. There are several other very old varieties that can still be found in small quantities today, including `Lee’s Prolific’ (from 1860), `Boskoop Giant’ (1880) and `Wellington XXX’ (1913).”

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2 Responses to Currant Affairs.

  1. Pedro says:

    Beware of the Black Meade.

    All the best Peter

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