Black currants are extremely popular in Europe and, prior to 1911, were big in the U.S. In 1911, the commercial cultivation of currants in the U.S. was outlawed by an act of Congress—for its alleged part in spreading the disease, white pine blister rust, which threatened the U.S. timber industry. The ban was based on incomplete scientific knowledge of the disease.
At the behest of New York State farmers in this century, scientists from Cornell University revisited the white pine disease issue and concluded that currants didn't pose the threat to white pines that was once believed. Finally, it was shown that white pine blister rust did not jump from white pine to white pine, but from white pine to black currant bush to white pine.
Until April 2003, black currants were “forbidden fruit” in the U.S. Then, following the Cornell studies, New York State* overturned the black currant farming ban, opening the door for New York Currants™—for eating, juice, jam, yogurt, tea and other applications. It’s also a boon for family farms, which now have an in-demand, non-commodity crop to revive sagging revenue.
*The ban still stands today in several states.
Currants Versus Raisins
Since currants only began to be grown recently, what are those things we’ve been calling currants?
They are the so-called Zante Currants, which are actually raisins (dried grapes) that have nothing to do with real currants.
Grapes grow on vines and are sweet.
Currants grow on bushes and are quite tart.
The botanical family of currants is Saxifragaceae, Genus Ribes while the Botanical family of grapes is Vitaceae, Genus Vitis. The relationship is bananas to apples.
More importantly, the raisins have little or none of the black currant antioxidants studied in the research.
Black currants. Photo courtesy BombayHarbor.com.
Why the confusion? After the commercial cultivation of currants was outlawed in 1911, currants dropped off the culinary radar screen. In the 1920s, Greece began to export small dried seedless grapes, one-fourth the size of the average raisin, from the area of Corinth.
Zante Currants Are Not Currants
Zante currants are the dried form of an ancient Greek grape variety properly called the Black Corinth, Vitis vinifera, the smallest of the seedless grapes. They came from the third largest Ionian Island called Zakýnthos, which is often called Zante. The type of grape is the Black Corinth, named for the Greek city where they were grown more than 2,000 years ago. On the first shipment, the Greek writing for the word “Corinth” was mistakenly translated at the pier into “currant.”
Since the growing of real currants had been banned for quite a few years at that point, the name stuck and three generations of Americans have become accustomed to cooking and baking with “currants” that are really raisins.
Zante currants are not currants, but Greek raisins.
What About “Champagne Grapes?”
They’re Zante currants, which are grapes, not currants. Champagne Grapes are small and seedless and have a deep blue-black color when ripe. The average size of each bunch is the length and width of a hand.
They are not used for making Champagne, which can only be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.
Champagne grapes are tin grapes of the Black Corinth variety. Photo courtesy Melissas.com.
Champagne grapes became popular in the 1980s in the food service industry, when miniature vegetables were becoming popular. These delectable little fruits are crunchy with a sweet flavor and unique appearance. The highly decorative little fruits became popular as a dessert fruit and gourmet garnish.
The name “Champagne” grapes accrued when photo stylists began to drape small bunches of the grapes over Champagne and wine glass rims.
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