Blackcurrants were first grown in the UK over 500 years ago. Herbalists regarded them highly for their medicinal uses, particularly for treating bladder stones, liver and lung disorders and coughs. Today, it’s the high levels of anthocyanins with their antioxidant properties in the dark coloured fruits that give them superfood status. Nowadays breeders are actively developing cultivars with increased levels of anthocyanins.
There are currently around 50 blackcurrant growers in the UK, each year producing in the region of 14,000 tonnes of blackcurrants, depending on the weather conditions. The Ribena factory is the destination for a large proportion of the blackcurrants, yet, many other manufacturers shun home grown blackcurrants in favour of foreign imports. As a result, the UK blackcurrant market is actually bigger than the demand for British blackcurrants.
Commercially grown blackcurrants are usually planted in more traditional smaller scale fields, enclosed with hedges which provide protection and shelter for the crops. As the bushes remain viable for up to 15 years this also provides more opportunities for long term environmental activities to encourage wildlife. Harvesting is mainly done by specially developed machines called straddle harvesters which shake the currants from the plants. However, blackcurrants grown for sale as fresh fruit are still hand picked to avoid damaging the fruit.
If you don’t grow your own, the best place to find UK grown blackcurrants is either direct from a grower, farm shops or at farmers’ markets. Classic blackcurrant recipes include summer pudding, pies, cheesecake, mousses, fools, jams and jellies. Blackcurrant puree coupled with lightly whipped cream is an indulgent filling for a chocolate cake. For a dairy and egg free dessert, I love this coconut milk ice cream rippled with blackcurrant puree. Or for a really refreshing end to a meal try a blackcurrant and aniseed sorbet. Almonds and blackcurrants are another great pairing. A handful of blackcurrants added to the filling for an almond tart provides a lovely sharp contrast to the rich filling They also work equally well in savoury dishes too. Pork, venison and duck are all delicious served with a blackcurrant sauce. Or use them in a dressing to serve with baked feta or goat’s cheese.
Early cultivars were susceptible to damage from spring frosts however, the Scottish Research Institute at Invergowrie, near Dundee, used Scandinavian frost hardy germplasm to develop a series of hardier cultivars. They called them the ‘Ben’ series, the first of which was ‘Ben Lomond’ in the 1970s. The two latest in the series are ‘Ben Hope’ and ‘Ben Gairn’ which are the current favoured cultivars
Blackcurrants are available as either bare root plants for planting during autumn. and winter or as container plants for planting anytime. Ideally the plants prefer well drained soil in full sun. The bushes need to be pruned to maintain their shape and to encourage new wood on which the fruit forms. Initially just remove the wispy shoots then after 4 years, prune then annually during the dormant season. Remove about a third of the old wood right from the base of the plants. When the fruits are ripe, cut off the bunches of berries (stigs) then strip them from the stalks. Avoid harvesting the fruit in humid or damp weather as the fruit will be more susceptible to mould.