BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Eating currants may have been a guilty pleasure at one time, but today currants are being celebrated.
In 1911, growing currants was banned in the U.S. because of their possible connection to a fungus that damaged pine trees. But as tree treatments and currant varieties changed, bans started lifting in 2003 and now the crop is grown commercially by farmers, mostly in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
Currants are also grown at the Refuge Food Forest in Normal, Illinois. This “food forest” was created by the town and University of Illinois Extension in 2015. It is a diverse garden of organically grown edible plants in ecosystems that mimic nature.
All the plants grown there are free for the public to pick. Volunteer weeders are also welcome.
Jenna Smith, a nutrition and wellness educator in central Illinois, will be leading a program in the food forest featuring black currants on Aug. 19. She and dietetic intern Joo Yee Lim recently got together to make some blueberry currant jam that will be sampled at the event.
Currants are tarter than blueberries, but they have a natural pectin so a commercial pectin is not needed when canning, the nutrition educator said.
“It’s not currant season now. We picked them in July,” Smith said. The currants were frozen for this event.
Participants will get this and other recipes including fruit smoothies, bread, ice cream and vinaigrette dressing to take home, she said.
Currants have always been more popular in Europe where they originated than in the U.S., so much so that Skittles candy in Europe has a currant flavor, Smith said.
She uses black currants. White currants seem seedier, she said.
Smith, who grew up on a grain farm south of Springfield, is at ease talking about the connection of agriculture, food and nutrition.
“It’s nice to be close to home and go back to help on the family farm,” she said. Her father is retired and her brother operates the farm now.
Smith has celebrated almost all her birthdays at the Illinois State Fair, usually showing Limousin calves in her 4-H years. Now she usually still celebrates her birthday at the fair, but often as a food judge.
“A Taste of The Refuge Food Forest: Black Currant” will be 6-7 p.m. Aug. 19 at the food forest in Normal. Register at go.illinois.edu/lmwevents or call 309-663-8306.