The culinary history of the New Zealand Blackcurrant
Mrs Beeton's Cookery.
Around the 1820's the first European settlers brought Blackcurrant plants to New Zealand. The high pectin levels in the berries meant they were perfect for making jams and jellies, the leaves and stems were used for teas and tisanes. (The Blackcurrant is one of the few plants where the aroma of the fruit is also in the leaves and stems.) Mrs Beeton's cookery book was the kitchen bible for the early colonialists; and used for many decades in NZ.
Mrs Beeton features three recipes in this book. A Blackcurrant tea she recommended for invalids as a remedy for colds, to alleviate thirst or hoarseness (ie sore throats). At this time of course no-one knew about Vitamin C or that Blackcurrants are very rich in Vitamin C: but the early New Zealand colonialists knew that Blackcurrants was a good all-purpose general health tonic.
William Hale of Nelson started growing Blackcurrant bushes in a nursery to supply to home gardeners.
The Everylady's Cook Book: 1938
For many years Australian cookbooks were a NZ home cook's mainstay. This very popular cookbook was promoted as a guide for all young brides. The book features an 'emergency Black Currant Syrup' showing how to turn a jam into a syrup for drinks, and also a recipe for Black Currant Vinegar.
Around this time all recipes referred to 'Blackcurrant' as two words: 'Black Currant'. This was quite common and many books simply refer to 'currants' when describing Blackcurrants even thought this can be confused with the other 'currant' (which is a dried red grape).
1946: The NZ "Truth's" Cookery Book
The NZ Truth became famous for its NZ home cook recipe books. This edition was published just after World War 2 and featured two very popular desserts at the time: Blackcurrant Pudding and Blackcurrant Rolypoly.
As with virtually all recipes around this period, desserts used Blackcurrant jam as the base, as fresh blackcurrant berries were very rarely available.
1948: The Perfit Seal Home Preserving Book
Perfit seals are a NZ icon and responsible for countless millions of glass jars of home preserved fruits and vegetables over many decades. The food prepared and placed into glass jars with a syrup or salt solution. The special lid designed by the Perfit company was put on top.
This lid sealed tight as the sealed jars were further cooked in a large pot of boiling water. The food could be stored for many years. Many homes used this system right up to the 1980's. Some home cooks still do this but most now freeze their fruits and vegetables. The book showed how to use the Perfit system to make and keep fruit juices including, as shown, Blackcurrant juice.
1950's: Aunt Daisy Champion's the Blackcurrant
In the 1950's Radio NZ icon personality Aunt Daisy, promotes a Blackcurrant savory sauce recipe for using with lamb and other meats.
1965: The Atlas Cookery Book
The early coal range ovens and then the early electric ovens helped shape NZ home cooks as some of the most passionate and successful domestic bakers in the world. The electric range companies produced recipe books annually. This is the 11th Edition of the Atlas Company, published in 1965. The book features the traditional Blackcurrant Jam but, most notably, the two words used to describe the fruit were now merging into one: "Blackcurrant" .
1970s Harvest Maid Dehydrator Instruction Recipe Book
Thousands of New Zealanders became dried fruit devotees in the hippie 70's. This guide to drying highlights how red currants were not recommended for drying but Blackcurrants were ideal. The Blackcurrants were then used in breads, buns and biscuits or pureed first, usually with apple, and then dried into a 'fruit leather' for snacking. Using the thin leather sheets instead of seaweed in a sushi type fruit roll was a brief but colourful culinary experiment.
1972: The Red Cross Cookery Book
A mainstay of community fundraising, the Red Cross cake stall led to communities producing their own Red Cross cookbooks as an alternative fund raising opportunity. In this book, printed in 1972, Mrs Hille of Marlborough, shows two recipes.
One is a traditional Blackcurrant jam but the other is quite novel: it shows how to make a Blackcurrant jam without Blackcurrants. Many favourite New Zealand recipes did this, to allow for the fact that there might have been a poor crop or the farmer's wife had simply used up her fruit or meat supplies. Interesting to see how tomatoes, pineapple and lemon is used to 'replicate' a Blackcurrant!
1980's: Taking on the world!
In the 1980's Geraldine-based Barkers creates the world's first unsweetened Blackcurrant concentrate and the Newman Company starts exporting frozen Blackcurrants to European bakeries. The Margaret Fulton Cookbook features a Blackcurrant New York style cheesecake and the Nelson-based Sujon berryfruits company starts marketing frozen Blackcurrants to NZ chefs.
1988: NZ Blackcurrants keep moving upmarket
One of many early food lifestyle magazines in NZ. The magazine features a top New Zealand luxury hotel of the time using Blackcurrants in a special dessert.
2005: Blackcurrants Continue to Move to the Culinary Centrestage
Blackcurrants continue to go upmarket: this time featured as a cover photo for "Berry Compote & Mandarin Liqueur layered with Mascarpone Cream" and featuring whole Blackcurrants.
2008: One of world's top chefs Champions NZ Blackcurrants
Acclaimed as one of the world's top luxury boutique hotel restaurant chefs by Conde Nast magazine, Chef Jason Dell of Blanket Bay Queenstown creates a Blackcurrant and Pinot Noir jus with Duck comfit to showcase the regions stunning Pinot Noir wines.
The Future is Looking Black for NZ Cooks & Chefs
Blackcurrants go perfect with Pinot Noir and red meats. But NZ chefs and cooks are also starting to realise that Blackcurrant's herbaceous and goose-berry like flavours allows it to suit well with classic NZ sauvignon Blancs in exciting new applications.
NZ's unique terroir (climate and geography) produces more flavour and colour intensity (and health-giving antioxidants) than blackcurrants grown anywhere else in the world. The berry has an exciting culinary future as an iconic NZ food. Enjoy.