Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Received wisdom, or: "Explosive flavors of black currant and cassis"

Voruta: a Lithuanian black currant wine, priced well under $10. Of its appellation, I can only transcribe the address on the label, not being fluent in the language:

Dariaus ir Gireno str. 8
Anyksciai Lithuania

The label also says, in English, that the currants are harvested from Lithuanian gardens and that the wine is recognized as a part of Europe's Regional Culinary Heritage. My tasting notes follow, as usual for what they are worth:

Vegetal -- greasy -- brambly-briny -- sweet smell
sweet but not horribly so, tart --
no body or "grip" (it vanishes instantly)
No finish. Clear bright garnet color.

How explain "flavors of black currant" in other, red wines -- ?? (This very plain, not lush or "jammy.")

How indeed? Other people's tasting notes for cabernets and merlots abound with comparisons to black currant and cassis. But when was the last time a wine reviewer, especially an American reviewer, tasted or even saw a black currant? My having a chance to sip Voruta was unusual enough, and to me it did not taste explosively of one of Napa's best.

I suspect the comparisons of good red wines to black currants and currant products amount to a piece of received wisdom. And it's a received wisdom sensibly emanating from a Europe which is the home of good red wine and of black currants, too. Perhaps the sensory image seems right upon reception because powerhouse red wines are so black in color, and because "currant," so little known, covers a multitude of safely unexamined taste possibilities.

Consider. To hail from the U.S. is most likely to lack a native European's experience of this little fruit, or other little fruits that go by its name. We must cram with the Oxford Companion to Food (delightful big book, do run get it), and then we'll soon sort the whole thing out.

It would seem currants lead rich inner lives. One type, wouldn't you know it, is a dried black grape grown in Greece and used since antiquity, making an appearance still in that English pudding sadly known as Spotted Dick (see the article "Currants, Raisins, and Sultanas"). The other kind of currant, what we might call a true currant, is a berry, either red, white, or black, which grows on shrubs of a plant genus classified Ribes (see the article "Currants").

Ribes grow in the United States too, but they are put to far more use across the Atlantic. The red variety, Ribes rubrum, has long been made into expensive Bar-le-duc jam, named for its town of origin in northeastern France. Locally grown black currants, R. negrum, are distilled into famed creme de cassis liqueur in Dijon, in Burgundy. Beyond the Companion, in our own previous reading -- in English country house novels, in European or very European-influenced cookbooks -- we might remember encountering "red currant fool," a dessert of crushed currants and whipped cream, or recipes calling for a red currant jelly glaze for meat, poultry, or for fruit tarts. Not a Bar-le-duc jam glaze, to be sure. Far too exalted. The enchanting little book To Marry an English Lord (1989, do run get that, too) recalls the days when even very upper-class Victorian children were warned, when visiting the greatest houses, "'...and don't touch the Bar-le-duc jam!'" It was reserved for royalty. By the by, "'never comment on a likeness'" was the other ironclad rule.

Natural European associations, all of them. The nice man tasting out Voruta for us in the wine aisle a few months ago naturally knew none of them. He got himself into quite a muddle as he poured, explained, and answered customers' questions. What with the confusions of berries, "currants," grapes, and wine - and it's no help that wine grapes are casually referred to, botanically, as the "berries" of their vines -- he eventually faced puzzled people asking him how Voruta's makers "get the currants into the grapes." I was too busy to eavesdrop on his answers. Anyway it was no one's fault. I was as puzzled as he was.

Yet I at least grew up eating peanut butter and red currant jelly sandwiches. No boring grape for me! That jelly is hard to find now, and it seems there's a reason. In his book Food, written at about the time I was still eating those unique PBJs (1980), Waverley Root explains that Ribes shrubs host a parasitic fungus, Cronartium ribicola, during part of the fungus' growth cycle. It does no harm to the currant bush, but when it moves on, apparently inexorably, to nearby eastern white pine trees for the next part of its life, it "girdles and kills" the trees. Since white pines are valuable in America for timber, they have to be kept away from currant bushes, or vice versa. The upshot is, if you live in the United States and you would like to plant a lovely Ribes in your garden, and so go surfing the net to find a supplier, be forewarned that mail-order nurseries offering currant plants for sale probably know your state laws better than you do. They can't ship to a handful of eastern states, from Maine to the Carolinas. Nursery websites don't reference Waverley Root or indeed give any explanations at all, but I can only assume the fungus he mentioned remains the problem.

All this leaves us, if not hip deep in small globular fruits, at least clutching our bottle of European garden-harvested, European Culinary-Heritage-recognized Voruta as our only link to the gospel attestation that this is what cabernet tastes so like, beautifully, "explosively" even. Indeed? Vegetal-greasy, brambly-briny, not horribly sweet, and grip-less? Not to be unkind, but perhaps there is something in the fruit, or in cassis or in Bar-le-duc jam, which is far more resplendent and cabernet-like than Voruta. At any rate I look forward to sampling other decoctions made from other obscure fruits which are also honored as received-wisdom placeholders for indescribable tastes in wine. "Gooseberry" (a Ribes fruit, as it happens) to approximate sauvignon blanc, and the ridiculously parroted "lychee" for chardonnay, are my next favorites.

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