Valerie O’Connor can’t keep her purple-stained hands off the juicy berries in the garden and delights in converting them into mouthwatering drinks or deserts
Blackcurrant cordial has to be one of the biggest selling drinks when it comes to squashes for kids and it has an amazing flavour that can only come from the tart blackcurrant. Needless to say, it’s also sugar-laden or aspartame-laden, but let’s not go there.
During my stint at the Organic College in Dromcollogher in Co Limerick I was asked to pick blackcurrants one day and, as it’s the kind of task you can get lost in, I ended up with several buckets full and nice purple-stained hands.
I was completely unaware that the berries were meant to go into the freezer for the college’s own jam and cordial —making enterprise for their market stall, and so my unwitting and shortlived career as a berry thief started and ended. At the same time my love of making drinks and preserving, as well as fermenting everything I can get my hands on, was truly taking off.
Having a stroll around the Gardener’s garden at this time of year, I can see why the birds are having a field day. One day the cherry tree is laden with tiny unripe fruit and the next day there has been a blitz where all the birds in the area got together and decided to fire-bomb that tree.
The Gardener needs to look into getting some netting I think, but I imagine he’s too busy with dreams of shooting the blighters right out of the sky. One minute the red currants are just about ready, the next second it’s like the plague of the locusts. So we were lucky to get a haul of blackcurrants at all, and I expect there will be a few more as I wait keenly for the fluffy blueberries and gooseberries toripen their fruity faces.
Of course, the reason why blackcurrant cordial has always been so popular, despite the high sugar content, is because the berries are so high in vitamin C as well as B vitamins and E too. We know that vitamin C is essential for health and helps in the production of collagen, so it promotes great skin.
Blackcurrant seed oil which is sold as a supplement in health food shops, contains GLAs which are a type of omega 6 fatty acid and are said to ease stiffness in joints and promote faster recovery after training. The main reason to drink blackcurrant drinks or eat the berries is that they taste great, but are really tart, so that’s why they have to be mixed with quite a bit of sugar to make them palatable.
The sugar also acts as a preservative to keep the benefits of the fruit active for longer. If you are concerned about eating sugar, bear in mind that small amounts are not harmful to your health and you can always choose an organically grown, non-GMO cane sugar or coconut blossom sugar instead, as these will not have been sprayed with harmful chemicals, which are a far greater concern than the sugar itself.
Blackcurrant Cordial/Home-made ‘Ribena’
This is an easy drink to make and doesn’t require that you get all the woody bits off the berries.
You will need a sterile bottle, this can be done by washing a bottle well and rinsing it and then placing it in the oven at 160C for 10 minutes. Do the same for any jars or bottles you use to make jam and other preserves or ferments or put them through the dishwasher cycle at a high temperature, without a tablet. You’ll also need muslin for straining.
Into a medium sized pot pour 300ml filtered or spring water, add the sugar and lemon juice and heat until the sugar is dissolved.
Add the berries and let it all bubble up and reduce the heat to a simmer and let the pot bubble away for about 10 minutes, giving it the odd stir.
Line a strainer with muslin and sit this over a large jug. Pour in the fruity syrup and let it drain through the muslin.
Only so much will drain of it’s own accord and you will have to gather up the muslin and make it into a ball so you can squeeze as much liquid out as you can manage.
Pour the syrup into your clean bottle and enjoy this fab drink diluted with water, fizzy water or as a creme de cassis to make a Kir Royale by topping it up with champagne.
This is a classic recipe that uses a mixture of amazing summer berries that you will either have growing or be able to get easily from market stalls around the country. I first featured it in my book Bread on the Table in 2014.
Again, if you want to make it healthier, do use an organic sugar and feel free to reduce the quantity. As I am now firmly ensconsed in sourdough bread land, I don’t eat packet white bread and recently made a white sourdough without salt, by accident so this was a great way to use it up.
But the world is your dessert bowl and let there be no limits. This dessert is so easy to make and a real crowd pleaser.
You will need one dessert bowl of 10cm diameter
Put the fruit and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, cook gently for 3-4 minutes, leave aside. Strain the fruit, keeping the juices.
Oil the insides of the dessert bowl and line it with cling-film. Cut a circle of bread to fit in the bottom of the bowl and cut the bread slices in half. Dip the circle into the fruit juices and lay it in the bottom of the bowl. Continue lining the bowl with the bread slices, laying them along the insides of the bowl, overlapping them as you go. Spoon the fruit into the centre and pour any remaining fruit juice into the bowl too.
Lay the remaining bread slices on top of the fruit to cover everything, ensuring there are no gaps. Fold over the cling film, then get a small plate or saucer to fit on top of the bowl, and weigh it down with a tin of beans or something similar. Leave in the fridge overnight to set, preferably on a larger plate to catch any juices that spill out.
Remove the plate from the top of the bowl and peel off the cling film. Turn the bowl upside-down onto a large plate or dish and lift off the bowl. Peel off the clingfilm and decorate with extra berries and drizzle over any remaining juices.
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