ON a midsummer trip to Burgundy, I fell in love not only with the region's renowned wines but also with its most renowned crop after grapes -- cassis, or black currants, a fruit of rare power. Crème de cassis had always been among the exotic liqueurs gathering dust in my father's bar, the ornamental gilt-edged letters on their labels evoking far-off places. My father probably mixed it with vodka or brandy for some deadly cocktail or after-dinner drink; today it is used almost exclusively for kir, the white-wine apéritif. I'm glad I was barred from trying it. I would probably have thought it a peculiar kind of cough syrup and never wanted to taste it again.
During my visit I tasted fresh black currants -- nothing at all like the shiny little red (or sometimes white) currants familiar from New England summers, daintily arrayed on long stems like lilies of the valley. Red currants are soft and juicy, and so acidic that you can feel the sting in your back teeth. They add marvelous sharpness to sweeter, duller fruits in a fruit salad and provide a beautiful garnish for roasted meat (Dutch still-life painters found them ravishing); red currants are essential to Cumberland sauce, which the English spoon over roasted and boiled meats. But however pretty, they have little of the power and depth of their black brethren.
Not only do black and red currants look and taste different, but they are both unrelated to the familiar black dried currants used in baking. Those are in fact raisins -- dried small grapes that take their name from Corinth, in Greece, which still exports them in large quantities. Although the berries are native to northern countries, the English are thought to have named them for Corinth raisins. Jane Grigson, in her beautifully written Fruit Book, says that black currants arrived in France from England and Holland only in the eighteenth century. Currants are native to North America, too, but their cultivation was outlawed throughout the United States from early in this century until the mid-1960s (they are now legal in most places), because they host a rust virus that damages white pine, long an important timber crop. (The currant plants are unharmed.) Today rust-resistant varieties have been bred, and the berries are being revived.
Black currants grow on woody shrubs and are frankly homely beside their glossy relations. They are bigger -- the size of cultivated blueberries -- and have pulpy flesh and skin the purple-black color of eggplant. Homely the berries may be, but they are potent, too. Burgundy's limestone-rich soil produces both grapes and black currants with intense flavor. Black currants are as tart as cranberries, with some of the musky pungency of juniper (the berries that flavor gin) and some of the deep sweetness of blackberries. By comparison, red currants and even gooseberries, another relation, are decorative lightweights. I went on a cassis binge, buying fruit gums, jellies, jams, and hard candies. All these were far more powerful in flavor than throat pastilles or Ribena, the unaccountably popular English fruit drink, both of which use black-currant extract. Of course, I also tasted a lot of liqueur.
CRÈME de cassis is undergoing something of a revival, and a few careful makers, such as Christine and Jean-Michel Jacob, whose cellars I visited in a hill town in Burgundy, are aiming to revise the image it has acquired as little more than magenta-colored syrup. Lucien Jacob, Jean-Michel's father, is a respected small producer of red and white wine. Jean-Michel joined him in the business after trying his hand at sheep farming in New Zealand; he met his English-born wife, who worked as a lawyer and now helps in the business too, in Hong Kong. The younger Jacobs have launched a line of crèmes, which also includes crème de framboise (raspberry) and crème de mûre (blackberry).
A crème is a liqueur flavored solely with the title ingredient ("menthe" for mint, "cacao" for the beans that make cocoa, and the like), usually by steeping it in flavorless spirits, and with sugar. The name of a fruit alone on a label ("framboise," "poire") generally signifies an eau de vie, a spirit usually distilled from fermented fruit that is heated; the alcoholic fumes are captured and condensed, and no sugar is added. A distiller can alter techniques to improve the quality of the product -- for instance, stopping the distillation when a certain proof of alcohol is reached, to ensure that the flavor of the fruit still comes through and the alcohol is not too harsh in the mouth.
With a crème there's no disguising the quality of the fruit. What goes in almost completely determines the final taste. The fruit doesn't ferment -- it's simply crushed a bit, put into neutral spirits for a number of weeks or months, and then filtered out. To keep up their reputation Burgundian makers concentrate their efforts on improving the quality of the fruit. They criticize large producers who buy black currants from Eastern European countries, macerate and bottle them locally, and label the liqueur (legally) "Cassis de Dijon." Large producers may also macerate fruit a second and even a third time after the first and strongest-flavored liqueur is filtered off, perhaps reinforcing the mostly spent fruit with some new berries.
The Jacobs use fruit only once, macerating it for an average of nine to ten months. Their filtering is done in a closed bellows system, in order, they say, to retain every wisp of precious cassis-perfumed vapor as the fruit-alcohol mixture is pressed through the filters. They also choose a medium level of alcohol, 18 percent, so that their cassis can serve as both an apéritif and a digestif (traditional proofs are 16 for before-dinner drinks and as high as 22 for after-dinner ones, though most of the bottles I found for sale were 20 percent). The lighter style the Jacobs favor makes it thinkable to drink their crème de cassis on its own -- not that anyone does. Most cassis is thick and syrupy and meant to be mixed with something else.
THE apéritif kir was named only a decade or so before it came into international fashion, for Canon Felix Kir, a clergyman and a hero of the French Resistance who was the deputy mayor of Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, from 1945 until he died, in 1968. He didn't invent the drink, but he promoted it to visitors, and lent it a name easier to remember (and promote) than the formal name, "vin blanc cassis."
Kir was invented to render more palatable a secondary white wine produced in Burgundy, aligoté, named for the grape used to make it; all the famous Burgundy whites, such as Montrachet and Pouilly-Fumé (both of which take their names from villages), are made with chardonnay. Where chardonnay is full-flavored and rounded and sweet, aligoté is thin and sharp. The New York-based wine writer Richard Nalley explains, "Mayor Kir was trying to unload two things nobody wanted -- acidic wine and a sweet liqueur. It works like a charm; you need a high-acid wine to get that sweet-sour taste Europeans like." Because most Americans prefer sheer sweetness, the wine most frequently used in this country for kir has become chardonnay -- cheap chardonnay at that, resulting in a taste Nalley compares to a melted lollipop.
To understand why the combination caught on, use first-rate ingredients. This won't require a large expenditure. The Jacobs' crème de cassis usually costs less than $20 for a twenty-four-ounce bottle. Once it has been opened, keep it in the refrigerator, and try to drink it within six months. Aligoté is losing its second-rank status as it, too, receives attention from a younger generation of winemakers and takes its rightful place as a refreshing, pleasantly acidic wine. Look for aligoté from Bouzeron, which should cost about $15 a bottle. (For Jacob crème de cassis call the importer, Rosenthal Wine Merchant, at 800-910-1990; Kermit Lynch, in Berkeley, brings in Bouzeron, and the number is 510-524-1524.) Any acidic, fresh white wine will serve the purpose, though. One is muscadet, another underappreciated white. Richard Nalley suggests pinot grigio, for its relative neutrality and high acidity.
How much cassis to how much wine? The proportion is subject to almost as much argument as is the proper amount of vermouth in a martini. The proportion can be as high as two to three, but few people would enjoy something so sweet. Christine Jacob prefers kir to be one-seventh cassis, Jean-Michel one-eighth. The order of mixing is not a subject of dispute: pour the cassis first and then the wine, so that the force of the oncoming liquid will cause the heavier cassis to rise through and blend with it. In my experiments I've found that once I settle on a wine and am familiar with its hue, I simply add wine until the drink is the color I like, the way people add cream to coffee.
The best-known variant of traditional kir is the kir royale, made with sparkling wine. This, too, has become debased through the use of inferior components. No one would make a kir royale with vintage champagne, but a bit of cassis will give a young sparkling wine with as little sugar as possible (look for brut or the hard-to-find "zéro dosage," meaning that the usual final addition of sugar and wine has been omitted) a pretty rosé color and will nicely round off its flavor. The kir royale is, in fact, an ideal holiday apéritif, and you can base a whole cocktail or dessert party on it. Jean-Michel Jacob jokes that he can drink only about three or four kirs made with aligoté but can easily polish off a dozen kir royales made with a fresh sparkling wine. At a recent experimental tasting using several kinds of cassis and Piper-Heidsieck "extra dry" champagne, my guests and I understood Jacob's point perfectly.
In the 1960s the various forms of kir acquired international fame, including a related drink made with red wine and going under cute names like Communiste, Communard, and, most frequently, Cardinale. Again, the wine should be young, light, and acidic -- for example, a new Beaujolais. A rumor has it that Burgundian producers add a bit of cassis surreptitiously to underflavored red wines in off years for fruit and heft. Jean-Michel Jacob disputes the idea that only minor wines should be "improved" with cassis. He still remembers a Cardinale thrown together in the kitchen of a winemaking friend; the friend happened to make Vosne Romanée, one of the world's legendary red Burgundies, and the open bottle on the counter was one of the most sought-after vintages. Jacob, who is fairly rigid about what wines do or do not go felicitously with cassis, says the Cardinale was the best he's ever tasted.
BLACK currants are too interesting to be restricted to beverages. Although the combination of crème de cassis and vanilla ice cream is so right that it seems inevitable, cassis can serve anywhere red currants do -- for instance, to give a sweet-sour flavor to duck or venison. (For a pan gravy, deglaze the pan in which you have roasted or sautéed the meat with one part crème de cassis to three or four parts stock, and boil hard until the mixture achieves the consistency of a sauce.) Although you are unlikely to find fresh black currants to use instead of cranberries in a sauce, some jam makers do produce black-currant preserves, which are as good on bread, of course, or in an omelette as they are beside roasted meats. You can find those of Tiptree at any gourmet store; Zingerman's, in Ann Arbor, is directly importing black-currant preserves from an Englishman named Michael Murdoch who lives in the south of France and bottles them under the brand Vallon de Genras (the mail-order number is 313-769-1625).
The traditional thick crème de cassis lends itself better to cooking than do the more-refined liqueurs produced by the Jacobs and by Massenez, an Alsatian producer of excellent fruit distillates and crèmes. A deluxe version comes from another young Burgundian, Jean-Marc Dufouleur, who under the brand Baccate produces sweet and intensely flavored crèmes of several fruits (the peach and raspberry are especially notable; call 312-397-0200 to find out where the brand is sold near you). Baccate crème de cassis is so thick as to be viscous. Nearly as thick, and wonderfully fruity, is the cassis of Trénel Fils. Either one would be perfect over vanilla ice cream or lemon sorbet, or over pancakes and waffles if you're not concerned about efficiency during the rest of the day (and if you are, you can simmer the alcohol off the liqueur). Other examples of traditional cassis include the two brands you're most likely to find at a local wine shop -- L'Heritier-Guyot, which has a nice suggestion of the fruit's flavor and a welcome acidity, and Gabriel Boudier, which has the prettiest label, with gold medals and fruits in lurid late-nineteenth-century colors but a tinny, sharp aftertaste.
Nearly as natural a combination as cassis with ice cream is cassis with fruit salad -- especially with oranges and grapefruit, coming into their peak season now. In summer try pouring cassis over a melon salad topped with blueberries, raspberries, or both, depending on what's available, and garnished with mint. A quarter cup or so of cassis drizzled over an apple crumble before you spread on the crumb topping will color the apples and add a subtle, distinct flavor that will keep people guessing.
For a dessert with the pure flavor of black currants, try a simple bavarian cream I found in an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune and have adapted -- as highly evolved a form of red Jell-O as you're likely ever to taste. Stir over low heat two envelopes of unflavored gelatin and one and a half cups crème de cassis until the gelatin is dissolved. Let cool to room temperature. Whip one cup of heavy cream with two tablespoons of confectioner's sugar until the cream forms loose peaks; fold the whipped cream into the liquid and chill in a mold until set -- about four hours. Serve with an additional cup of cream, whipped but not stiff, and pass separately, if you like, red-currant or black-currant preserves. The ruby-pink color and the sweet-tart flavor will make this ending to a holiday meal as festive as it is refreshing.
Illustration by Charlotte Knox
The Atlantic Monthly; December, 1996; Currant Affairs; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 108-111.