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.