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Red currants are the fruit of the Ribes redrum bush. Though native to Western Europe, they are grown in many regions of the Northern Hemisphere, and in some communities, they are a very popular delicacy. German and Scandinavian communities in particular enjoy products made with red currants, such as jams and pies, and there are a wide range of uses for these small, tart berries.
The red currant bush has lobed leaves and a rapid growth habit, maturing very quickly into a small shrub. Gardeners with less space sometimes train the bush to grow on trellises and other supports, creating a vine-like plant instead of a shrub. The bushes are deciduous, losing their leaves in the fall and winter, and also extremely hardy, which may be why they are so popular in Northern Europe.
Where other plants fail, red currants will take root and thrive. They can grow in full sun to part shade, as long as the soil is rich and well drained and there is good air circulation in the area. Gardeners often place these bushes in areas of the garden where other plants have trouble growing, such as under shady trees, and when well-maintained, a bush can produce a sizable yield of berries every year.
Red currants grow in small clusters on the parent plant, and they are a bright, distinctive red with a hint of translucence. A closely related cultivar, the white currant, produces yellowish to white berries with a comparable flavor. High quality currants will be firm and juicy, with no signs of softening or mold, and they also have a very sharp, tart flavor which leads most people to prefer to use red currants in cooked dishes, rather than eating them raw.
These fruits may be used fresh in tarts, pies, jams, preserves, and so forth, and they can make an interesting alternative to traditional cranberry sauce or other fruit jellies. Red currant jam pairs well with pancakes, waffles, and other sweet foods as well. They may also be dried for inclusion in various baked goods, or for mixing in with other dried fruits for snacks; like dried cranberries, currants pack a punch, so they should be used with care.
Fresh red currents are typically only available in a narrow seasonal window during the summertime, so if you spot some, you should snag them. Dried red currants are available year round at large grocery stores and specialty stores, and it is sometimes also possible to find these berries in the frozen section at the market.
Sometimes dried red currants look almost exactly like raisins. When I was in Europe I bought some, thinking they were raisins. Once I took them home, though, I realized they were more of a spherical shape, rather than the more oval shape of raisins.
They are pretty interchangeable though, although there is a different taste.
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