Foodie Tuesday: White Currants + Bar-le-Duc jelly/jam, or confiture de groseilles

People, observe: the most expensive, labor-intensive jam known to man. One 3-oz. jar costs €16 if you buy it in Europe.  Here in the states, prices are upwards of $40 for a small jar at Dean & Deluca, Cardullo's in Harvard Square, and other purveyors of fine foods.

Got your attention?  Good.  Let me back up.

The story really begins in 1999, when I was a wee lass freshly graduated from high school, taking my first really big overseas trip with a bunch of classmates.  It was our first morning in the hotel in London that I got real taste for "continental breakfast," which included toast, butter and blackcurrant jam.  Up until then, I had never tasted a fruit product so delicious (since then, I have to say that the mangosteen remains the most delicious in my book, but that's another post).  I became obsessed with it and slopped it onto my toast every breakfast thereafter, and it wasn't hard to find blackcurrant jam in Europe no matter where we went.

When I came back to the states, I was determined to find this magical jam that had so beguiled me.  Not so fast.  Even at Knott's Berry Farm, which I understood to be the Godmother of American Jam-making, didn't carry it - the best they could do was blackberry jam, which is not the same at all - a much sour-er and tart-er flavor, along with all those pesky seeds!

It wasn't until years later that I wandered into Cardullo's in Harvard Square and found a (rather large) jar of blackcurrant jam sitting right there next to the marmalade and jalapeno jelly.  I grabbed it, of course.

Since then blackcurrant, otherwise known as cassis in French, has been one of those things that'd make my eyes light up every time I saw a mention of it, because it was still rare enough.

Fast forward to this weekend, when I was wandering the aisles at Berkeley Bowl and came across the berry section, where I saw something that seemed too good to be true: a small row of white currants sidled up next to the piles of blackberries.  I grabbed a box, of course!  I had already had white currants on the brain because I'd been flipping through one of those cookbooks by either Giada De Laurentiis or Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, where I saw a recipe for white currant tart, and I remember thinking, "where on earth does one buy white currants?". Well, here was my answer!

I got the box purely out of curiosity.  I had no idea what it would taste like or what to do with it-- I remember thinking vaguely that I could just eat them up by the handful, even though they were probably the prettiest, most jewel-like fruits I'd ever seen.  I went home, washed them, and popped a few in my mouth.  And instantly made a face - they were SO tart!

I resorted to Googling 'white currant recipes' and whatnot, disappointed to find that there was not a whole lot that people knew to do with the berries.  All ideas are pretty much summed up by this thread on Chowhound, "What to do with white currants?" and include rolling them in egg whites and dipping them in sugar.

I was not satisfied with this, and moreover, I found that I detested the seeds!  I am not a fan of seedy berries in general, but these babies pack a whopping average of 7 seeds (large ones, in proportion to its size) per berry.  That is to say, the mass of a single white currant is probably more then 50% seed, and a rather hard and bitter seed at that.  It slowly dawned on me that eating currants with seeds intact was no way to eat them at all.

So I got curious about this mysterious "Bar-le-Duc" jelly that kept popping up alongside articles about white currants everywhere.  Probably one of the best is this 1984 NY Times article that goes into detail about how the jelly is made and what makes it so special (and so darn expensive).  I don't want to belabor the story so I'll stick to these fun facts about Bar-le-Duc jelly, or confiture de groseilles:
  • Exactly one producer in the whole world makes the jelly, Mr. Jacques Dutriez, in the tiny town of Bar-le-Duc in the heart of Lorraine province in France.
  • Currants are hand-seeded by deft French countrywomen wielding goose quills.
  • According to this very educational article, 2 kilos of picked berries yields 1 kilo of jam-worthy fruit. That means you need"2,000 berries just to make that kilo. We're talking about the removal of about 16,000 seeds"!  This takes about 3 hours for an experienced epepineuse, and a whole day for a mangy amateur.
  • Mary Queen of Scots called the jelly a "ray of sunshine in a jar."  Marie Antoinette and Alfred Hitchcock were both fans (the latter insisted on having it every morning with a croissant).
  • Though Mr. Dutriez doesn't use any preservatives in his jam, he cooks it in some secret way such that you could open up a jar 100 years later and it will be just as good as the day it was made.

(The image above is from this fantastic article that shows how the de-seeding is done, step by step, by Mr. Jacques Dutriez himself.)

You're probably wondering where I'm going with all this.  Well, the fact is, I was so intrigued by this point that I decided to try making my own imitation bar-le-duc jelly.  I didn't have goose quills, but I did have fingers and a little bit of patience. 

I tried a bunch of things, including snipping the berry ends off with my eyebrow scissors (thoroughly washed of course!).  I realized I couldn't possibly be expected to de-seed AND de-end the berries, so I promptly ceased that madness. The process that proved most straightforward was plucking the berries from the stem ("like a barbarian," as Mr. Dutriez would say), and then squeezing them gently, one by one.  I found that the seeds practically wanted to pop out of the little incision left by the stem, and I didn't lose too much of the tiny bit of pulp. I would stick the seeds in my mouth as I removed them and suck the little bit of juicy pulp on them, so as not to waste anything, before spitting them into the wastebasket.

The downside: this still took for-freaking-EVER (not to mention, it was terribly unsanitary--good thing I'm the only one who'll be eating it).  It took me something like 1.5 hours just to get about halfway through my tiny, $2, 6-oz. box of white currants.  I finally lost patience and just gathered the 3 spoonfuls or so of de-seeded currants and took it to my pan where I sauteed it in water and some very fancy honey, because I didn't want to use white sugar.  The honey is from Italy, made from rhododendrums and with a crystalline texture.  In all honesty it was a total waste to melt down good honey like that (next time I'll use garden-variety honey, something with a very light flavor...if there is a next time).

In the end, I had a tiny dab of the jam I'd made with a plain cracker and it was still delicious.  Even after the sheer madness of such an endeavor, I have to admit there really is something bewitching about the flavor of currants - suggestive of some faraway and delicately romantic place you've only visited in dreams.  And white currants are even more enchanting than blackcurrants, what with their subtler flavor and light texture.

Tomorrow I just may have to finish de-seeding the remaining 3 oz. of fresh currants I have sitting on my desk to make a bit more of the jam.  Otherwise, I know what I'm asking for, for Christmas =D.
17 responses
Wow, that cost/benefit ratio is ridiculous! Hope you enjoy your output :)
Excellent story-telling, btw.
épepineuses, I love it!
I commend your dedication and I am glad that with all that preamble you got at least a bite of this impossible ambrosia. :)
oh boy, girl! congrats on your efforts. i hope that was one damn good cracker. this was like when i made fava bean dip from the last of my garden's "harvest"---it made about 1.5 Tablespoons total but boy was that a yummy tablespoon!
wow, you have patience! the white currant picture is so pretty... i like casis a lot, i usually get creme de casis at Safeway and drink it with some club soda. so yummy.
I actually live in Bar-Le-Duc ! Thanks to tweetbeep I found your posterous. Nice and interesting article ! To be honest, I hesitated to post here because, shame on me, if I well know the Dutriez "maison", I've never tasted the jelly...
一篇有關黑醋栗與白醋栗手工果醬的有趣文章; 由黑白醋栗排成的太極圖妙極了!
Cardullo's! We used to hang out in Harvard Square as teenagers and Cardullo's was an early introduction to gourmet food. Thanks for helping me remember a great time and place. Also, your wonderful-crazy obsession with white currants is praiseworthy. Come to Seattle in the summer and you can often pick blackberries while you're waiting for the bus. They grow here like weeds. Think blackberry chutney.
i like currants in the form of Absolut Kurant. best vodka evar.
I had about 5 pounds of the white currants this year in my garden. I did not know that the colorless jam is so popular. Mixed together with the red currants into jam. Next year I'll do the jam from the white currants.
I can't believe that anyone would waste their time de-seeding currants when all you need to do is boil them up and then STRAIN them before you start cooking your jam!
My favourite recipe (my own) for white currants is WHITE CURRANT, BANANA & GINGER JAM: Wash the fruit then, stalks and all, boil them in some water till soft, following quantities for jelly making. Squash the fruit to extract as much juice as possible. Then strain it - not through a muslin but just an ordinary sieve. Add a bit more water to your sieved stalks & seeds, boil & sieve again (to get as much out as possible!) Measure your strained juice & add 1 lb of sugar per pint of juice. Slice in about 1 or 2 ripe bananas per pint of juice and grate fresh ginger root to taste. Boil till you reach setting point. The resulting jam is simply WONDERFUL: the white currants give it acidity, the bananas give it creaminess and the ginger gives it heat. ENJOY!
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