Monday, January 18, 2010

Currents


"And one day he took flour and water and currants and plums and sugar and things, and made himself one cake which was two feet across and three feet thick." - "How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin", Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling has been much on my mind lately. Mostly because I've been musing on the possible long term effects of reading The Jungle Books and Just So Stories during early childhood moral compassing -- is it a good thing to identify with a cat who walks by himself? with a boy raised by wolves? Vain questions for a different blog. So, pushing the cat to one side, I read again about the Parsee and his cooking stove and his knife and his very shiny hat. And his cake. Two feet across and three feet thick. That is an impressive baked good.

The conspicuous absence of eggs or any leavening points to the cake being an extremely dense offering, as well. I'd like to posit that eggs (separated, the yolks combined with half the sugar, the whites beaten madly with the remainder until stiff peaks form, and then carefully folded into the rest of the batter) fall within Kipling's casual "...and things..." Possibly omitted because he didn't want to write a story about How the Meringue Got its Loft, or didn't want to explain the callouses on the Parsee's hands, there as a result of whipping egg whites by hand and using what sounds like a very dangerous cooking stove. Really, who could blame ol' Rudyard? But he did mention currants, and I have to concede that, more than tigers and mongeese and white seals, more than whale's throats or yellow dog dingos, the Parsee's Currant and Plum Studded Torte is Kipling's darkest thumbprint on my skin.

Currants showed up in different stories over the years, and they were almost always described as plump little berries, food for shrub hopping birds, or the main ingredient in jam. For a girl who ate her weight in chokecherries every summer, currants represented all the potentially tannic treats the world held in store. Currants sounded European and sophisticated, an impression reinforced by the first time I saw a cluster of the bright red berries: I was twelve, picking out a dessert in the cafeteria line at my father's office outside of Vienna. I was fresh from reading a Garfield comic in which he ate a whole fish and pulled out an intact skeleton and so I tried to eat the currants like that, popping the entire stem into my mouth. Disappointing showing. Too tart. Wipe tongue with napkin. Ignore grown ups' embarassment and feed a tiny piece of ham to the wasp climbing on the bottle of Riesling that sweats in the middle of the outdoor table.

And then, years and years later, I was a pantry cook at a spot on the Hill and lo and behold, currants! But different: dried and much sweeter; these were the Parsee's currants, these would be able to hold up to the extremely long cooking time a cake that size would require. I ate them all the time, in pastas and salads, loving the little sweet yin they brought to a salty spicy yang. The difference between the two kinds of currants seemed strange, but nothing that was going to keep me up at night. Since then I curbed my currant use, recognizing them, and nuts, as a comfort zone I had to leave if I wanted to grow as a chef.

That said, we do use currants in our oatmeal, and on our roast chicken. So, about every month I'll check in an order that includes a five pound bag of currants, or at least that's what it says on the invoice; the bag itself reads: "Currants. Contains: Raisins." Reading that I was at first reminded of another restaurant, long ago, where we had an ice cream container full of "Raisons" on the dry storage shelf. I never peered beneath that lid, figuring that it was up to me to find my own whys. But then, confronted with a bag of fruit that threatened to steal the sweet romance and mystery of the currant and replace it with the dreaded Halloween non-treatness of the raisin, I wanted to find out why. I wanted the raison.

A short trip to wikipedia held the answers, including the taxonomy, but the answer in Russ Parsons' How to Pick a Peach is much more charming:

"...currant fruits have nothing to do with currant raisins, which are made from the tiny Black Corinth grape, and if you say Corinth with the accent of a New York produce dealer, you will understand the root of the confusion. These are sometimes called Zante currants, which alludes to the Greek islands from which these grapes were first imported."

So there it was. The Parsee's currants are wee dried grapes, the currants used for jam are, um, currants. I recently used some White Currants on a Special and they had the plump transluscence of fish eyes. While I love Black Currant jam, I'm still not sold on the naked berries, unless ... a sweet dessert play on Salmon Roe Nigiri....rice pudding, red currants, wrapped in carmelized seaweed...but I suspect, O Best Beloved, that not even a rhinocerous would touch such a treat.

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