For some, black currants are a nostalgic flavour. They evoke memories of friends and family in the UK or continental Europe, where the berries are a comforting staple. For others black currants are a new frontier, a sweet, tart alternative to the classic range of Ontario fruits. Joe Hayes is in the former camp, but as owner of Popham Lane Farm near Presqu’ile Provincial Park, he’s eager to spread the word.
“I’m British by birth, came over to Canada in 1946. My mother used to buy black currant jam and it came in from England most of the time,” he says. His birth nation has a longstanding relationship with the berries — during World War II, naval blockades prevented imports like oranges from reaching Great Britain. The government promoted black currant production as an alternative source of Vitamin C, and the culture embraced it. Now in his late seventies, Hayes is also mindful of the health benefits of black currants and hopes to bring them to a new generation of Ontarians.
“Believe it or not, black currant has three and a half times the antioxidants of blueberries,” he says. In addition to a Vitamin C content three to four times higher than oranges, the anthocyanin compounds in black currant have shown promise as a means to improve arterial blood flow and slow the advance of Alzheimer’s-related dementia. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they taste fantastic as well.
Popham Lane opens its “U-Pick” season in July for foodies looking to harvest their own currants. Their line of prepared products includes a black currant spread and sauce, both of which boast the same healthful properties with minimal additives. “We can’t call our spread ‘jam’ because we’re below the sugar level of what the government requires,” says Hayes. “You look at a lot of jams the first ingredient is sugar or sugar substitutes, then you’ll get the berry. With ours the berry is first.” The sauce is thinner, making it an excellent accompaniment to pancakes, cheesecake, and vinaigrettes, or simply watered down as a summery beverage. “It says ‘full berry’ on the sauce because you’ve still got the seeds, the skins. Everything, all the Vitamin C is there.”
With a robust flavour and a range of secondary benefits, you might wonder why black currant hasn’t made a larger impact on the Canadian food scene already. Another historical accident delayed their acceptance in North America for most of the 20th century. When black currants were first imported from Europe, it was discovered they were a vector for white pine blister rust. Canadian producers shied away and a formal ban ensued in the USA to protect forests, but with new disease-resistant varieties available black currant seems primed to make up for lost time.
“Even though we had that super drought in 2016, the worst one the province has ever had, I planted seventy-five hundred of them and 99% of them survived,” Hayes says. His thirteen-acre farm has proved fertile ground perhaps because the shale and clay soil retains moisture well, much like the vineyards of Prince Edward County. To help it along Hayes also devised a direct injection watering system that allows him to water plants individually, and planted six different varieties with diverse characteristics. “We’ve got the whole place surrounded,” he jokes.
Local businesses have been quick to adopt the new ingredient. Award-winning bakery Doo Doo’s of Bailieboro has incorporated Popham Lane berries into their butter tarts, where their entry earned Grand Reserve Champion at the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair. Baker Diane Rogers attributes the tart’s success to an artful balance of sweet and sour flavours. Continuing the winning streak, Warkworth’s Centre & Main Chocolate Co. took home a silver at the International Chocolate Awards Canadian Chocolatier Competition for their black currant bar. “What I really wanted to do when I started my business was include more local ingredients than are used in a typical chocolate shop,” says chocolatier Angela Roest. Discovering Popham Lane a half an hour away was a stroke of good fortune: “It just works perfectly in the dark chocolate because the tanginess of the black currants works really well against the bittersweet nature of the dark chocolate I use. It’s just a nice, beautiful pairing in that bar.”
For those who appreciate an apéritif, Peterborough’s Black’s Distillery has produced a superb Cassis. “The cassis has a rich, beautiful colour and a brandy-like flavour,” says head distiller Robert Black. “The fruit is very present in the taste. It almost has a silkiness to it, right in the texture of the cocktail or the spirit.” Black uses locally grown Red Fife wheat to produce his spirits, which made the currants a natural addition. “We have gold mines here, like the black currants and the Red Fife wheat,” he says. “These are flavours that we need to bring forward for people to taste.”
Kinsip House of Fine Spirits in Prince Edward County has also produced an exceptional Cassis, and Hayes even makes his own homemade infusions by steeping black currants in vodka. Outlets like Herma’s in Port Hope and Burnham Family Farm Market in Cobourg stock the spread, with a Sobey’s partnership primed to increase Popham Lane’s reach. Whether they consider black currants an old favourite or a new experience, people are clearly responding to Popham Lane. Hayes reports meeting customers from as far away as Singapore, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and France. “I’ve had children here as young as a year and a half, two. My oldest picker was ninety-nine,” Hayes says. “So that’s why black currants. I figure they’re nutritious, they’ve got a great flavour, and you can use them in just about anything.”
This interview is part of a series on the producers and restaurants who are hosting the 2019 Terroir Rural Retreat, an event that reconnects speakers, sponsors & media from the annual Terroir Symposium with the people and places that make Ontario’s food scene worth celebrating. Click here to discover how you can plan your taste-of-place trip with inspiration from this remarkable event and our unique & talented communities of producers.