Sunday 25 October 2015

A glut of blackcurrants

I suppose it's not a glut - you can never have too many Blackcurrants!

They are of course excellent eaten fresh, with a little sugar (if you wish) and some cream or crème fraîiche or put them in a tart or flan.  Many of my friends would instantly say "summer pudding", especially as we had  rather a lot of red currants and raspberries too, but although the taste of summer fruits is exquisite, I have never really grasped the delight of soggy white bread.

Often we just sprinkle blackcurrants with caster sugar and place straight in the freezer. In that way they are always on hand for a surprise summer dessert  even  in the depths of winter! Redcurrants and blackcurrants both freeze rather well.

This year we have made both blackcurrant and redcurrant jelly - but this year we have experimented with blackcurrant vodka and blackcurrant sorbet.

Blackcurrant  Vodka

We started off the blackcurrant vodka on 13 August and bottled  it a month later on 21 September - it's now in a cool dark place waiting for Christmas! 

I looked up proportions on the internet which suggested 250g currants to 175g caster sugar, but we had more than a kilo of currants, so here's my recipe.

1 kilo blackcurrants
4 litres Vodka litres 

I made it in two batches. With the first batch I added the vodka to the fresh currants but with the second I deployed the sloe gin trick of putting the currants in the freezer overnight. In the freezing and thawing process the skins crack which means the juice is released easier when the vodka is added.

Add sugar to currants; put in jars, stir and pour on vodka tighten lid and shake daily. Leave for 4 - 6 weeks in a cool place, and then strain through muslin.  Pour into bottles and seal tightly. Place bottles in a cool, dark place and leave for at least 3 months before drinking.

Black currant sorbet

200g caster sugar,
200mls boiling water
12 mint leaves 
750 g black currants
4 tbsp liquid glucose

Dissolve the sugar in the water by heating and then boil gently for a few minutes. Add a handful of fresh mint leaves and leave to cool.

When cool remove mint leaves.

Add black currants to the sugar syrup, bring to boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add 4 tbsp liquid glucose.  Whizz mixture and strain through fine sieve.  Stir in the juice of 2 lemons. If you have an ice cream machine use this, but if not,  put in shallow dishes and freeze. Stir frequently, to ensure the slush freezes with a smooth sorbet- like texture. Leave in freezer. Take out of freezer 10 minutes before needed to allow to soften. Serve decorated with fresh mint leaves and cream or crème fraîche.

I was disappointed with the resulting texture - freezing in trays and stirring never quite achieves the desired texture that you get with the constant stirring of an ice cream  maker.  And although the taste was absolutely exquisite and not too sweet, the mixture was sticky and the texture not quite right for a sorbet. I think that next time I will use less liquid glucose.

John Austin
Hove, September 2015

Summer fruits -

Black currants and redcurrants (and raspberries)

We had a very heavy crop of black currants and red currants this year and a reasonable harvest of raspberries, so were busy in September with jam making as well as experimenting with Blackcurrant vodka.

I used to first kilo of black currants for straightforward blackcurrant jelly.

Black currant jelly

1kg black currants
1 litre water.
Sugar 450g/1lb sugar for each 600mls/1pint liquid

Put black currants and 700mls water in a stainless saucepan and simmer gently for one hour. Mash with wooden spoon. Allow to cool a little then put in a jelly bag and leave to strain for  1-2 hours.  Do not squeeze the bag, otherwise the jelly will be cloudy.  Set aside the juice and return the pulp to the pan with 300mls of water and simmer for half an hour. Return to jelly bag and leave to strain, without squeezing for an hour. Mix the resulting juice with the earlier juice that you have set aside and measure.

Put juice in clean pan, warm gently and then and add sugar stirring until the sugar has dissolved. The general rule which my mother used (pre-metric) for most jellies and jams is 1 to 1 i.e  1lb sugar to 1 pint of liquid. For 600mls/1 pint juice I add 450g/1lb sugar.

When the sugar has dissolved, bring rapidly to the boil and keep boiling until you can get a set.  Test by dropping half a teaspoon of the mixture on a cold, dry plate. If a skin forms you have reached setting point.  This usually takes no more than ten minutes as blackcurrants are high in pectin.
Skim off any scum and then pour jelly into sterilised jars and seal immediately.

Redcurrant jelly with port

Less water is required with redcurrants than black currants and even less with raspberries - some recipes use no added water.   This recipe provides a firm jelly suitable for serving with lamb or game dishes.

1kg redcurrants
300 mls water
Sugar – for each 600mls fruit liquid add 450g sugar
2 tbsp port

Basically the method is the same as for black currant jelly but I note that some chefs, including Delia, boil the fruit with the sugar and then strain through a jelly bag.

I followed the same procedure that I used for black currant jelly (as above) but with one exception.  Unlike blackcurrant jelly, I discarded the pulp after the first straining and did not reboil.

When setting point is reached, stir in the port, leave to cool a little then pour into sterilised jars and seal immediately.

Red currant and raspberry jelly

The proportions of red currants to raspberries will depend on what you have available – if you don’t have quite enough, either adjust the water accordingly or you can always add some apples to bulk it out.

1kg mixed raspberries and red currants
200mls water
Sugar – for each 600mls fruit liquid add 450g sugar

Follow the red currant jelly recipe as above, but omit the port.  This preserve is excellent on toast for breakfast or with afternoon tea.

John Austin
Hove, September 2015

Tuesday 13 October 2015


I recall the remarkable thyme-like smell as I walked in the south Hebron hills a couple of years ago. One of the shepherds picked some of the wild herb and gave it to me - "Za'atar" he said. He had tears in his eyes as he told me he was about to lose his home and was facing eviction by the Israeli colonists from land to which he had title that had been his home,his father's and his grandfather's and in his family's ownership since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

My recollection of that day is published by Labour2Palestine.

Za'atar is a thyme like herb growing wild throughout Palestine and Lebanon and is often served with flatbread and olive oil or yoghurt or with the traditional salad, fattoush.  Za'atar is the name given to the fresh herb itself, but is also used to describe a mixture of the dried herb or thyme mixed with sesame seeds and sumac which is now available widely in the UK. It is worth doing a search to find recipes for using Za'atar. It's good with roast chicken for example or roast butternut squash, with aubergines or chickpea salad ...

When I lived in south east London I could buy Za'atar at Turkish, Middle eastern or North African stores. Now I am living in Hove, I am fortunate to have two very good grocery stores a short distance away in Portslade almost next door to each other

John Austin
October 2015

Monday 12 October 2015


Rhus coriaria - also known as Sumak, Sumach, Soumak, Sumaq

Although I had journeyed on many occasions since the 1960s to North Africa and the Middle East and am a lover of Moroccan, Lebanese and Syrian cuisine it was not until the nineties, on a visit toTurkey,that I became aware of and familiar with Sumac
Previously,I had assumed that the lemony tang in many dishes was due to lemons. On a visit to a Kurdish area in Istanbul, however, I discovered Sumac; mysterious red berries in sacks in the markets or sold ground as a powder, varying in colour from deep red to maroon or purple. Sumac comes from a plant in the Rhus family, which includes many poisonous varieties, but the berries of Rhus coriaria are not harmful and add a delicious tangy lemon flavour to foods.

Apparently sumac was used in Europe before the arrival of lemons in Roman times. It has also been used in place of lemons when they were out of season* but it has a deserved place in cooking in its own right.  Having made the discovery, I brought some back from my visit toTurkey and also subsequently from Palestine but it is now readily available in the UK, not only in Turkish and Middle eastern shops but also in some larger supermarkets.

Until recently, I was living in SE London where there are excellent Turkish grocery stores which I frequented in Lewisham and Bermondsey and now that Brighton and Hove is my adopted city I can shop at Tiba or Al Jazeera - a few doors away from each other in Portslade - for all my middle eastern or Turkish culinary needs.

Sumac is used extensively in the Middle East and the Maghreb to season salads, yoghurt, chicken and lamb dishes but I use it most frequently in fish dishes as a dry rub for whole fish, prior to roasting or in a marinade to enhance the flavour. 

Sumac is also often used in Za'atar which is the topic of a separate blog.

John Austin
July 2015

*Living in England we have almost lost all recognition of seasonal produce as everything seems to be available 12 months of the year. But before this globalisation, lemons were only available throughout the year (mainly in the Maghreb and the Middle East) as preserved lemons, an essential,ingredient of many dishes, such as Moroccan tagines, and this is the topic of another blog.