As we sit on the porch in her back yard, we chat about how beautiful the berries are. Each time, she tells me about how delicious the jelly is that she makes from them and, in return, I share about the loaves, muffins or whatever else I’ve made. This is the third year that we’ve had this conversation, the third year that we’ve sat down as perfect strangers in her back yard and talked about her red currants.
I’m here because I am a volunteer with an organization called Not Far from the Tree (NFFTT) whose mission is to pick, donate, and use the abundance of fruit grown in people’s back yards, what they call an ‘urban orchard’. I think it’s a great program and I’ve been volunteering for 8 seasons now, completing dozens of ‘picks’ over the years. There were years when I tried to volunteer for as many picks as I could (and wrote about it!) but now I am a dad of four small kids and life is much (much!) busier; I don’t make it to many picks any more. But I still keep an eye out for the email that solicits volunteers for this particular pick.
And that’s how I am here on this steaming hot July day, for the third time, to pick the massive abundance of tiny berries that grow on these shrubs. The owners are a beautiful elderly couple, friendly and helpful as we get ready. They always are. But this time, it’s a little different. It’s clear that her health has slowly declined over the years and this year it is more noticeable. Her step is slower; she keeps to the porch this time as she’s afraid she might fall on the uneven ground of the backyard. She tells me how she fell again yesterday and lists off the body parts she’s hurt in falls over the past little while. It’s a long list. Falling is a side effect of the medication she’s on, she says.
As we sit in the still, morning heat, her smoking her cigarette with the languid ease that one only accumulates through a lifetime of practice and I picking berries from branches she asked me to prune off of the bottom of the shrub, we talk about the red currants. She rues how she can’t help pick them anymore. She clearly loves the fruit. She tells me how she planted the second shrub four years ago and, in my mind, I recall that summer and how even then there were far too many berries for her to pick and process; that’s why she had called NFFTT. She just loves them. We joke about the prices in the grocery stores and how ridiculous they seem in comparison to the abundance she has steps away: “You’re certainly not making any jelly if you’re buying them in the grocery store!” She calls them ‘red gold’. Most of the time I can’t even find them in the grocery stores, even if I looked. The thought of ‘red gold’ makes me pick a little faster, thinking about how if they really were gold and I only had two hours, I would pick as fast as I could.
I had always thought of them more as precious jewels, though. Their pale skin catches the sun just right as they cascade down like strings of rubies. Massive clusters sparkle and shimmy as you move the branches hunting for them. It’s in her backyard that I learned about the beauty of the berries; every year I try to capture pictures of them, pictures that never seem to do them justice. It’s here in her backyard that I’ve sweltered in the inevitable heat of July day, to fill bag after bag of these tiny jewels. This time, in the two hours that we’re there, the team of six volunteers work steadily and we harvest 41 pounds. And there’s still plenty left on the bushes that we don’t have time to pick.
As we pack up, she asks if we want some oregano and I grab a bit to take home. Another volunteer is offered a new shoot that has sprung off of the existing currant bush, which she digs up to take home with her. Other years there’s been iced tea but I imagine it’s hard for her to manage these days. As I leave, I know she’ll forget who I am again; I am just part of the team who comes each year to pick the berries in her yard. But to me, she is the benevolent caretaker of the berries who allows us into her domain each year, sharing in the abundance of the riches. Maybe next year we’ll be able to sit down again, share our appreciation of the gentle beauty of the berries that adorn the shrubs in her yard, and swap stories of what we’ve made with the bounty. Being here is about the picking, about the berries, but for me this one pick has also become about this shared ritual and love for that ‘red gold’.
The red currant recipe I’ve made this time is new and it is a concession of sorts. It’s a yogurt loaf, something I’ve often made with red currants (the yogurt always leaves this bread so moist and soft!), but it works best when you’ve made jelly first (and recently). When you make jelly, squeezing the juice out of the berries, you’re left with a bowl full of berry ‘remains’, the skins, seeds, and flesh of the berry. Instead of wasting that, I’ve incorporated that into the loaf as a sort of middle ‘swirl’, which you can see in the picture. It adds an extra dose of color and tartness to the loaf. And for the icing (something new I’ve added to balance the extra tartness), I’ve stolen away a tablespoon or so of the jelly juice to make the brilliant pink color.
Ras el hanout is a North African spice blend that is traditionally used in savoury foods but works well here as it is dominated by cinnamon, all spice and nutmeg (alongside cloves, cardamom, chili, coriander, fenugreek, galangal & rose – in my mix). Adding the ras el hanout gives this loaf a ‘spiced loaf’ characteristic that is accentuated by the bursts of tart red currant and the sweetness of the icing. The ras el hanout makes this loaf both familiar to those who love spiced baking but when they taste it, people are going to ask exactly what is in there because it tastes so comfortingly familiar but is also a unique ‘twist’. Try this one out and let me know what you think!
Yogurt Red Currant Loaf with Ras El Hanout
A soft, spiced loaf with tart berries and sweet icing - perfect for a coffee break, breakfast or even dessert!
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon ras el hanout
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- zest of one lemon
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup red currants
- 1 cup currant skins & fruit (mush),
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup confectioners sugar
- 2-3 tablespoons red currant juice
Heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a standard 9x5 loaf pan.
In a bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together.
In a large bowl, add the sugar and the lemon zest, and mix. Then whisk in the egg, and vanilla extract until smooth.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet, and gently mix until combined. Don't over mix! Add the oil to the bowl and, using a spatula, fold into the batter. Once the oil is just incorporated, add the red currants and lightly fold into the batter.
In a small bowl mix 1/2 cup of sugar into your currant 'mush'.
Pour half of the batter into the prepared loaf pan, then gently spread the 'mush' on top of this. Finally, pour the remaining half of the batter on top.
Place the pan into the oven and bake for approximately 50 minutes, or until the center is set and a toothpick come out clean when inserted in to the middle of the loaf.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 10-15 minutes, then remove from the pan and set on a cooling rack to cool.
While the cake is cooling, measure the confectioner's sugar into a small bowl. Slowly add the currant juice, stirring until you have reached the desired consistency of your icing. If you need, add a little more juice for a thinner icing. Drizzle on the loaf when it has cooled.
If you don't have ras el hanout (you should get some!) you can substitute a combination of cinnamon, all spice and/or nutmeg. If you haven’t made currant jelly recently, you can still follow the recipe without the ‘mush’ but it will cook slightly faster, so be careful.