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All We Can Eat
Posted at 05:45 PM ET, 07/17/2012

Currant affairs: One man’s search for the fresh fruit


Bigne With Honey Mousse and Currants: The hunt for fruit is half the challenge of this recipe. (Jim Webster/The Washington Post)
I didn’t move to Washington specifically to make the Bigne With Honey Mousse and Currants from Mario Batali’s “Babbo” cookbook, but if I hadn’t moved, I have no idea when I’d have been able to make the dish.

Before I started the process of cooking through the book , I mapped out all the dishes. I organized them by which dishes I would have to make in each season, which dishes had ingredients I would have to jump through hoops to get, which ones had ingredients I could grow (or would have to grow) and which ones had ingredients I had no idea where to get.

There weren’t many dishes that fell into the last category. The bigne was one of them. I was living in Florida at the time, and while I could go to my backyard and harvest citrus anytime, there was fresh seafood everywhere and the farmers market season was in “winter,” the availability of diverse foodstuff was often an issue.


Currants: Not as easy to find fresh as this photo would indicate. (Jim Webster/The Washington Post)
I am, of course, familiar with currants. Use the dried kind all the time. Had never even seen a fresh one. So I started trying to find out where they grew, and when. Turns out, there isn’t much information on the Internet about fresh currants.

So I started making a point of asking around whenever I traveled. The first hit I got was at a Whole Foods in Austin — the original Whole Foods, actually — where the guy in produce said they just had some, and they expected to get more in a month or so. That was of no help. I would not be there in a month or so.

I called friends who lived around the country, asking them to keep an eye out for currants. Everyone did. No one found them.

I even looked into planting a currant bush, but learned that it would probably take two years before it produced anything, and I wasn’t convinced it would ever bear in Florida.

I started considering substitutions, but didn’t really know what the reasonable options might be. Then I considered reconstituting dried currants, but I was pretty sure that would not have the same effect. The cool thing about the photo of this dish is the almost neon color of the currants.

I moved to Washington early this year, and when spring came around, I started going to farmers markets — and started to get optimistic. Any vendor that had a lot of fruit and berries, I would ask about currants. Most said they didn’t have them, but they knew other farmers who did, and they could/would/should be at the market soon.

Then, a nearly fateful day: I was reading The Post’s online market report about what would be available that weekend at area farmers markets, and it said that one of the vendors in Silver Spring would have currants on Saturday. Actionable information! Currants were not unicorns! I was getting close. And I suddenly had a plan for Saturday.

When I got there, I saw the usual array of white tents with produce, bread, meat and dairy vendors. When I finally found the vendor that was supposed to (foreshadowing) have currants, there was no white tent. There was a woman, with a folding table behind a pickup, who seemed to have a lot of greens. There was a line, so they must’ve been good greens. When it was finally my turn and I told her what I was looking for, she shook her head.

“We didn’t get many of those this year. We sold out last week.”

LAST WEEK????

Crud.

I walked around a little more, seething, and came across a fruit vendor. The tent was overflowing with several kinds of cherries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries and apples. Seemed promising. I asked if they had, or would have, currants.

“Definitely next week,” the guy said, excitedly. “They were close the other day. I thought they’d be ready this week, but definitely next week.”

“Next week” was the best answer I had heard on the subject. Sure beat “last week.”

This story got a dramatic retelling to several of my friends, and one person said he thought he had seen them at the farmers market at 14th & U. Another said she thought they would have them at Takoma Park and would pick them up for me if I wanted. But I was filled with confidence. I had looked right into the guy’s eyes as he said, “Definitely next week.”

When definitely next week finally arrived, I got in the car and started driving back to Silver Spring. I was barely out of the garage when my phone rang.

“Hey, I’m at 14th & U, and they have fresh currants!” my friend Josh Korr told me. “Want me to pick some up? They have all kinds of colors. Black, pink, red, white. Which did you need?”

I was conflicted. I felt so close to the end of an odyssey. Should I have Josh buy them? Should I go to 14th & U and stake the claim for myself from the vendor, Kuhn Orchards ? It was almost like I needed closure. Should I continue on to Silver Spring, where I had a guy who “definitely” (sarcastic foreshadowing) would have them, and with whom I had a storyline going?

This inner conflict lasted roughly 0.02 seconds.

“Yes! Buy them! Red!” Worst-case scenario was that I would have too many currants. I was cool with that.

Then I continued on to Silver Spring. I had envisioned my new farm friend, out in the extreme heat of the day, painstakingly picking a pint of currants just because he promised to “definitely” have them for me. I didn’t want to be the guy who failed to show up to buy the thing that someone had gone out of his way to make available to me.

He hadn’t. There were no currants there. In fact, the guy I talked to the previous week wasn’t even at the vendor’s tent that day, robbing me of the chance to glare disapprovingly at him for several seconds. He probably stayed home in shame.

While the trip to Silver Spring was fruitless, in a ridiculously literal sense, it wasn’t in vain. I bought the honey I would need for the recipe from another vendor, Banner Bee . The label said it was crafted by Maryland bees. The vendor told me about her early-harvest wildflower honey, that it had notes of spring fruit, like berries and cherries. Hey! That’s not far from a currant, seasonally (apparently) or in flavor profile. I’ll take it!

On my way home, I drove by Josh’s place, and he met me on the street. He leaned in the open car window and handed me the product, and I returned cash. I have seen other transactions conducted that way on the streets around here. I’m not sure how many involved red currants.

With all that buildup, certainly there was a complicated, intricate procedure that would be performed on the currants to make them super delicious, right?

The instructions said to pour sugar on them. They macerate for a couple hours, forming a little sweet juice that the tart berries swim around in. So, that was done.

The bigne are little profiteroles, and they were stuffed with a honey mousse, crafted in this case, in part, by Maryland bees. The mousse is sweet, and the currants are very tart, so they’re a perfect match. It was delicious, and I’m happy to give the bees all the credit.

Now that that’s done, if anyone knows where I can get a half-pound of baby eels and a bottle of Turriga, I’m all ears. Seriously.

By Jim Webster  |  05:45 PM ET, 07/17/2012

Categories:  Chefs, In Season | Tags:  Jim Webster

 
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