The berries did it – the gooseberries, black and red currants, and elderberries I knew and loved from Germany and could not find in the United States. The berries made me a gardener. In the process, I became a passionate gardener not only for food (see also my other blog, My Gardener’s Table).
Fortunately all of these berries do well in our local climate. And they are no strangers to the people of Pennsylvania Dutch country with their predominantly German ancestry. I have talked to many older folks who remember their grandmothers making jams and jellies from gooseberries and elderberries. Nowadays, however, you are more likely to find those fruits at Union Square Market in New York City than at local farm stands. The owner of a local farm and nursery told me that he ripped out all of his gooseberry and currant shrubs a few years ago because nobody wanted them any longer.
There is another reason why black currants and gooseberries disappeared in the United States. Since 1911 there had been a federal ban of black currants and their close relatives, gooseberries, because they were believed to spread a plant disease called “white pine blister rust”. The disease affected native white pines, which was an important source of lumber. Later scientific research revealed that black currants and gooseberries were not quite the culprits. Also, disease management had improved, disease-resistant varieties had been bred, and white pines were not such an important lumber any more so the federal ban was lifted in the mid-1960s. Today it is up to the federal states whether they allow gooseberries and black currants to be cultivated or not. Pennsylvania allows them, while neighboring New Jersey does not.
With a bit of luck, you can find gooseberries, red and and black currants, and, in late summer, elderberries, at farmers’ markets. Therefore I felt encouraged to include two of my cherished berry recipes in the upcoming new edition of Spoonfuls of Germany: my grandmother’s Elderberry Soup with Farina Dumplings, and her Red Currant Meringue Pie.
The currants and gooseberries are in bloom right now. And the jostaberries, a crossbreed between gooseberries and black currants (hence the name: Johannisbeeren and Stachelbeeren = Josta), which I planted several years ago, bloom for the first time this year. It looks like it’s going to be a good crop this year. I cannot wait to get my hands on those “forbidden fruit”!