Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Christmas in July

The red currants are ripe. We planted the bush perhaps twenty years ago on the edge of the steep bank in front of our house. It’s a little too close to the drop off. Now that the bush is big, that side is difficult to pick. You have to fight the slope, encroaching blackberry canes, and the frightful crown vetch which someone told us would be a good thing to plant on the bank, but which we deeply regret. It swallows up anything else we plant, and it has been a struggle to grow the lilacs, flowering quince, althea, and rose bushes we’ve been planting on the problematic bank over the years. We have to keep peeling back the smothering blanket of vetch. (The bank is the result of building a passive solar, partially underground, stone house into the side of a sunny knoll.)

Crown vetch has now crept across the lawn and into my flower garden. It joins the throng of persistent weeds which love the huge raised bed of soft loam, laid over the near bedrock left by the house excavation and contained by a stone wall, as much as the flowers do. Bind weed and (shudder) horseradish both appeared without help. The Bouncing Bet I found as a pretty little slip in the sand of the riding ring. I stupidly bought the wormwood (nurseries should mark potentially invasive plants) and my sister-in-law brought me an un-named, hollow-stemmed bog plant for my garden pool which has spread all over, but thankfully is easy to uproot. But now, like the crown vetch, my thoughts have wandered to the flower garden—a vast subject in itself—which is ripe for a much-needed weeding after last night’s rain.

Currants are on the agenda today. It is a love/hate relationship, I’m afraid. Every July, I watch with a mixed sense of anticipation and dread as zillions of tiny fruits turn to brilliant, ruby jewels. With exactly no nurturing, and with rabbit-like fecundity, this bush has pumped out bumper crops year after year. My gardening encyclopedia tells me that in some states it is illegal to plant currants as they harbor a rust disease which affects white pines. I dearly cherish my thirty or so white pines, all of which I have planted. They are a sweet reminder of my New England childhood. But I cherish this crazily generous red currant bush as well. So it remains and the pines seem to be growing well. My resource also tells me that currants like well rotted manure, potassium, mulching, and some late winter pruning. Do I dare encourage more productivity?

Red currants are so sour that the birds seem to have no interest in them. Without sugar, one might think them poisonous. They are tedious to pick. Processing them is a bit of a chore. But! They make the most beautiful, tart jelly! Oh my! A jar of sparkling, glowing, tasty, red currant jelly, tied up with a green satin bow, in my mind, makes a lovely Christmas gift. I try to stow away two or three batches of half-pints jars every July. It eases my love/hate relationship with The Holiday to know that I have inexpensive, useful, gifts—with my heart sealed into them—put away for that foolish, exhausting, joyful season that I really do love.

And my heart goes into those jars indeed. Red currants are a strange fruit to pick. They grow in gleaming, cascading, grape-like clusters, which I strip off the stems, by rolling them gently between my fingertips. I feel almost as if I were stripping milk from the teats of a cow, as if I were milking the bush, easing her of her heavy burden. I tuck a quart yogurt container into an elastic waistband so that both hands are free, and set to work. But it is frustrating. There are so danged many of them that only a truly obsessive compulsive person could clean a branch entirely. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know where to stop. I am lost in a seemingly infinite world dripping with glowing red fruit.

I have picked them in the broiling sun with puppies playing in the shadows under the bush. I have picked them with my sister and friends, chatting away as we worked. One summer, I had family visiting to attend their Alfred-Almond High School reunion and had to leave be on the faculty of the Highlights Foundation’s Chautauqua Conference the next day. My in-laws all pitched in. We got the currant harvest into the freezer, I made the jelly later—and they all got jelly for Christmas!

Two days ago, I started by picking a quart. Yesterday evening, my husband helped and we got three more quarts in the grey light of approaching night and rain. I am reminded, with my face deep into the intricacies of the red currant bush, observing at close hand its many insect residents, how little I know of them. What is that spider with the body like a tiny white marshmallow? Or the triangular, hard shelled beetle that so often drops in with the berries. Look! Here’s a tiny snail, four feet off the ground!

So now, it’s time to get out the canning funnel and tongs, the strainer bag, jars and lids, pectin, a fresh bag of sugar. Will I pick all the currants this year? Perhaps I’ll have enough left over currants to put away for Spring’s boyfriend, Chris, to brew a batch of red currant lambic beer. Now that’s an idea. Better stop blogging about currants and start slogging away at them!

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