By her who in this month (January) is born
No gem save garnets should be worn...
— Tiffany & Co. pamphlet, 1870
Right on the edge of my granddad's jungle of a garden in Edmonton, as a kind of period to the rows of joyful gladiolas, tall and proud as sentries, and more rows of raspberry canes full of delicious rewards worth every wicked raspberry-thorn scratch etched into your skinny, sun-browned arms, was a big fat red currant bush.
Twice as tall as me by half, I remember standing in awe one summer evening as the setting sun lit up its tiny, brilliant red fruit that hangs like little grape clusters. This was right around the time I learned that garnets were my mom's birthstone: In one of those wonderful leaps of childhood imagination when reality is arbitrary, I was convinced these gorgeous things, sparkling against the dark green foliage like so many dangly earrings, had to be garnets.
To this day, the French consider a properly rendered (meaning not cloudy) red currant jelly to be as precious as jewels.
Here in Canada, few people are growing currants, not even farmers who sell at the markets, so it's a lucky day when you find some. On the other hand, at least 100 species of Grossulariaceae Ribes — Ribes genus also includes the gooseberry — grow wild in temperate regions of North America, especially the Rocky Mountains, as well as in South America.
In B.C. forests we can find stink currants, trailing black currants, sticky currants, black gooseberries and red-flowering currants — Ribes all, but none with the pizzazz of cultivated red currants (Ribes rubrum).
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, we have the Dutch, the Danes and others living near the Baltic Sea to thank for our garden-grown varieties. They were cultivated and brought to North America by early settlers in the 1600s; no surprise, since they do well in cool northern climates and in clay or silt soils. Varieties native to North America were also cultivated for domestic use, so hard to say where that bush in my granddad's garden originated.
Red currants were widely grown by early pioneers throughout the prairies, given the kinds of conditions they could tolerate, as well as the fact that, like gooseberries and cranberries, they contain lots of natural pectin, making them easily rendered into jams and jellies before commercial pectin was invented. They're also high in Vitamin C, calcium, iron and other nutrients, making them especially welcome for good health during those trying northern winters.
Black currants, on the other hand, were and still are the big stars in Britain, which grows more currants than any other country. Black currant flavouring is used a lot in things like lozenges as well as one of those hallmarks of Britishness you can still enjoy, especially in "the colonies" such as Hong Kong — a tall cool glass of soda flavoured with Ribena syrup (Ribena from Ribes).