‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’ So reads the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, the bitter knowledge imparted by the forbidden apple bringing forth shame and humiliation and leading to the expert crafting of loincloths out of a piece of foliage so perfectly suited to cloaking the human genitalia that you’d almost think God had all this planned out. Whether the forbidden fruit of Genesis was, as many have speculated, actually a fig rather than an apple (other contenders are pomegranates and quinces), there’s no denying that fig leaves are associated with a certain frisson of eroticism and desire in western culture. Depictions of Adam and Eve from the medieval period onwards feature modesty-preserving fig leaves, strategically and titillatingly placed, and the Renaissance period witnessed the fabulous ‘fig leaf campaign’, during which lascivious artworks were hurriedly covered with branches from nearby bushes to avoid offending delicate religious sensibilities. And, to use a slightly less highbrow cultural example, there is the successful internet underwear brand, Figleaves.com.
But the fig leaf has had its time in the limelight. I want to talk about blackcurrant leaves.
There are several reasons why blackcurrant leaves have never acquired the same cultural capital as the fig leaf. For one thing, Adam and Eve would have had to work pretty hard to stitch loincloths out of these, and I’m fairly certain a single blackcurrant leaf would have been insufficient to cover Adam’s modesty in Renaissance paintings (and if it did manage to do so, well, I feel a little sorry for Eve). Blackcurrants are less exotic than figs, growing in colder climes and lacking those heady associations with the perfumes of Arabia and the whitewashed, sun-drenched terraces of the Mediterranean. Blackcurrants are also rather less sexy than figs; where a fig presents you coquettishly with downy skin, voluptuous curves and a sweet, dripping interior, a blackcurrant is small, hard, and essentially mounts an assault on your tastebuds with its astringent juice. It’s the chastity belt of fruits.
If the fig leaf, with its subtle coconut and cinnamon fragrance, is a symbol of suppressed eroticism, the blackcurrant leaf is perhaps an emblem of perseverance and dedication. Like blackcurrants themselves, it requires a little effort to bring out its best, but the results are delightful.
Crush a delicate, spiky blackcurrant leaf in your hand, hold it to your nose and you cannot fail to be surprised by the ghost of blackcurrant that lingers there. Those sharp, citrusy, almost grassy aromas so bountiful in the ripe fruit also course through the delicate veins of its leaves, but where the berries have perfume in abundance, the leaves have a fainter, more herbal note, reminiscent of potpourri. It has the zip and tang of a restorative cordial or throat sweet, mellowed by an almost fecund muskiness. Where the vibrant, swollen blackcurrants are the beating heart of the plant, bursting with blood-like juice, the leaves are its limbs, delicately imbued with that same fragrance, branched with aromatic capillaries carrying that intriguing herbal tang.
You can enjoy these leaves simply infused with hot water as a restorative tea, but the best way to use them is to scrunch them generously into a pan full of warm whole milk and double cream, before turning this heady, aromatic concoction into ice cream. The flavour is almost impossible to describe, but it reflects that perfect marriage between the tangy blackcurrant and the cosseting embrace of dairy, with the cream carrying the grassy, faintly medicinal note of the blackcurrant leaves but mellowing it with sugar and buttery silkiness. It is by far the most interesting ice cream I have ever made, even compared to the gorgeous zestiness of a lemon verbena ice cream, or the clove-scented tang of a basil frozen yoghurt. It is also one you could enjoy entirely unadulterated, marvelling at each aromatic mouthful.
However, I wanted to use up the egg whites left over from making the ice cream, and so I also made this gorgeous macaroon cherry tart from Heidi Swanson’s beautiful cookbook Super Natural Every Day. The crust is made from melted butter, desiccated coconut and sugar pressed into a tart tin, then filled with lightly whipped egg whites mixed with a lot more coconut and cocooned around halved cherries. It has the unmistakeable, childhood-evoking flavour of sweet shop macaroons, embedded in a very crunchy, buttery crust, and the sweet coconut works beautifully with the tart cherries. Moreover, it was excellent paired with the blackcurrant leaf ice cream, whose slight astringency cut through the sweetness of the coconut and fruit and enveloped everything in a gloriously aromatic creamy embrace. Probably the most interesting, and one of the most deliciously balanced and surprising desserts I’ve ever made.
If you grow your own blackcurrants, don’t let the leaves languish unloved after your fruits have long gone; turn them into this gorgeous ice cream. If you’re not lucky enough to have these underrated plants in your garden or allotment, find someone who does, or visit a pick-your-own farm. Be sure to pluck off the higher leaves, as they’ll be fresher and more fragrant, and because blackcurrants tend to fruit on old wood, lower down the branches, so you’ve less chance of damaging the plant at that crucial spot.
And if you do manage to craft an effective loincloth out of them, let me know. We might be on the cusp of an artistic revolution.
Blackcurrant leaf ice cream (makes 500ml):
- 300ml whole milk (preferably organic)
- 300ml double cream (preferably organic)
- 40 blackcurrant leaves
- 4 large egg yolks
- 100g golden caster sugar
Put the milk and cream in a large saucepan. Wash the blackcurrant leaves, shake off any excess water, then add them to the milk and cream. Bring the mixture almost to the boil, stir well as the leaves wilt, then remove from the heat, cover and leave to infuse for an hour.
Put the egg yolks in a large bowl or jug and whisk with the sugar until pale and creamy. Warm up the milk and cream mixture until just below boiling again, then strain it through a sieve into the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Press down on the sieve with the back of a spoon to extract all the fragrance from the leaves.
Now tip the entire mixture (minus the strained leaves) back into the saucepan and place over a very low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, for 20-30 minutes or until the custard has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Be careful not to have the heat too high, or you’ll get scrambled eggs. Be sure to whisk constantly. Once the custard has thickened, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl or jug. Allow to cool, then refrigerate overnight (or for at least 6 hours).
Once the custard is very cold, churn in an ice cream maker until set, then put in the freezer for at least 4 hours to firm up before eating.