Thursday, 23 September 2010

Crème de Cassis, Blackcurrants, Hollyhocks and Marshmallow

Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) is better known than its cousin made from blackberries, Crème de Mûres. Burgundy is renowned for its Crème de Cassis and the blackcurrant grows abundantly there, thriving in the same soil and climatic conditions as the grapevines. In early July you can see armies of workers collecting blackcurrants in the fields around the Côte de Nuits and the Hautes Côtes, famous areas such as Chambertin, Aloxe Corton and Volnay.

The blackcurrant has only been cultivated for around 500 years, previously it was collected from the wild. During the Middle Ages and for centuries afterwards blackcurrants were used as a medicine. In the 16th century German herbalists recommended the berries for treatment of bladder stones and liver disorders. The berries were also made into syrups used for coughs and lung ailments.

The first written mention of Cassis in France is found in 1508, when the bush was apparently widely cultivated for table fruit. In 1712 the Abbey Bailly de Montarand, a doctor at the Sorbonne, published a study entitled "Les Propriétés Admirable du Cassis". The work described a veritable host of medicinal uses not only for the ripened fruit but for the buds, bark, and leaves as well. It was the home remedy "par excellence", and most households prepared their own syrups and infusions from their own blackcurrants with wine, marc or eau de vie.

The blackcurrant's folk reputation is not unfounded. The blackcurrant bush's anti-rheumatism properties are due to a small nodule on the stem which secretes a beneficial oil which rubs off on contact with the berries and leaves, and remains in the finished product. In addition to organic acids and mineral salts, black currants naturally contain one-half gram of vitamin C per 100 g of fruit, seven times that found in oranges.

Large-scale, commercial production of Cassis liqueurs did not begin until 1841, in Dijon. Its production expanded during the phylloxera crisis of the late 1800s, when blackcurrants were cultivated as an economic alternative to the vine. The famous cocktail Kir (the favourite drink of Agatha Christie' fictional detective Hercule Poirot) is named after Cannon Félix Kir, Mayor of Dijon. Félix Kir was a priest and hero of the French resistance during World War II. He served the apéritif at official functions during the post-war years when the grape crop was failing and wines needed a bit of help. It became so popular that the apéritif was named after him. A true Kir is 1/5th Cassis and 4/5th Burgundy Aligote (white wine).

Crème de Cassis is also the name of one of my favourite Hollyhocks. The first black Hollyhock was written about by John Parkinson in 1629 after they had been introduced to English gardens from Syria in 1573. Hollyhocks belong to the Malvaceae (Mallow) family and are native to south west and central Asia.

Hollyhock flowers have a very long history – in fact, remains of their blossoms were located at a Stone Age burial site in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq. They could be one of the earliest domesticated flowers.

The Crusaders brought the single-flowered form back to England during the Middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxon name for Mallow, used medicinally throughout Europe, was "hoc", thus Hollyhock was the "holy hoc" from Jerusalem. The Tudors used the dried roots of the Hollyhock for additions to their wine to stave off blood clots. During the 19th century, the Hollyhock became a favourite of Victorian gardens as new colours and the double flowered forms were introduced from China.

Hollyhocks also have some interesting connections. For instance, Thomas Jefferson cultivated these plants in Monticello; in Japan, Hollyhocks became the seal of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the Last Shoguns of Japan), and Frank Lloyd Wright named his first Los Angeles project, “Hollyhock House,” after the owner, Aline Barnsdall’s, favourite flower. In addition to having cultural connections, Hollyhock flowers have also become an important part of art. Not only can the flowers themselves be used to create a rust red-coloured dye, they have also made many appearances in fine art paintings.

The Hollyhock and its cousin, the Marshmallow, are common in North Africa and the Middle East and it's thought that the Egyptians were the first to make a sweet from the roots. The recipe called for extracting sap from the plant and mixing it with nuts and honey. Candy makers in early 19th century France made the innovation of whipping up the Marshmallow sap and sweetening it, to make a confection similar to modern Marshmallow. The later French version of the recipe, called pâté de guimauve, included an egg white meringue and was often flavoured with rose water.

Marshmallows are easy to make at home and with the nights starting to draw in and Autumn round the corner this recipe will come in handy for Bonfire Night.

2 tbsp icing sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
vegetable oil (for oiling the cake tin)
splash of rose essence (you can use violet, mint or vanilla etc instead)
25g gelatine powder
500g granulated sugar
2 egg whites
splash of food colouring (optional)

Sift the icing sugar and cornflour together into a small bowl. Rub a shallow cake tin with a few drops of vegetable oil and shake a little of the icing sugar mixture around the tin to coat the base and sides. Add a splash of Rose essence to 125ml of nearly boiling water and leave to infuse for 30 seconds. Add the gelatine and stir until dissolved.

Put the sugar into a saucepan with 250ml of water. Warm over a low heat, stirring until all of the sugar has dissolved, then raise the heat, allowing the mixture to boil fiercely without stirring. Remove from the heat and pour the gelatine mixture into the hot sugar syrup, stirring until everything is well blended.

Pour the egg whites into the large bowl of a mixer and beat until stiff. With the mixer going at a low speed, slowly pour in the sugar mixture in a steady, gentle trickle. After you’ve added all of the syrup, leave the machine to carry on beating until the mixture turns really thick and bulky but is still pourable – when you lift up the beater, it should leave a ribbon trail of the mixture on the surface which takes a few seconds to sink back down into the mix.

Pour the marshmallow into the prepared tin. Leave to set in a cool place (do not refrigerate) for an hour or two.
Dust a chopping board with the rest of the cornflour and icing sugar mixture. Coat a knife with a little oil. Carefully ease the marshmallow out of the tin onto the board. Dust all of the surfaces of the marshmallow with the icing sugar mixture. Cut the marshmallows into squares, oiling and dusting the knife as needed. Store in an airtight tin lined with baking parchment.


Susan said...

Sue, whenever we are in Europe, I make sure we get all the cassis in alcohol or juice form, that is possible. Even though we had red currents in America, I have not found one place in America that grows the black. And, of course, the black currents are so much superior. Good posting.

Sue said...

That's interesting Susan - I didn't realise they were hard to find in the States! I used to grow red and white as well as black but now I make my red jelly from rowan berries instead.