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The names of currants

Nomen est omen, is what the Latins say and means that names speak volumes, they tell stories. And indeed, the names of the currant plants do that, and perhaps more than the names of other plants. They tell the story of a crop that was discovered late for the garden, in early modern times.

It was sudden and without antique tradition and role models, and then one needed names that described in some way, via comparisons, analogies and sometimes strong shifts in meaning, what you suddenly had in the garden and on the table.The names of currants tell the story of a plant that had to serve as a substitute for the southern grapes and whose berries are ripe earlier than almost all other fruits. Currants and especially the leaves of the blackcurrants were also used as medicine; if you still consider them to be very healthy today, then it's more because of the fruits that contain vitamin C and many other antioxidants. On the other hand – as the history of the name shows – currants and their enthusiasts are too modest, the berries obviously too small and too sour for someone to come up with the obvious idea of now calling them superfood and superfruits. To dispel any misunderstanding: the currant is one of my favourite fruits and that's why I devote so much of my breeding time to the plants; but before we can raise them into the fruit Olympiad we must adjust their name history once and for all.

Currants: ripe around the longest day
The name “currant” is easy to understand: Pars pro toto is described as the ripening period of the berry and it is immediately taken over for the entire plant. Currants ripen around St. John's Day, 24 June and the longest day of the year. Of course, the gardeners and breeders then did not quite keep to the specification of the word, the literal sense and they made every effort to find currants that mature earlier and especially later. For example, we at Lubera® are very proud that we also bred red currants (Ribest® Sonette and Ribest® Violette), which only mature very late in August. We have managed such a breeding coup, even blackcurrants that have a tendency to ripen even earlier: Cassissima® Late Night does not mature until late in July and can be left to hang until well into August, which with this variety clearly improves the taste and aroma due to the production of additional sugar and probably also the concentration of its constituents.

Ribes: the rhubarb that became a berry
The botanical name of the currants, Ribes rubrum and Ribes nigrum, was used for the first time by Simon Januensis, a medical vicar in the Curia of Pope Nicolas IV around 1290. This name of the currant, Ribes, which was then chosen by Carl Linnaeus as a generic name, according to the relevant manuals, goes back to Rheum ribest, the Syrian rhubarb! Its sour-tasting stalks, ultimately the stalks of the reddish-coloured leaves were already used by the Arabs for making medical syrup for all sorts of ailments. When they conquered southern Spain, i.e. Andalusia, in the 8th century, they did not find any rhubarb, but probably also not any currants that didn’t grow so far south.

It is therefore extremely unlikely that it was the Arabs themselves, who now simply courageously resorted to the equally healthy and sour currants due to the lack of rhubarb. Rather, it can be assumed that the well-trained medical vicar Simon Januensis and his scientific friends and contemporaries resorted to the Syrian rhubarb in order to linguistically master the newly described plant. The writers and physicians of the 13th and 14th centuries drew much of their knowledge from ancient and Arabic literature. And the reasons for the name transfer, for the name robbery, are also obvious: both, currants and rhubarb are sour and both were and are also used for medical purposes. That had to be enough – and this is how the berry fruit got to enjoy the name.
This confusion, which we will see again at the very end of this article, has not been completely eradicated to this day.  And we at Lubera®? "Let’s go the whole hog!" is what we said to ourselves, and once again slightly misappropriated and usurped the botanical name by choosing our brand name Ribest® for the new red and white currant varieties that we have been breeding for the past  15 years. Now that we've got into rhubarb breeding, the circle closes and I'm just waiting for us to be able to name an absolutely red-coloured “Currant Rhubarb”.
The raspberry rhubarb (Frambozen rod) and the strawberry rhubarb (as a collective name for red-stalked rhubarb varieties) already exist, even if false, sweet facts are reflected here. The currant rhubarb would be clearly honest. Maybe it does not exist yet. ;-) But this is clear: rhubarb transitions to the fruit and the currant could not avoid the rhubarb.

Ribisel: currants are small
Alemanni, Bavarians, Austrians and South Tyroleans perhaps also took the Latin name into their dialects because of their proximity to the Latin-Italian-speaking region and turned it into Ribisel. Of course– with the abrading and changing creativity, which is sometimes immanent to languages – they complemented the Latin name by using a diminutive: Ribes became Ribisel, Ribiseli. After all, we are all a bit beyond dialect, language and time limits – currants are rather small. And Alemanni are realists, certainly not dreamers.
Currants and Zante currants: small and sweet (?)
The English, with their trading tradition and well-travelled knowledge, again used the South to find the right word for the plant. This time, the Zante currants or Corinthian raisins had to suffice; they are the dried, seedless grapes from the south, from Corinth: they are small – at least in comparison to fresh grapes. But they are also sweet and seedless. Well, the language creation, which enjoys serving largely unknown strangers, cannot be taken too exactly. But the currants are small here, too.
Probably the name transfer was primarily synonymous to rather the blackcurrant than the red currant; blackcurrants also contain a little more sugar and their seeds are clearly less disturbing than the red currant.


Picture: Cassissima® Blackbells®

It may perhaps be due to the somewhat large-mouthed comparison that underlies the English word “currants” that blackcurrants and, above all, currant juice and nectar are still much more popular in England today than in the rest of Europe. The cassis, oh sorry, the currant flavour in the UK is also found in many other sweets and also cough drops. The worldwide conversion of the taste buds to currants is still pending, but is not excluded: the largest currant juice producer, Ribena, who also financed the intensive Scottish currant breeding, and up until 2013 had belonged to the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline for 10 years sold to the Japanese company Multi Suntory in 2013. Again, there is the connection between plant, pleasure and health, which obviously seems to accompany the currant story.
At the end of this name game, however, we return again to another Ribes species, Ribes aureum or odoratum, both of American origin:


Picture: Fourberry® Orangesse®

When you dry these American currants, you get really sweet grapes, which are close in flavour to the Zante currants. But admittedly, the English did not know that at the time of the Corinthian name robbery because the discovery of the North American plant world was yet to come.

Cassis: the scent and taste of cinnamon?
The French, with their sense of the sensuous, for fragrance, taste and elegance, took a different approach. “Cassis” for the fruit and the juice and “Cassissier” for the berry bush go back to the Latin “Cassia” for cinnamon. First, with “Cassia” the spice bark of Cinnamomum species was meant, above all Cinnamomum verum, but then the botanical cassia species themselves, which were also used as both a spice and a medicine.


Picture: Cinnamomum verum

Finally, the French name elegantly migrates to the blackcurrant, whose buds, leaves and fruits have such an intense, special fragrance and taste. With this fragrance and taste, the opinions are quite diametrically different; either you love cassis or you don’t. The French, with their penchant for perfume, obviously opted for love and thus gave the plant ethereal wings that still have a lasting effect. It is irrelevant whether cinnamon is now present somehow in the cassis scent; the only decisive factor is that cassis became a leading aroma, which has since been discovered almost everywhere again and again: in any case, there is hardly a word that is so often used when tasting red wines (not only the French ones) like “cassis”. Even if they are not always aware of it, the British and the French have more in common than they think...
Here, too, we at Lubera® have allowed another play on words and have named our self-cultivated gourmet cassis varieties Cassissima®. We are convinced that with the larger berries, the smaller seed content and the improvement and roundness of the originally bitter and pungent cassis flavour, we have managed to forever settle the old dispute between cassis lovers and cassis haters: varieties such as Cassissima® Noiroma , Cassissima® Blackbells and Cassissima® Black Marble have to be loved by all fruit enthusiasts and they must be enjoyed as dessert fruits, also individually from a fruit bowl, piece by piece.


Picture: Cassissima® Black Marble®

Eelberries: a fish or plant?
Now that’s almost disgusting. Did the regional, above all North German linguists with the name "Eelberry" try to denounce the French cassis flavour as a raw fish stench? Now I have to pay particular attention to what I say: smoked eel is a real national dish in my second home, in Ammerland. Normally, however, language is not really vicious and comparisons are oriented more towards the positive than the negative. More likely, therefore, the other explanation is more appropriate, that elecampane is the namesake of the Eelberry, Inula helenium. The root system of this plant has a penetrating bitter to resinous taste and fragrance, which probably the nature lovers among the language creators believed to recognise in the blackcurrant.


Picture: Alant - Inula helenium

Goutberry: poison or antidote?
Now it gets even more absurd: the currant is also called goutberry in some regions. But stop! Doesn’t gout have something to do with acidity or hyperacidity, as our modern health knowledge tells us, which lies dormant in all of us. Therefore I recently renounced the beloved sour cider! But would you really grow a berry in gardens that can cause gout? I have to be careful now that I do not immediately produce a new rumour that can gain momentum in the times of the self-describing internet: anyway, I have eaten endless currants for more than 50 years and I was never able to find a connection between berry and gout in my long-term self-experiment. The biggest harm that currants can do when excessively enjoying them is give you a mundane sore throat: as a breeder, I am forced to overconsume the berries during the selection period (especially when I am looking for sweeter and milder currants) and I then fight the acidity that causes a sore throat with a mouthful of milk every once in a while. So please don‘t spread false rumours...
The realisation brings relief when knowing that blackcurrants are meant with the word goutberry and that the name therefore probably refers to an old medicinal recipe that provided relief for gout attacks after the leaves (or fruits?) were distilled with spirits or after they were inserted into spirits. The goutberry is rather still an antidote than a poison. The question remains open, whether one must drink or rub the alcoholic tincture...drinking certainly helped faster.

Trübel and Trübeli: grapes for the north
Like the Alemanni, the Swiss are more soberly inclined and even dream of the warm south with a wink. Their name for the red currant, “Trübel” or even finer, “Trübeli” makes use of the southern and clearly sweeter grapes, but mainly means the fact that the berries hang in clusters like grapes and currants. And in their down-to-earth realism, the Swiss also make it clear that the currant cannot compete in any way with the grape and also the table grapes: because it is just Trübeli, very small strings and berries. Nevertheless, the name has something sweet and hearty about it: Trüübeli. You almost forget about the sourness with such a name. The Swiss currants (by the way, in the national colours of red and white) are equally likeable, even if they have to grow in the worst possible position in every garden because they also turn red in the shade and because there is little hope for more sweetness. That what is horticulturally disregarded and marginalised, one revalues dialectically, as if one had to apologise for the bad treatment.

Meertrübeli: where is the sea?
The people of Bern, who are literally and actually the slowest and most down-to-earth among the Swiss, added the word “Meer” (sea) to the modest and realistic “Trübeli”. It is thus called “Meertrübeli” in Bern and Trubschachen, Switzerland. This provides even the Swiss author, who knows his fellow countrymen, with a riddle. What does that mean again? Even specialist reading and internet research (rumours!) have not allowed me to be smarter here, so I'll try it myself. Ultimately, I have two options for interpreting the “Meertrübeli”.


Picture: Currant Ribest® Violette®

First, the sea is not the distant sea of longing, but the comparative numeric “more”. Because if the Trübeli somewhat stands out, then it is because of the fact that several (many) berries hang on the strings. The better and more intensively the currant plant is fertilised, pruned and cared for, the more berries hang on the strings. In many cases and at times of the creation of the word (that is, before the modern table grape varieties), almost all of the currants have more berries on the strings than the grape vines. Where, of course, the desire could be the father of the thought here...Finally, one must somewhat oppose the sweet grapes. This “more” has also found its way into the Lubera® language, and a few years ago, under the brand name Moreberries®, we introduced an entire series of berry plants, each consisting of two different varieties, with different colours, maturing times and taste orientations. More is more! The original Swiss language creators may have thought that.
And secondly, here’s the second interpretation: the sea is really the sea of yearning and reflects the fact that the first garden species came from the Netherlands and Belgium, i.e. from the sea. But perhaps also the alleged, Latin-Italian word “Ribes” is included in the word, which comprises the southern to Arabic origin of the plant (Syrian rhubarb) and turns the simple Trübeli into the fabulous Meertrübeli.

Sour is funny – and now the fun is over with.
There are far too many things in this world, yes, there are too many plants to name. Only the words are scarce. And so the words are stolen systematically, well let's say this: borrowed and modified. The WHAT then HOW is borrowed and this says a lot about the speakers and writers, but also a lot about the matter itself. Currants are – admittedly – rather sour and small, and one would like to have them bigger and sweeter like grapes. Interestingly, in the case of currants, the formerly mainly medicinal use since the 19th century, that is, since the plant was also actively cultivated, has yielded mainly to culinary use. And that rhubarb and currants are related due to the word 'Ribes' cannot be surprising in the end. We all still see rhubarb as more of a fruit today than a vegetable, which it is in reality.

The Americans have solved the obvious rhubarb fruit/vegetable problem in their own way: in 1947, the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York rightfully declared rhubarb to be a fruit because rhubarb is typically used as a fruit. Rhubarb is also known in the United States as “pie plant”. The real reason why the lawsuit was brought to trial was a completely different one: there were higher import duties on fruits and thus domestic rhubarb production could be better protected. So there are actually things between heaven and earth that can easily be explained.


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