While black currants are the fruit of choice for traditional English scones, they were banned in the United States until pretty recently. I found this out when my friend Janet Peterson offered to share the currants from her stash of English goodies during our sconemaking.
As we folded them into our dough, we realized that neither of us really knew what they were. We figured they were akin to raisins. Turns out, we were wrong.
Currants are a shrub berry similar to gooseberries and native to Europe. I know my pal Peterson has been smuggling her favorite cooking ingredients from England to the United States for years, so I went on a quest to make sure the ones we used weren't contraband.
The nutrient-rich berries were banned in 1911 because they were thought to produce a fungus that could damage pine trees. As new disease-resistant berries were produced and new ways to prevent the fungus from damaging timber were developed, some states started to lift the ban in 2003. Today, they are grown by U.S. farmers in the Northeast and in the Pacific Northwest and used in foods like jellies, jams, teas and oils. They are extremely high in vitamin C.
So are they legal in Florida? The best answer I could get is: probably.
I spent hours poring over the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website. When I typed in the question, "Are black currants legal in Florida?", the response was, "Sorry, no results matched your query." I later started chatting online with agents from the department, who sent me to several websites primarily focused on different ways to process and grade currants.
Finally, I had to pull strings. I contacted my friend Matt Van Name, assistant commissioner of agriculture for the state of Florida. While he said he wasn't up to date on his personal knowledge of currants, he did spend two days researching the conundrum.
His first text said, "I will email you shortly! I have a group of people looking into it." Later, he said: "Sounds like you found a worm hole. The first answer I got was quickly contradicted."
Van Name persisted. He finally texted that each state has its own regulations about currants.
And he directed me to a website used by his agents: foodtolive.com. I had been reading blogs on the website for a couple of days, so I was familiar with the information.
Finally, he wrote this: "Based on the USDA inspection manual, black currants are allowed in Florida, since they are not a fruit fly host. However, they cannot enter the U.S. from Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and several other EU countries. Chile has to have a special import permit to move this product into the United States. Outside of these particular areas, there shouldn't be a problem with this fruit moving into the state."
While his answer doesn't exactly exonerate my friend, as England is still kind of in the European Union, it did clarify the issue somewhat.
And, luckily for us, we discovered the currants we used were Zante currants, which are dried berries of small, seedless grapes and not official currants. Whew.