The Currant Price

One of my favourite passages in Little Women is the chapter when Meg tries to make currant jelly.

          In the kitchen reigned confusion and despair; one edition of jelly was trickled from pot to pot, another lay upon the floor, and a third was burning gaily on the stove.  Lotty, with Teutonic phlegm, was calmly eating bread and currant wine, for the jelly was still in a hopelessly liquid state, while Mrs. Brooke, with her apron over her head, sat sobbing dismally.  
          "My dearest girl, what is the matter?" cried John, rushing in, with awful visions of scalded hands, sudden news of affliction, and secret consternation at the thought of the guest in the garden.... "What worries you, dear?  Has anything dreadful happened?" asked the anxious John, tenderly kissing the crown of the little cap, which was all askew.
          "Yes," sobbed Meg despairingly.
          "Tell me quick, then.  Don't cry, I can bear anything better than that.  Out with it, love."
          "The--the jelly won't jell and I don't know what to do!"

I never could help laughing at this point -- it's such a silly thing to get so worked up about.  But I know her pain; I've made my share of batches of jelly that wouldn't jell, and it gives a horrible feeling of helplessness -- there's nothing you can do about it!  And this week I decided to make currant jelly for the first time ever, so I couldn't help thinking of poor Meg the whole time.

To start with I picked my own currants!  We've got a thicket of them growing wild in our back woods (or, I don't know, they could have been planted on purpose; all the land around here used to be an orchard, and we have one of the old apple trees on our property.  But they're very wild now!)  Over the last few years I've picked a few, but never enough to do anything with, so I've been slowly collecting them in the freezer.  But this summer I was actually around and paying attention when they came ripe, and after stripping all the bushes I had almost a quart of berries.  Combined with what I had in the freezer, it was enough to make it worth trying to make jelly.

Oh, and did I mention?  I don't think I've ever been so mosquito-bitten in my life.  We nick-named the currant patch "Currant Hollow" as it's in a low spot in the yard - and low spots attract mosquitos.  And this is Michigan, so there are lots of mosquitos to attract.


I got a little carried away with the artistic shots of currants.  They're so pretty, though!  The berries are almost translucent and they have a distinct veined pattern.

The Joy of Cooking is my go-to book for jams and jellies.  Simple, straightforward, and none of this fuss about added pectin.  Did you know that the addition of storebought pectin means you have to use more sugar?  The percentage is something like 40% sugar, 60% fruit.  So even though there's a slight risk factor in making jam without added pectin - risk of it not jelling, I mean - I'd much rather go with a method where I can turn the percentage the other way around.

This is the fruit after the first stage.  It's in my makeshift jelly bag (hastily sewn together from a scrap of unbleached muslin), straining through the fabric to produce the juice which is the only part of the fruit to end up in the jelly.  It sounds sort of wasteful but I only had about a cup of pulp left after straining - I started with about 7 cups of berries, and had about 2.5 cups of juice - so I guess it's not too bad.

And the finished jelly not only tastes lovely, but it DID jell!  There was no cause for hysterics this time around :-)  In fact I was surprised, because currants seem to have a lot more natural pectin than many of the fruits I've worked with; I didn't have any trouble with this.  Maybe Meg had a different kind of currants!


  1. Oh this looks lovely! I have, alas, never tasted currants nor made currant jelly. :( They are SO beautiful, I love the photos you took of the process! I would love to make some sometime! I have never made jelly, just jams, and have been hesitant to try because of the straining process. But now I really think I must try! Perhaps with grapes later this year. . .

  2. How pretty the currants are! I've had moments like Meg and the currants...and the fabric for the dress she really couldn't afford. ;)

  3. That's my absolute favortie scene in Little Women, too. I'm so disappointed the movie adaptations never try it -- they stop with Meg once the babies are born.

    Your jelly looks lovely and I do very much enjoy your artistic shots. They're charming :)

  4. Sarah, it's really not too hard! And I was surprised at how little waste there was.

    Serena... ah, yes. I read that bit yesterday and was convicted myself!

    Jenny - Thank you! I like playing with the camera but really if I get a good shot it's mostly luck ;-) I've never actually watched a movie adaptation of Little Women all the way through. I started the one with Winona Ryder, because I thought Christian Bale would be the perfect Laurie - and he was! - but everyone else annoyed me so much that I turned it off.


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