Stating the case for British blackcurrants

European imports of the berry are a force of habit rather than economic necessity, finds Sophie Barnett.

Herfordshire-based blackcurrant grower Anthony Snell has high hopes for licensed Ribena variety, Ben Vane - image: Anthony Snell
Herfordshire-based blackcurrant grower Anthony Snell has high hopes for licensed Ribena variety, Ben Vane - image: Anthony Snell

The humble blackcurrant saw its popularity rocket during the Second World War, with recognition of its high vitamin C content. Today the message of "superfruit" status for its multitude of health benefits seems to have sunk in with customers, who have a greater understanding of the importance of buying British.

The Blackcurrant Foundation has worked hard to promote the berry and its growers say it has an even greater all-round potential to fill. They feel the market needs to greatly expand, with far more British companies ceasing their reliance on imports and using the home-grown blackcurrant in foods such as yogurts and jams.

And following the success of fruit breeding programmes at the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) and its commercial arm Mylnefield Research Services (MRS), ever-improving varieties to suit varying conditions - with better disease resistance - are seeing everyone strive to new levels and have higher expectations. It has been estimated that SCRI-bred blackcurrants account for more than 50 per cent of the global crop.

More than 90 per cent of the blackcurrants grown in the UK and Ireland are used by Ribena. Its producer, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has recently extended its sponsorship contract with the SCRI/MRS for breeding blackcurrants for processing until 2015, which is set to create ever-improving cultivars.

The other smaller breeding programme for blackcurrants at the centre is aimed at the fresh market and is funded by grower Winterwood Farms. It is funding ambitious research on how to make the fruit highly-palatable fresh from the bush.

Dr Rex Brennan, fruit breeding group director at the SCRI, says: "We are making real advances in research with blackcurrants. It is a really exciting time."

Ben Klibreck and Ben Starav - some of the breeding programme's new varieties - are expected to start showing their potential this season after being planted in the past couple of seasons on an increasingly commercial scale. They have both been bred to have consistently-high yields, good processing quality and a particular flavour, chosen by GSK.

Brennan says the centre is trialling another 30 to 40 lines, which will result in further releases, able to tackle different challenges. "But one of the things we are finding (is that) we cannot rely on cold winter temperatures," he says. "We may have had one this winter just gone but the two previous were mild, so we need to make sure there are a range of varieties that can cope with all these climatic changes. I don't think it will just be one variety - we will always need a few to deal with long-term trends."

The centre has been working to find gall mite-resistant blackcurrants and one of the most exciting varieties for non-Ribena growers is Ben Finlay. Cecidophyopsis ribis-resistant cultivar is expected to be popular with growers, particularly in the pick-your-own market.

Brennan says: "The work on gall mite has enabled us to develop techniques for identifying and selecting resistant types at a much earlier stage of the breeding process, saving several years in the breeding of new resistant varieties."

Herefordshire Ribena blackcurrant grower and chairman of the Blackcurrant Foundation Jo Hilditch says she is getting excited about the programme's latest variety, Ben Avon, set to have its first pick this year. A cross between Ben Alder and Ben Lomond, it was released by SCRI/MRS in 2003 and has an upright growth habit, high yields and very good fruit and juice quality. "We move on to new varieties depending on what GSK asks us to grow," she explains.

Herefordshire-based blackcurrant grower Anthony Snell also speaks highly of the breeding programme. He is enthusiastic about licensed Ribena variety Ben Vane, a new arrival on his farm that he says is proving to be a very "exciting prospect". He adds: "Next year we will have reasonable volumes. It's showing really nice eating characteristics."

The search for good eating characteristics are also behind the funding of a whole other breeding programme by Winterwood Farms, which is co-ordinated from Kent and has 12 farms in four counties.

The versatility of the blackcurrant means the SCRI/MRS are working on very different properties for the company in the hopes that it will one day change the eating habits of the nation, or the world, by getting people to eat fresh blackcurrants uncooked.

Winterwood Farms managing director Stephen Taylor says: "The reality is the blackcurrant is one of the healthiest fruits you can have. But it's one with an inherent problem, which is that not many people will want to eat them fresh in any quantity.

"We are restricted to people using them for cooking, for the colour or in things such as summer puddings. They also have an uphill struggle because people won't put them in their trolley if they don't know what to do with them. "

He says by investing in breeding they hope to increase the number of berries on a strig and make the strig stay green for a longer period of time.

"The trouble is that the strig tends to turn brown very quickly, or is brown to start with, so that makes the consumer think the blackcurrants are older. If we could get them to stay green and be more visually attractive, then this would help, and we are also hoping to improve the flavour. There are few people who can put a handful of blackcurrants in their mouth at the moment because they find them too sharp, but we want people to be able to do this and enjoy the taste."

Taylor adds: "It may take 10 to 15 years - it's a long process but we will get there. As scientists develop the genetic markers for various characteristics, the breeding process also becomes more efficient."

This year will be the first year Winterwood Farms crops a commercial quantity of blackcurrant variety Big Ben, acclaimed for having the largest and sweetest berries. Taylor says he is excited. "It's the first step on a long road. They have good appearance and they're bigger. The improved taste is a small step in the right direction."

The high-chill varieties are becoming less relevant into today's warm climate. Despite this year's cold winter, the trend of a lower winter chill factor is now restricting the planting of some otherwise good varieties.

Ben Conan remains the variety Winterwood Farms grows in greatest quantities, while late flowering variety Ben Tirran, released by the SCRI in 1990, was a casualty of the insufficient winter chill, so they are ceasing its production.

Taylor says: "The crop was down to uneconomical levels." Other growers for Ribena still stand by Ben Tirran, however, due to it cropping better in different geographic areas. From a fresh market perspective, Taylor explains that it would be pointless growing many more blackcurrants until the next step forward in breeding, because this would lead to oversupply. He says blackcurrants do not have potential for the fresh market until we get varieties that both look good and are sweeter.

This makes him more determined to make them taste sweeter to change their use and thereby make them more in demand. But then there will be an education process to convince consumers that the taste has improved, so overall a long road ahead.

The Blackcurrant Foundation believes British producers of products such as jam and yogurts need to break with old habits and source only from Britain. Hilditch says the potential is not really being met.

"Little by little our growers are trying to substitute those imports through working hard with the ingredients and food service industry to ensure that it is British crop that is used rather than Polish or other European fruit." Poland is by far the biggest producer, farming about 25,000ha and having 12,000 growers.

Snell, who supplies Ribena to supermarkets and wholesale markets as well as practising IQF (individually quick frozen fruit where the blackcurrants are blasted frozen to -40 degsC), says food producers in this country are not using enough of the UK-based expertise.

He says: "We need to get the message across to the yogurtand jam-makers who are using Polish blackcurrants. They need to understand the quality of British products on their doorstep and see how competitive we are on price. We are making inroads into the industry but we are finding it hard. It is not the price, it just seems to be habit. We have got to develop additional markets and substitute imports."

On an international scale, this year's world crop is down on last year's. It is estimated that the crop will stand at 160,000 tonnes worldwide, compared to 185,000 tonnes 12 months before.

But according to Snell, this is fairly static and matching supply with demand globally. He says: "In Britain we have done well. We have had the coldest winter in 30 years and the coldest April in 10 years. Although blackcurrants need a high chill factor, a cold April isn't good. It is hard to estimate a yield potential, if we have a dry summer it will bring it down, but I think it will be good. Last year, however, was very good."

Hilditch is optimistic for this season. "It is looking really good," she says. "The cold winter meant everything was properly dormant and that should mean a great crop. It bodes well for the harvest because it means everything is flowering at the same time and should come into fruit at the same time." She adds that the late spring had set things back between one and two weeks, but insisted it was not a problem.

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