Aomori – A ripe blackcurrant goes off in your mouth like a firecracker, tart and electric. Known in Japan as kashisu — derived from the French word “cassis” — Ribes nigrum is as juicy as a blueberry, but far more complex, sour and assertive.
Japan isn’t famous for blackcurrants, much less Aomori Prefecture, which is better known for its apples. Blackcurrants evoke images of European summers, fruity cocktails at the izakaya pub or the infamous glass bottles of syrupy Ribena concentrate. (Once owned by British multinational GlaxoSmithKline, the brand was sold to Suntory in 2013.) Yet the city of Aomori produces around 10 to 12 tons of the fruit annually, accounting for around 90 percent of domestic production.
This is small potatoes — just one-tenth of the Japanese blackcurrant market, the overwhelming majority of which is made up of imports of frozen fruit and liquid concentrates from New Zealand, destined for health supplements and food products like syrups and snacks. Japan is the country’s largest blackcurrant export market by a considerable margin, totaling 75 percent of all its exports by value to the tune of around ¥129 million in 2018. But Aomori’s blackcurrants aren’t competing on volume; domestic production begins and ends with the quality of the fruit.
The story of Aomori’s blackcurrant cultivation has an almost fairy tale-like quality to it. During his vacation around Europe in 1965, Takeo Mochizuki, a professor at Hirosaki University, was gifted some seedlings by a certain Mr. Kemler, a German scholar who thought Aomori’s climate sounded ideal for growing blackcurrants. Mochizuki donated a sapling to Aomori’s Agricultural Guidance Center in 1975 and, two years later, agricultural cooperatives began cultivating cassis.
Today, Aomori is determined to boost its blackcurrant profile, and has ramped up promotional efforts. ASPAM, the city’s A-shaped tourist information center, has a dedicated cassis corner stacked high with products like jellies, jams and juices; the city’s michi no eki (roadside station) sells a microwaveable cassis curry; and the fruit even has its own theme song, “Cassis in Love,” sung by local idol group Gourmet Music Unit (which exists solely to promote Aomori’s culinary culture). Whether these efforts will catapult Aomori’s blackcurrants to national fame remains to be seen.
Before the berries can be harvested, an Aomori blackcurrant bush will have first survived a long winter, submerged in several meters of snow alongside 500 other shrubs. Given temperate weather and fertile soil, the hardy cassis requires little attention besides semiregular pruning to ensure higher yields — perfect for farmer Kenji Hayshi, who heads the Aomori Cassis Association.
Springtime brings a profusion of tiny pink-flecked blossoms across the bushes, which bud into pale green, pea-sized currants. They acquire a reddish blush around the end of June before ripening all at once into clusters of glossy purple-black berries.
Harvesting blackcurrants is a dicey affair. Like most berries, they are delicate, with a fleeting window in which they can be picked — usually the first two weeks of July — before they rot and fall off the bush. Rain means waterlogged fruit, so they can only be picked on dry, sunny days. In Hayashi’s orchard in the mountains west of the city of Aomori, a typical year has yielded around 500 kilograms of blackcurrants since his family began raising them 20 years ago. If spring arrives in Aomori a few weeks early, like it did this year, that might drop to around 200 kilograms.
If you are a commercial blackcurrant farmer in Russia, Poland, New Zealand or China, you might rely on a straddle harvester, a large tractor that shakes the bushes as it trundles along a field, allowing berries to fall by the thousands onto conveyor belts and into large buckets for processing. Although efficient, berries at the bottom of these deep containers are crushed by the weight of their compatriots above, resulting in vats of cassis swamped in their own juice, often with stems and leaf fragments mixed in.
“I’ve seen the videos on YouTube,” Hayashi says, referring to the straddle harvesters. “It’s scary.”
Perhaps it is indicative of a certain fastidiousness among many Japanese farmers toward the quality of their produce that every blackcurrant farmer belonging to the Aomori Cassis Association hand-picks their berries. It’s a slow, painstaking process that requires dozens of hands working from dawn to dusk.
Hayashi’s orchard is relatively small, so he doesn’t need many pickers. Cassis-loving volunteers from the city and local agricultural university — all women, he notes — usually turn up each year to help pick the berries, taking some home as their reward for a day’s work.
They begin picking around 7 a.m., sometimes snipping the branches straight into the colanders. In the shade of temporary tents nearby, other pickers sort the cassis, discarding the leaves and gently pulling the plump berries off slender stems with gloved hands, placing them into a wooden tray with a meshed wire bottom in a single layer. This way, each currant remains intact. It’s hard work, especially when the sun is high, but bottles of rich, homemade cassis juice encourage easy conversation and a merry harvest.
According to Hayashi, most cassis farmers also grow other crops, as blackcurrants alone do not pay the bills. (In his case, chestnuts, though he also supplied Noma’s sister restaurant in Tokyo, Inua, with cassis leaves, branches and berries for its pickles and infused oils before it shuttered earlier this year.)
The average global wholesale price for blackcurrants currently hovers around $10.62 per kilogram (approximately ¥1,100). However, Aomori cassis are GI-designated products; much like champagne from the Champagne region of France, or tequila from Mexico, a geographical indication (GI) sign draws a firm link between the quality of the product and its place of origin. This means Aomori cassis aren’t competing on price; you could consider them different products altogether.
Regular Grade A Aomori cassis — ripe, mixed-sized berries — cost ¥2,500 per kilogram, creeping upwards to ¥2,700 for large currants and ¥3,000 for “premium” cassis, a status only afforded to five growers, including Hayashi, in the prefecture. Only one farmer in Aomori makes a living solely from blackcurrants, and with three tons of berries to harvest within a fortnight, he pays his pickers around ¥500 per kilogram of fruit — low by industry standards.
Post-harvest, the berries might be frozen, churned into gelato or simmered with sugar for a wine-colored jam. Even with the GI indicator, quality varies among domestic cassis growers: Gelato maker Ayumi Chiba, of Gelato Natur in Aomori, would know.
Having churned ice creams with blackcurrants from all over the prefecture, she likes Hayashi’s produce best. He commissioned Chiba to supply the best gelato she could make with his fruit, regardless of expense, as an exclusive for his online shop, Cassis Cafe. His challenge sparked a competitive spirit in her: It took close to a month of experimenting with frozen berries before he greenlighted the final product — a mulberry-colored dessert supercharged with summer in every spoonful.
“If we sold this we’d have to charge ¥800 a scoop,” Chiba says. “It’d be so expensive you’d cry eating it.”
The sorbet is sublime, but it’s the limited-edition bottles of cassis juice that really let Hayashi’s fruit shine — dark and rich, with enough body to stain your teeth purple. As with the sorbet, Hayashi’s approach to his juice is similarly exacting. He simmers equal parts summer cassis with water and strains twice, once through a coarse strainer and then a fine-mesh one. Then he adds 14 percent coarse beet sugar and simmers a second time before bottling. He says he drinks this every day, sometimes cut with a measure of gin.
Hayashi claims not to be able to speak eloquently about blackcurrants, but his devotion to cassis shines through as he strolls around his orchard, describing the health benefits of these berries or showing how their leaves and branches have the most beguiling, almost herbal, mint-sharp fragrance.
“I’d like people to know we have delicious cassis growing in Aomori.” He pauses, and smiles. “I guess that’s about it.”
For more information, visit aomoricassis.com.