The Wonders of Cassis

This is another in a series I'm writing for the North Coast Journal based on my book in progress, The Drunken Botanist.

Cassis tasting
(Your intrepid reporter at the Cassissium.  Notice the pen and notebook. This is work.  Really.)

After a week spent touring distilleries in France, Scott and I had come to suspect that anything called a museum must receive special benefits:  tax cuts, subsidies, an extra-long vacation every August.  It seemed like every distillery had created an official museum devoted to their product.  The museum was often nothing more than a few glass cases in the gift shop, but a smiling woman in a blazer and a badge stood nearby, ready to hand us a brochure in our choice of language and give us a guided tour of the glass cases. 

We took the tours seriously. I was doing actual research for a book, so I accepted the brochure, took notes, and snapped photographs.  We saw many sepia photos of handsome French men standing in front of barns—the founders of the distilleries, we were told, and proof that their now-legendary elixirs came from humble origins. There were also farm implements, strange twisted bits of copper distilling equipment, and tattered Art Deco posters of the sort that you now see adorning the walls at Applebee’s, except that these were the originals. And there were crusty old bottles filled with murky liquids that we would not be invited to taste.

Once we realized that every distillery possessed such a museum, we’d come to feel that participating in the so-called tour made us unwitting accomplices in a French tax evasion scheme.  It was like that feeling you get on Facebook when you “like” a post about a particular microbrew and realize that you’re participating in a giant marketing survey, spending your precious hours entering data free of charge that will be sold to corporations for an enormous profit, in exchange for the ability to share Daily Show clips with your friends—but then you push that realization away and you keep putting in those volunteer hours anyway.

So by the time we arrived in Nuits-St.Georges, just outside Dijon, we were quite jaded about the distillery museum. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at the Cassissium, France’s national museum of the black currant, and found ourselves in a slick, museum-like lobby being offered a headset and urged to join the short introductory film, which was just underway in a sizable auditorium down the hall.  There we watched an animated black fruit expound upon its historical significance and nutritional benefits, all of which was awkwardly translated to English subtitles for our benefit.  The French take their cassis seriously.

Cassis museum

The tour that followed took us past several rooms filled with the usual glass cases, and then into a monstrous distillery where black currants were crushed by the ton and macerated in a clear and very boozy eau-de-vie, then watered down with sugar syrup until it reached about 20 percent alcohol and was ready to bottle.

This is creme de cassis.  I’m going to bet that many of you have never had it, or if you have, you didn’t make it part of your regular drinking routine.  I intend to change that.

Black currants (Ribes nigrum) are native to Europe and not widely grown or eaten here.  Currants (not to be mistaken for the very small, seedless raisins that Americans confusingly also refer to as currants) have an overpowering tartness and an indescribable—well, currantness—that doesn’t appeal to our palate.  This is a shame, because black currants are very high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and cassis is unambiguously delightful and perfect for these unexpectedly warm, bright fall afternoons we are enjoying right now.

A good liquor store probably has a couple of dusty bottles of French cassis in stock. Read the label carefully and make sure you’re not buying something artificial.  You want a bottle that contains nothing but fruit, sugar, water, and spirit.  Once you find it, do what the people at the Cassissium recommend and turn it over, then watch the cassis run down the inside of the bottle.  If it coats the glass and slides down in a slow, languorous, syrup-like fashion, you’ve got the right stuff. (Online options include K&L, DrinkUpNY, and Astor Wine & Spirits.)

An even better option is Clear Creek Distillery’s cassis, made in Portland from black currants grown in Scio, Oregon.  (Everything Clear Creek makes is worth drinking, and if you go to Portland, make time for a stop at their tasting room – minus the museum.)  A bottle costs just over twenty dollars and will certainly get you through the winter.

Now, what do you do with it?  You pour a dollop into a glass and then add white wine, sparkling wine, hard cider, or beer.  That’s right, beer. Here’s how this works:

Kir: A kir is a splash of cassis in white wine.  If you tell the people at the Cassissium that you are from California, they will lecture you very sternly about never, ever mixing their beautiful cassis with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. This is an atrocity, an epic clash of fruit in the glass, and an insult to all of French culture.  (At least, that’s what I think they said.)  They recommend a white Burgundy (of course they do), but I’d try it with any dry, mineraly white wine.  Actually, I think that what you’re going to do is buy whatever white wine you like, throw a little cassis in, and call it awesome.  That’s fine with me.  We’ve let the French have had their say, so now we can do as we please.

Kir Royal:  Do the same thing, only with sparkling wine.  One of the great benefits of cassis is that it will greatly improve a mediocre sparkling wine—but this is not to suggest that you should go out and buy the cheapest possible fizzy stuff. There’s a limit to how much alcohol (or calories) a person should reasonably consume in a day; don’t waste your allotment on junk.  I am very happy with the Segura Viudas Brut that the Co-op sells for eight bucks; try that if you’re on a budget.  And by all means, do not pollute a bottle of very fancy Champagne with cassis.  It will not make fancy Champagne any fancier; it will simply change a flavor that some winemaker worked very hard to perfect. So choose a middle-of-the-road bubbly.

Kir Normand or Kir Cidre:  Called a “cider and black” in the UK, this is hard cider with cassis. Yum.

And about that beer….In the UK, a “snakebite and black” is equal parts lager and cider with cassis. Some people add a little cassis to Guinness or another stout.  Beer drinkers, commence experimentation. Salúd!