Tart, juicy, and particularly well-suited to British climes, these little berries ignited a craze when they first arrived on our soils. Rosemary Barron predicts a return to favour.
Aconnection between gooseberries, tulips, postage stamps and the Beatles may not be immediately obvious but it’s there: they have all, at some point in their existence, provoked mania. The gooseberry craze began in England in the late 18th century and quickly spread to its recently-forfeited colony, America. Fortunes were spent (and lost), as gooseberries – striped in shades of pink, purple-red, green, yellow or white, pea- to egg-size, with or without stubbly hair – became the object of passion and frenzy. It is not clear how this mania began but there is plenty of evidence that, sometime around 1800, gooseberries took hold of the English imagination. Gooseberry societies appeared throughout the land and, across the ocean, US presidents declared their love of gooseberry pies and tarts.
These dishes were made with newer, sweeter varieties of gooseberries, cultivated from British stock (ribes grossularia), as indigenous American gooseberries (ribes
hirtellum) were smaller, with less flavour. In 1821 there were 300 commercial cultivars in Britain, ten years later this number had doubled. The gooseberry we are more familiar with now, with its appetising, mouth-puckering sweet-sour taste, was used only for sauces, sometimes replacing verjuice (a juice made from under-ripe grapes), or to complement strong meats and oily fish such as mackerel. Later in the 19th gooseberry and elderflower jelly and ice cream F&T Wine match Light, strawberry and rose petal-scented pink moscato (eg 2010 Innocent Bystander) century, when the sugar tax was abolished, this tart and flavourful gooseberry became popular in dessert dishes too.
The gooseberry is native to the high latitudes of Europe, Asia and America. It can also be found in alpine conditions and rocky landscapes from the Carpathians to the Himalayas, in north Africa, and on Norway’s western coast as far north as the Arctic circle. In Britain, gooseberry bushes are often found in copses, hedgerows and among old ruins, but the gooseberry has been cultivated for so long that it is difficult to distinguish wild bushes from feral ones. It thrives in the cool climate of northern England and Scotland but, down in the south, garden gooseberry bushes or cordons need protection from the summer sun.
Gooseberries first appeared in manuals around the middle of the 16th century, mostly in the context of medicine (gooseberry juice was recommended to help ward off the plague and as a general tonic) and ordinary garden culture. Etymologists disagree over the origin of the fruit’s name, arguing that it could be a corruption of an old German name, krausbeere, the Dutch word, kruisbezie or the French, groseille. It could also be something to do with the goose. As the French have no word for gooseberry (it’s known as groseille à maquereau, or ‘currant for mackerel’) and the 16th-century Dutch were skillful gardeners who would have exchanged information with their English counterparts, perhaps medieval Holland was responsible for the gooseberry’s name?
Over the next two centuries gooseberries became well-established in cottage gardens, especially in the northern counties, where factory workers took huge pride in their horticultural skills, and in the walled kitchen gardens of estates. In 1905, disaster struck in the form of a mildew accidentally imported from America and the European gooseberry crop was wiped out. As were many investors who had succumbed to the gooseberry craze. Gradually, and with the help of mildew-resistant American stock, old British cultivars have been re-established, and their evocative names – London (reddish-purple, sweet, and the unbeaten champion for years in the 19th century), golden drop (small, yellow, sweet, and as pretty as its name), (bred for its size), Lancashire lad, Lord Derby and pax (all shades of red), old rough ready, hairy amber, invicta (an old Montrosegreen varietal, the best for jam), and the late-summer leveler (yellowish-green, sweet) – can once again be found in fruit nurseries and garden centres.
Gooseberries do require some care in cultivation. They prefer slightly acidic, well-drained, heavily composted soil that’s rich in potassium. For a good crop (a mature gooseberry bush can produce more than 4kg of fruit), carefully prune the gooseberry bush in early winter and remove all the dead leaves from beneath it, for this is where mildew and caterpillars lurk. In spring, cover the bush with netting, unless you want those pretty robins sitting on your fence and eating your entire crop!
From the divinely-named gooseberry fool (meaning ‘nonsensical’) to an exquisitely-perfumed gooseberry and elderflower jelly, no other fruit so vividly represents the British summer table. Late-June tart gooseberries are ready to turn into delicious sauces for mackerel and chicken, and into jams and compotes. Sweeter dessert gooseberries ripen in early August: eat the best ones just as they are – top and tail them (using a small pair of scissors) and refrigerate for an hour, to chill slightly. All varieties of gooseberry can be turned into cakes and puddings, but slightly tart, more acidic fruits make flavourful wines, cordials and granita. When buying gooseberries, choose green fruits for cooking and softer, juicier ones for desserts. You can store them (unwashed) in the refrigerator for a few days (dessert fruits) or up to a week (green gooseberries). Or rinse and trim them, freeze on baking sheets, then pack the frozen berries in bags – ready for gooseberry fools in the winter, allowing you to enjoy them all year round.
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