The British summertime is often represented by the one of our finest fruits, the strawberry. This wonderful sweet extravagance has, over many years, formed an almost symbiotic relationship with the British identity. However, during the months of June and July the strawberry does take more than its far share of the summer berry limelight; and the most noticeable loser in this unfortunate case of overshadowing has been the long suffering British gooseberry.
Gooseberries are one of our greatest, and yet, one of the most underused of all of our native fruits. Their range and versatility makes them the ideal summer fruit for pies, crumbles, jams, jellies, sauces, salads, stews and cordials. Unfortunately, in the last 5 or 10 years we have seen their place in British culinary consciousness slowly evaporate. With reliable supplies now dwindling, it is perhaps time to begin to ‘sing their praises’ with the hope of generating a contemporary resurgence in their fortunes.
Gooseberries have been grown in the UK since at least the 13th Century, although there is some evidence that the Romans had used them for medicinal purposes many centuries earlier. They were historically known as grosberries or feaberries, the latter being a colloquial term that has survived to the present day in some regional dialects. From the late 16th Century onwards they provided the basis for much scientific and gastronomic interest, with Herbalists such as John Parkinson and Nicholas Culpeper exploring both their culinary and medicinal potential. Gervase Markham also valued their unique taste, as did Hannah Glasse and Eliza Acton, something to which many of their recipes will testify.
Traditionally, gooseberries were a ‘cottager’s plant’, grown in the private gardens of small dwellings, until the Victorians began to grow them at a much larger commercial scale. A long history of smaller domestic growers in the Midlands, Cheshire and Lancashire lasted well into the 20th Century. Across these regions local gooseberry competitions were often commonplace, with a winning gooseberry in a Staffordshire show of 1852 once weighing in at nearly two ounces. The tradition of cultivating oversized gooseberries can still be found today in the form of The Gooseberry Project, a recent educational venture developed by The Blackden Trust in Cheshire.
Gooseberries are the first native fruit to appear in late spring and their tendency to grow in hedgerows and copses makes them readily available from late May onwards, if you know where to look. As well as their wild incarnations, they are also cultivated on many fruit farms and domestic settings throughout the UK, with the best offerings being often slightly larger than those grown in the wild.
There are a number of cultivars (varieties) within the main plant genus, with Invitca (pale green) being the most common. This is perhaps due to its high resistance to mildew and pests, something that is of great importance to both commercial and domestic growers. Other varieties include Careless, the golden tinged Keepsake and the sweet red Whinham’s Industry, most of which hold the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
As we have already stated, their culinary uses stretch far and wide, although the earlier wild flushes tend to be much more tart than the later summer sweeter pickings, a pattern that dictates their use in the kitchen. The earlier crops are often referred to as ‘cookers’, meaning that they are best suited for use in cooking dishes (pies, crumbles, jams etc.), with the obvious addition of sugar, and the latter for sweet deserts and salads or eating fresh.
Historically, the use of fruit (both fresh and dried) to sweeten or add flavour to dishes was much more widespread than perhaps we are accustomed to today. Due to the nature of their wild availability, gooseberries were often used in the medieval kitchen to provide complementary flavour to fattier meat dishes, such as hogget and mutton. One can see the lineage of this style of cooking even as late as the 19th Century in dishes like Eliza Acton’s Spring Stew of Veal, which makes good use of those earlier tarter wild gooseberries from late spring. There is also a long tradition in the North of England of using gooseberries to complement mackerel.
No matter what use is made of them gooseberries always provide that unique British taste and flavour. Their range and versatility is unquestionable, they just need to be given a chance. If there is one lesson that we can learn from history then it has to be the need to restore the British ‘goosegog’ to its rightful place in the great pantheon of our summer fruits.