I take little pleasure in gathering gooseberries; they are a devil to pick. The low green bush is full of fierce thorns that protrude at every angle. The gooseberries themselves are a bit icky themselves, slightly softly hairy, dangling in pairs like bollocks, swollen almost taut but with some softness so that you can’t help but give each one a little squeeze as you pick. Hold them up to the sun and they are almost translucent, you can see their insides, their veins and their small seeds which is both magical and disturbing. The bitter sourness of an uncooked gooseberry should therefore be of little surprise. It is almost the final insult for all the trouble taken to harvest it.
The gooseberry is a decidedly unwoke kind of fruit, not part of the clean eating stratosphere, not recognised as a superfood, it has fallen far from the food fashion tree. I didn’t even see any available at all in any supermarkets during its early summer season. Gooseberries are just not cool. They languish in a time forgotten. Grown in this country since the thirteenth century they were once beloved of the Victorians before rhubarb stole their crown. Mrs Beeton was a big fan writing ‘the high state of perfection to which it has been here brought is due to the skill of the English gardeners; for in no other country does it attain the same size and flavour. The humidity of the British climate, has doubtless to do with the result…Malic and citric acid blended with sugar, produce the pleasant flavour. of the gooseberry.’ Incidentally she paired her gooseberries with mackerel long before Hugh, Gordon et. al.. They remind me of my nan. Demijohns full of gooseberry wine, sitting in neat rows in her large garden shed, a hand written label giving the year, accumulating cobwebs and maturing in its own unique way.
At one time gooseberries were so popular there were gooseberry clubs, holding annual shows and competitions for the heaviest berries. Such was the popularity of competitive gooseberry growing in the nineteenth century that there was a national publication; The Gooseberry Growers Register. In 1843 the register listed 148 shows to 171 in 1845.Thereafter the popularity of the pastime had started to decline. In 1896 there were only 73 shows and the First World War sounded the death knell. By 1915 there were only 8 results recorded. The Register ceased publication altogether in 1916. Today there is there is only the Egton Bridge Show and a group of about 7 small shows in mid Cheshire, around Goostrey, clinging on to their tradition.
The phrase “to play gooseberry” comes from the days when the fruit was a euphemism for the devil. One ancient belief tells how fairies would shelter from danger in the pickly bushes. This is how gooseberries became known as fayberries. More recently ‘to be the gooseberry’ stems from a time when chaperones would accompany upstanding young women on their dates. The expression alludes to the role of the chaperone, who had to be present and within earshot of the romantic couple but had also to pretend to be otherwise occupied – if outside the chaperone might be pretend to picking flowers or fruit, but why specifically the gooseberry is unexplained.
We inherited our fruitcage so I don’t know the exact variety of gooseberries (I’m assuming ‘Invictus’) but after two years of no gooseberries (thanks to sawfly) this year heralded a bumper crop. We have green gooseberries, but you can get red, white and yellow ones. Different types are good for different things – some are cookers, some eaters. Besides the classic gooseberry fool, my favourite recipe is the humble gooseberry compote. Simply top and tail the furry little orbs and place in a saucepan on a low heat. Whichever recipe you follow you never need as much sugar as they suggest. Begin with a little and once the goosegogs have softened add more to taste. The right balance will give you sweet and sour without either dominating. You can always jazz it up with elderflower or vanilla but I like it plain. They’re perfect for breakfast with a dollop of yogurt and a swirl of honey, for pudding with shortbread and a drizzling of cream, or like Mrs B, for your main with fresh grilled mackerel.
For all the gooseberry’s current inherent uncoolness, I think its time will come again. They have been shown in preclinical studies to potentially possess, anti-fever, anti-pain, anti-cough, anti-artery-clogging, anti-stress, heart-protective, stomach-protective, anti-anemia, anti-cholesterol, wound-healing, and anti-diarrheal properties. Phew. Gooseberries may be effective for diabetes sufferers in bringing sugar levels down into the normal range. They are high in the phytonutrient pyrogallol, which appears to reduce inflammation while boosting immune and anticancer function. In addition by adding a teaspoon of gooseberry powder to a breakfast smoothie or other recipe, one can get a powerful and inexpensive boost of antioxidants and other nutrients. Clearly the Victorians were on to something.