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Gooseberries: a fleeting British treat

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It’s not easy to find fresh gooseberries in the shops. Even though they have a long history of being grown in Britain, fewer and fewer UK farms are growing them commercially. Gooseberries are to be found on most allotments, though, as these tough bushes provide a good harvest from very little maintenance. More than 3,000 cultivars have been developed since the 1700s (according to the RHS), of which about 150 are still in cultivation.

We often hear about fruits and vegetables that were cultivated by the rich in their walled gardens, with an army of gardeners handing over produce to the cook, but gooseberries have a different history in the UK. They weren’t popular with the rich, but instead were keenly cultivated by cottage gardeners. Gooseberry breeding became a passion of ordinary people, such as handloom weavers, aiming to increase the weight of the berries.

In the 1700s, gooseberry societies were formed in Cheshire, Lancashire, and parts of Yorkshire and the Midlands, and began holding annual shows. In 1786, records showed that the weight of the prizewinning gooseberries was around 10 pennyweights, about twice the size of the wild berry.

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In 1845 there were 171 registered gooseberry shows in the UK; the number is down to just 11 now, with 10 of those in Cheshire. The current world record for a gooseberry stands at over 40 pennyweights (nearly 65g!), and was set in 2013.

It is to be noted that these berries are bred for show, not eating! For Lubera, Markus prefers dessert varieties with fruit that can be eaten straight from the bush, and which have better resistance to mildew. He recommends Golding, a highly productive yellow variety with very big fruit that are sweet and juicy, and Darling  - which has smaller, red fruits, but Markus thinks it’s just about the best-flavoured variety he’s ever bred. Nibbling is the latest addition to the family, with red fruit that ripen a bit earlier and are perfect for snacking on in the garden! But there are lots more Lubera gooseberry varieties to choose from, so have a look for yourself.

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Once you’ve grown your gooseberries, there’s plenty of recipes for dealing with them, so you don’t have to worry about a glut! My dad likes to turn them into gooseberry fool, which is a chilled dessert with stewed gooseberries stirred into whipped cream to produce a fluffy ‘ripple’ effect. Some recipes also include custard, or you can make them slightly more virtuous by using Greek yoghurt. When I had my allotment, I turned the fruit from our inherited gooseberries into a sorbet; in a typical British summer (ha ha!) a nice, hearty gooseberry crumble or pie may be more appropriate.

In the first of his live Facebook videos this year, Markus talked about his love for gooseberry jam, which is a classic conserve to make with gooseberries, if you have enough to preserve. In her new book, The Jam Maker’s Garden, Holly Farrell has a lovely recipe for Gooseberry Cheese, which can be eaten as a jammy dessert, but can also be sliced to accompany cooked meats or cheese. The publishers have kindly given me permission to reproduce it here for you:

Gooseberry cheese

This cheese, though it could just as easily be sliced to accompany cold meats or a cheese board, is rather nice as a jammy take on the more usual gooseberry fool. Make the cheeses in small individual ramekins or moulds, then turn them out into a bowl to serve. Give your guests a jug of rich, thick pouring cream and, hey presto, an instant, no-fuss dessert perfect for early summer. Alternatively, pot into jars as usual. Use your first or second gooseberry harvest.

MAKES ABOUT 600G/1LB 5OZ

INGREDIENTS

·      1kg gooseberries, topped and tailed

·      150ml pint water

·      granulated sugar (250g per 400ml of pulp; see method)

·      sunflower or other unflavoured oil

 

METHOD

·      Put the gooseberries into a large pan with the water. Simmer gently over a low–medium heat, stirring often, until the fruit is soft.

·      Push the entire contents of the pan through a sieve into a clean pan.

·      Add the appropriate amount of sugar and stir until it has all dissolved.

·      Over a medium heat, boil very gently until the mixture is reduced and thick. Stir often to stop it sticking to the base (take care – it will spit). The mixture is ready when you can part it, to leave a clean track on the base of the pan.

·      Meanwhile brush the insides of clean, sterilized ramekins with a very thin layer of the oil.

·      Pour the mixture into the ramekins and tap or stir to release any air bubbles in the corners. Cover with wax discs or oiled greaseproof paper cut to fit.

·      Once cool, wrap the ramekins tightly in clingfilm and store until needed. Take them out an hour or so before serving.

Alternatively, pot the hot mixture into warm, sterilized jars.

 STORE

·      Ramekins: in the refrigerator

·      Jars: in a cool, dry, dark place

 

  KEEPS

·      Ramekins: for a month or more

·      Jars: for a year or more

 

Recipe extracted from The Jam Maker’s Garden by Holly Farrell with photography by Jason Ingram, published by Frances Lincoln, an imprint of The Quarto Group.

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 (There’s also a recipe for Gooseberry and Elderflower cake in Holly Farrell’s earlier book, Grow Your Own Cake, which is full of recipes for turning fruit and vegetables into sweet treats.)

With a brief season and a short shelf life, you really have to grow your own to get your hands on this very British, ephemeral delight. How do you eat yours?

Emma Cooper

 

 
 
 
 

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