Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Gooseberries

@atatreedy via Twenty20

When I mentioned to a friend I would be writing about gooseberries, she said, "Well, I don't know about the berry, but I can tell you that geese can break your leg with one thwap and that they're terrifying." While it's true that geese can be vicious, my friend represents the fact that the gooseberry has somehow shirked familiarity in the United States and is largely lacking appreciation. This absence of popularity could be due to early 1900s federal law that banned gooseberry cultivation due to their being carriers of a fungal disease that could attack white pines - of which we Americans are very protective. The restrictions likely curbed their recognition, making gooseberries a little known delicacy. Yet, with their subtle, tart flavor and their seductive appearance, we should really get in on the gooseberry jam-boree and give the gooseberry its due. 

A Brief History of Gooseberries

American varieties of gooseberries are native to Canada and the northern United States, whereas European strains of gooseberries are native of North Africa, Eastern Europe and western Africa. There is little evidence of their being cultivated before 1500, though The Oxford Companion to Food places the gooseberry's earliest record as being from England in the year 1276. The reference is said to have been from a fruit retailer's bill given to the court of King Edward I (all the more reason to save those receipts, people) and was for gooseberry bushes from France. Though France is not actually known for their gooseberries, the Brits apparently made quite the use of said request from the French, as the gooseberry remains popular there to this day. So popular in fact, that starting in the 18th century "gooseberry clubs" started erupting in which farmers competed over the size and flavor of their gooseberries. The competitions are remarkably still in existence and a few even made their way to the US. In North America, a wild species of gooseberry was eaten by Native American tribes until gooseberries brought over from Europe become the preferred favorite. That is, until US legislation restricted their cultivation when it was discovered that the European variety carried disease.

Factual Nibbles

  • "Gooseberry" is British slang for a third wheel, particularly an unwelcomed addition to a romantic twosome.
  • Not to be mistaken for ground or husk cherries, the gooseberry - sometimes called the Peruvian or Cape ground cherry, just to really befuddle you - is its very own entity.
  • To further confuse, the kiwi was formerly referred to as a Chinese gooseberry, though kiwis and gooseberries are not related.
  • Much like the obligatory stork story, the British are known for telling their children babies were "Born under a gooseberry bush." 

Gooseberry Cultivation

The gooseberry is in the Grossulariaceae family, which also includes currants, and is of the genus Ribes. There are several species of gooseberry, though R. grossularia is the most commonly cultivated in the US and Europe. Gooseberries grow on medium-sized bushes, many of which have cranky thorns to be wary of.  Gooseberries are cultivated in temperate climates, mostly in Europe and North America. They grow and are eaten locally in Asia, but are not cultivated there. Gooseberries thrive best in northern cool and moist climates, making them heartier than your average berry.

Seasonality

In the US, gooseberries are in season from June through August, depending on the variety and where you are located. 

Environmental Impact 

Since gooseberries are a rarity in the United States and are a specialty crop, they have a negligible environmental impact. However, finding organically grown gooseberries is a real challenge - as is finding gooseberries generally. Also, as gooseberries are almost entirely regionally sourced, they seldom have impacts due to transport.

Gooseberries are susceptible to a disease known for doing damage to white pines, which can upset certain ecosystems, leading to the early 1900s legislation. The federal law banning cultivation was lifted in 1966 and the legislation has been state-by-state mandated since. Efforts are being made to breed disease-resistant varieties of European gooseberries, though regulations still exist in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Gooseberry Characteristics and What to Look for

Gooseberries are not widely available in conventional supermarkets, and are even challenging to find at your local farmers' market. There are many species of gooseberry and they range in color as well as size. Gooseberries can be so dark red they are nearly black, and go along the spectrum of different shades of red into shades of green (a color blind person's nightmare, really). The most common varieties are grape-sized and while some varieties are smooth, others are somewhat fuzzy. The flavor of the raw gooseberry could fairly be described as pucker-inducing.

Nutrition and Effects on the Body

100 grams of gooseberries will provide 4.3 grams of dietary fiber and is a solid source of Vitamin C, covering 33 percent of your daily allotment.

What to Do With Gooseberries and How to Cook Them

Gooseberries can be popped into the mouth raw, though their tartness isn't everyone's cup of gooseberry-tea. Most recipes call for adding sugar and cooking gooseberries, similar to the way we treat rhubarb (but without the poisonous side effects). Gooseberries are most traditionally used in an English fool, a simple and classic dessert made from fresh fruit and sweetened whipped cream. Additionally, they are often prepared as a sauce to accompany a fatty meat, especially that of goose, causing some to wonder if that is where the gooseberry gets its name. Gooseberries also hold up beautifully in a tart or crumble, and make for a sassy and sophisticated cocktail or sorbet (especially with the addition of elderflower liquor in either or both).

Storing Gooseberries

Gooseberries can be stored covered in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. They also freeze well since they are predominantly used in cooked dishes.

Stretching Your Food Dollar Through Preservation

Spreading gooseberry preserves on buttery toast is an invigorating experience. If you're like me and enjoy a zingy start to your morning, making gooseberry jam is an excellent use of a gooseberry bush. The BBC (told you this is a British thing) has a classic Gooseberry Jam recipe, but for a cut-to-the-chase version, try this recipe by Kitchn. Chef Heidi Fink has a Spiced Gooseberry Chutney recipe, which is a great accompaniment to a meat dish or makes for a mean addition to a grilled cheese made with sharp cheddar.

Recipe: Gooseberry Crumble

Nothing is quite as summery as a tart crumble on a sweltering July evening - preferably eaten on a porch swing while you listen to the chirpers. This simple gooseberry crumble is goosed (if you'll excuse the expression) with ginger or elderflower liquor. For a heartier late summer rendition, the gooseberries can be halved with apples.

Ingredients:

3 cups gooseberries
2 tablespoons elderflower or ginger liqueur (or 1 tablespoon of each)
3/4 cup sugar
1 ½ cups flour, plus 3 tablespoons for fruit coating
1 cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup softened butter

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 370F and butter a 9x13 inch baking dish.
  2. Toss gooseberries with liqueur, 3 tablespoons of flour, and sugar (use less sugar if you prefer a more tart flavor) and place in baking dish.
  3. Combine oats, remaining flour, salt, and softened butter in a bowl. Smoosh together using your fingertips.
  4. Sprinkle the crumble topping evenly over the fruit mixture.
  5. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the crisp is browning and the gooseberries are bubbling.
  6. Let cool slightly before serving with a scoop of vanilla ice cream (optional, but highly recommended...)

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