Each year, on the first Tuesday in August, the oldest surviving gooseberry show takes place at Egton Bridge in North Yorkshire. For over 200 years gardeners have competed for the title of Champion Grower of the largest gooseberry. It is a uniquely British competition – firstly to be growing fruit for size rather than flavour, and secondly in the fruit itself, a native of Britain and appreciated here more than anywhere else in the world.
The hobby of growing giant gooseberries was particularly popular in the industrial midland and northern counties and formalised in the nineteenth century via The Gooseberry Growers’ Register. At its peak in 1845 this recorded entries from 171 shows but today only the Egton Bridge Show and a group of about 7 small shows around Goostry in mid Cheshire survive. To achieve the largest berry the bushes are drastically pruned, with most of the fruit removed, so that all of the plant’s energy is concentrated into the few remaining berries – what a waste of the rest of the fruit!
Whilst gooseberries were mainly a fruit grown by the working classes, the Victorians brought them to wider popularity when they began growing them commercially. Today it seems that they are once again becoming a speciality available only to those who grow their own, remaining popular with allotmenteers, but having fallen out of favour commercially.
This gulf between foods that are now found only in private gardens and those available via supermarkets was the very thing that first induced me to try gardening. A decade ago I needed to source new bushes for our own garden to replace the ones that have been in existence for at least 50 years and experienced first hand how hard it is to find the traditional varieties. In 1831, the entries for the Gooseberry Growers’ Association competition recorded 171 different varieties, most of them unknown today. Whilst size was the major consideration back in 1831, today we appear more concerned with mildew-resistance, despite the fact that this is relatively easy to avoid, and just two varieties, Hinnomaki and Invicta, predominate. I have already planted, and enjoyed, a Hinnomaki Red, said to be similar to the old Whinham’s Industry, but I am loathe to lose our heritage by replacing entirely with modern varieties. Deciding which heritage varieties to plant is made all the harder by the fact that you are unlikely to have had the opportunity to taste them and so need to place your faith in the written accounts of yore. What follows are some of my considerations thus far.
The Gooseberry Season
The August date of the shows indicates the conclusion of the season, although Edward Bunyon in The Anatomy of Dessert recommends the variety Lancer for late consumption saying… “as August gooseberries are in such demand when schools break up, lateness is a virtue which can hardly be overrated”. I don’t remember ever demanding gooseberries when I was a child, but clearly if you are planting a number of bushes it makes sense to spread the season.
Tradition dictates that the first gooseberries are eaten at Whitsun (end of May), when raised, suet crust, gooseberries pies were made. These pies, famed particularly in Oldbury, Gloucestershire, are quite an oddity today – they look like a pork pie, but containing gooseberries sweetened with sugar. They would certainly have needed plenty of sugar, even if the intention was for them to be more of a savoury dish, as the end of May is exceptionally early to be picking gooseberries. The main season is throughout July and the earliest varieties I have found (Early Sulphur and May Duke) ripen in late June.
Like apples, gooseberries are designated as either dessert or culinary although I have been told that any gooseberry becomes a dessert gooseberry (i.e. one that could be eaten straight from the bush) if left to ripen for long enough. Nonetheless gooseberries are usually bred for one purpose or the other, culinary gooseberries are normally green in colour, ripening perhaps to yellow, whilst dessert gooseberries are more likely to be red or possibly white. It makes a lot of difference to the success of a recipe to start with the right type as no amount of sugar can compensate for a lack of sweetness in what is supposed to be a dessert gooseberry.
Other considerations are whether you like your fruit hairy (apparently no longer fashionable) or smooth; small or large (vital if you intend entering competitions); the bushes with or without spines – they can be quite vicious spikes that make the fruit difficult to pick although they are present on most old varieties. The biggest selection I have found are from R V Rogers Ltd: www.rvroger.co.uk .
The pairing of gooseberries with elderflower is a classic, and deservedly so, but further confounds my thoughts on the earliest picking date. Whitsun is also, approximately, when the first elderflowers appear, but despite photographs in cookery books of gooseberries being cooked with the flower heads, only once, after a particularly harsh spring in 2021, did I find the two crops at the same time. Usually I am able to enjoy this flavour combination only by making elderflower syrup and keeping it until the gooseberries ripen, usually a full month later. Whilst by the time the gooseberries are ripe elderflower are over, Meadowsweet is in bloom. It does not have the same muscat flavour and scent as elderflower, but I do like the combination of the sweet liquorice flavour of meadowsweet with gooseberries, and it also cuts down on the amount of sugar needed.
Most of my preferred recipes for elderflower are sweet, but if we rewind for a moment to the savoury uses, whilst I’m not sure how exactly you would classify the Oldbury Gooseberry Tart with its savoury pastry and sweet filling, the idea of gooseberries in a raised pork pie does appeal and is something I intend to experiment with. Gooseberry Sauce with Mackerel is my favourite savoury use of the fruit.
The best sweet gooseberry pie I have eaten is with a meringue topping. I first cooked this from a recipe in Mark Hix’s British Seasonal Food, but have subsequently seen the idea in Jane Grigson’s earlier Fruit Book. Gooseberry Fool is another classic, although it has to be said that it is not such a favourite with me as a Rhubarb Fool. Whilst I make the latter using just good unpasteurised Jersey Cream, I think a Gooseberry Fool is helped by incorporating homemade custard in an equal proportion to the cream. This mixture frozen to make ice cream, flavoured always with elderflower cordial, is sublime, but make sure that the gooseberries you use are of the dessert variety.
Because gooseberries varies considerably both in sweetness and the amount of liquid exuded, most recipes begin by precooking the fruit to allow adjustment. Surplus juice, being high in pectin, is ideal for making jellies. I give a recipe for gooseberry and meadowsweet jelly with wild strawberries to top scones, but the same combination would also be good set with gelatine in a glass.
See detailed recipes here.