Dear Readers, it’s the short gooseberry season again, and yesterday I got carried away and purchased not only some ordinary green ones, but some of these rather fine red ones too. Personally I like the way that their lip-puckering sourness can be tempered with sugar and cream, and find it a perfect foil to something fatty like mackerel. However, like liver, rhubarb and brussel sprouts it’s one of those foods that definitely splits the crowd.
Gooseberries are a member of the currant family, and have been in the UK since at least the 13th century, though they weren’t recorded in the wild until 1763. Their Latin name, Ribes uva-crispa, literally means ‘curved grape’, and they are very grape-like, apart from those prickly hairs. The name ‘goose berry’ is harder to fathom, though having seen geese munching on blackberries at Walthamstow Wetlands last week it wouldn’t surprise me if waterfowl sometimes found them a tasty snack. Some people believe that the ‘goose’ is a corruption of the word ‘groseille’ from the French word for currant, but the Oxford English Dictionary is firmly on the side of a goose being a goose. In some parts of the UK they’re known as ‘goosegogs’.
Now, how about the folkloric story that babies are found under a gooseberry bush? Charming as this is (and much easier than going through all that labour business as any mother will tell you), in the 19th century ‘gooseberry bush’ was apparently slang for pubic hair – I suspect that the hairiness of the berries probably contributed to the phrase.
I have looked in vain for the origin of the phrase ‘playing gooseberry’ (i.e accompanying a courting couple in the role of chaperone or general spoilsport). It’s first recorded in 1837, and the explanation given then is that the third party would have been ‘innocently’ involved in some other occupation (such as picking gooseberries) whilst the couple talked, while all the time taking note of everything that was said. Another interpretation is that the third party deliberately took themselves off so that the couple could be together. In all of this, the role of the poor gooseberry plant is rather obscure, but such is language – for some reason, phrases stick and their original meaning is lost in the fog. Suffice to say that when I was growing up, being a ‘gooseberry’ was considered to be being an unwanted hanger-on. Do let me know if you have or had an alternative meaning for the phrase! It all makes my head spin a little.
I also like the story from the Plant Lore website of a Dorset grandmother who used the phrase ‘may the skin of a gooseberry cover all of your enemies’. Indeed, and what a picture that conjures up! The same page describes how a cure for a stye (boil) on the eyelid was to prick it every day with the prickle from a gooseberry. Apparently an alternative cure was to have a widow touch the stye with her gold wedding ring, which must have taken a bit of persuading.
The flowers of the gooseberry are rather unusual, purplish-brown in colour and, to my eye at least, rather alien-looking.
Originally, gooseberries come from the area to the east of France right the way through to the Himalayas and India. It’s unclear whether the Romans ever ate them, but they do seem to have had a reputation for medicinal value, with the juice being used to treat fever – one alternative English name is ‘Fea-berry’. In the wonderful ‘Modern Herbal’ by Mrs Grieves, she describes gooseberry juice as
‘sub-acid and is corrective of putrescent foods, such as mackerel or goose‘.
The leaves were thought to be a treatment for ‘gravel’ (presumably gallstones), and an infusion was thought to be useful to alleviate period pain.
The gooseberries found wild in the UK are probably the descendants of those grown for food or medicine, and are largely bird-sown, with thrushes not seeming to mind the sourness of the fruit. I wonder if birds, like cats, have no way of detecting sweetness? I shall have to investigate. Clearly they can distinguish colour, as they normally prefer ripe fruit, but I wonder if that’s because of its nutritional value rather than its taste?
Anyhow, birds are not the only creatures who like gooseberries: in North America, bears eat the berries (clearly they have a sweet tooth), and foxes, raccoons and coyotes browse the foliage. Amongst the smaller animals, in the UK the caterpillars of the magpie moth, comma butterfly and v-moth feed on the foliage.
Gooseberries are also greatly loved by the larvae of the gooseberry sawfly (Nematus ribesii), who are voracious little devils, and who are reputed to be able to strip a gooseberry bush of its foliage in a matter of days. Sawflies are not actually flies, but a member of the wasp, ant and bee family (Hymenoptera), and many adult sawflies are useful either as pollinators or as predators on other caterpillars in the garden. Sadly, this might be small comfort to someone whose gooseberry bush (not a euphemism) has been stripped by eager little sawfly larvae.
Now, if your gooseberries have survived, what do you do with them? The traditional uses are of course crumbles, jam, or a chutney-ish preserve to eat with cheese or the aforementioned mackerel (in French, gooseberries are groseille à maquereau or mackerel berries). I am spoilt for choice on recipes, but here is one for gooseberry, turmeric and frangipane tart that uses fresh turmeric (should you stumble across some), and here is a rather more accessible recipe for gooseberry crumble cake. And how about gooseberry and elderflower trifle? Very tasty.
And whoa, how about this for a poem! Simon Armitage, Poet Laureate of the UK, tells quite the story here. How many strange directions this takes! The commentary for the poet mentions that he is widely seen as the inheritor of Philip Larkin’s ‘Dark Wit’ . See what you think.
Simon Armitage – 1963-
Which reminds me. He appeared
at noon, asking for water. He’d walked from town
after losing his job, leaving me a note for his wife and his brother
and locking his dog in the coal bunker.
We made him a bed
and he slept till Monday.
A week went by and he hung up his coat.
Then a month, and not a stroke of work, a word of thanks,
a farthing of rent or a sign of him leaving.
One evening he mentioned a recipe
for smooth, seedless gooseberry sorbet
but by then I was tired of him: taking pocket money
from my boy at cards, sucking up to my wife and on his last night
sizing up my daughter. He was smoking my pipe
as we stirred his supper.
Where does the hand become the wrist?
Where does the neck become the shoulder? The watershed
and then the weight, whatever turns up and tips us over that
between something and nothing, between
one and the other.
I could have told him this
but didn’t bother. We ran him a bath
and held him under, dried him off and dressed him
and loaded him into the back of the pick-up.
Then we drove without headlights
to the county boundary,
dropped the tailgate, and after my boy
had been through his pockets we dragged him like a mattress
across the meadow and on the count of four
threw him over the border.
This is not general knowledge, except
in gooseberry season, which reminds me, and at the table
I have been known to raise an eyebrow, or scoop the sorbet
into five equal portions, for the hell of it.
I mention this for a good reason.
Photo One by By User:Ridinghag – photo made by myself, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26741565
Photo Two by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by By I, Karon ind, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2287476