The last in a quartet of gooseberry posts – I promise I will change the subject next post.
In my honest, humble opinion this is the best
gooseberry dessert recipe. It’s old-fashioned and simple to make – gooseberries
are baked with a little brown sugar and a knob or two of butter, all covered in
cake sponge. The berries are still very sharp and are perfectly balanced with
the warm, sweet sponge. This is much more superior to the better-known Eve’s
pudding – stewed cooking apples covered in sponge cake. I suspect this would work
excellently with blackcurrants.
This recipe crops up in my traditional English or British cookery books, but I first heard of it from Jane Grigson (as I have many dishes) in her book English Food.
For the pudding, you can make any amount of topping, it’s
dependent upon whether you like a thin or thick layer of sponge and the
dimensions of your baking dish. I used a soufflé dish of diameter around 7
inches/18 centimetres. I think this is a good amount for this size, and for
most family-sized dishes.
The sponge is made using the all-in-one method, so make sure
your butter is extremely soft to ensure a light topping.
Scatter the sugar and dot the butter on the bottom of your
baking dish and cover with the gooseberries; you are aiming for a generous
single layer of them.
Place the butter, flour, caster sugar and eggs in a bowl and
beat together with an electric mixer until the mixture is smooth and
well-combined. Using a large spoon or spatula, add the cake batter in big
spoonfuls over the gooseberries and level it, you don’t have to be very neat
here, the baking batter will flatted itself out.
Place in the oven and bake for around an hour until the top
is a deep golden-brown colour.
Serve immediately with custard or lightly-whipped cream sweetened with a little icing sugar.
I was kindly given part of a large crop of gooseberries by my friends Kit and Ellie, their two bushes have been prolific this year. Earlier in the summer, I used some of their underripe berries to make a sauce to accompany mackerel, but now they were large and quite sweet.
I made the lion’s share of them into gooseberry jam and
thought I would give you a recipe, as it is so easy to make, and you are
unlikely to find it in the shops. If you don’t know of any gooseberry bushes,
try a greengrocer – I have spotted them in quite a few shops this year.
The great thing about gooseberry jam is that the
gooseberries change in colour, adopting an appetising warm pinkish hue with the
intense heat of jam-making. This change is apparently due to the anthocyanins
in the gooseberries interacting with metal ions leached from the cooking vessel
Gooseberries are not as juicy as their red, white and blackcurrant relatives so they need a bit of extra added water to help dissolve the sugar. Gooseberries are high in pectin, especially when young, so there should be enough to set the jam. However, if they are late season and ripe, you might want to replace a small proportion of the sugar with jam sugar, which contains pectin, to give them a helping hand.
The jam I made is simple: gooseberries, sugar and water, but
if you have any of the extras in the ingredients list below, feel free to add
them if you like.
The jam makes a great roly-poly or Victoria sponge filling.
The quantities below makes around 1 litre of jam, and it is
easy to scale up or down depending upon the amount of gooseberries you have to
1 kg gooseberries, washed, topped and tailed
1 kg granulated sugar (or 800 g granulated and 200 g jam
sugar, if the gooseberries are ripe
500 ml water
Optional extras: A dozen elderflower heads wrapped in
muslin, a good bunch of sweet cicely tied with twine or replace 250 ml of the
water with Muscat wine.
Before you start, place a saucer in the freezer.
Place all the ingredients in a large, heavy based saucepan on a medium heat.
Stir occasionally and when all of the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up to bring the gooseberries to a really good boil. After around 15 minutes – by now they should have a pinkish tinge about them – test to see if you have got a set. Either take the jam’s temperature with a temperature probe and see if it is 105°C, or take a teaspoon of the mixture and place a few drops on your very cold saucer you had stored in the fridge, let it cool for a minute and see if the drops wrinkle when you push them with a finger.
You can use a candy thermometer instead of a probe, but I
find them imprecise. However, if you have a trusty one, by all means slot it
down the inside of jam before you start to boil it.
Leave the jam to cool for 15 minutes and skim any scum with
a large spoon or ladle.
Have some sterilised jars ready and ladle in the jam. A jam
funnel is helpful here. Alternatively, pour the jam into a Pyrex or stainless-steel
jug rinsed out with scalding water and carefully fill your jars. Seal when
still very hot.
Last post I wrote about the delicious gooseberry. Since I wrote it, I have seen them in quite a few shops, including Morrison’s, so I am feeling good about the gooseberry’s culinary future.
It is important to remember that gooseberries can be served
with meat and fish in rather the same way as tart Bramley apples are: oily fish
such as mackerel is the classic pairing, but I have found recipes that match it
with chicken, goose, pork and mutton or lamb. Sauces and stuffings are made
with the small new tart berries, with just a little sugar. The simplest sauce
being made from halved berries, chopped mint and sugar. The ingredients are
mixed, covered and left to macerate for several hours. Delicious with barbequed
mackerel or herring, and the fact it isn’t cooked means the gooseberries retain
their vibrant green colour.
I mentioned that in France it is known as the mackerel
currant, because it is only ever really served with the oily fish, and even then,
it’s considered particular only to Normandy. It did start life as an English
dish, but as there was much communication between England and Normandy during
the mediaeval period, it’s no surprise that they picked up some tips from the
English during centuries of toing and froing.
I’ve taken elements from three different recipes to come up with mine: Jane Grigson’s English Food (1992), Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families (1847) and Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1604). Talent borrows, genius steals and all that. Many of the ingredients are optional, so if you want a cleaner tasting sauce, omit the cream and maybe the butter too. If you are interested, there’s also a great recipe for a gooseberry stuffing for mackerel on my other blog.
It’s a delicious combination – simply grilled mackerel and
the tart sauce, and maybe a green salad on the side. It’s telling you that
summer is here! This pairing is largely forgotten now, but look in some older British
cookery books and you’ll see it crop up again and again.
Young, green, small gooseberries are required for recipes
that are served with savoury food – the later, large sweet ones are best used
in desserts (recipes for those coming soon).
250 g gooseberries, topped and tailed
50 ml water
50 ml white wine, or a dash of cider vinegar
50 g sugar, or to taste
good pinch of ground ginger
salt and pepper
a knob of butter (optional)
2 to 3 tbs double cream (optional)
Put the gooseberries, water, wine or vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and cook until the gooseberries go pale in colour and start to become very soft, crushing them against the side of your pan with a wooden spoon. Season with salt and pepper.
If you want a very smooth sauce with no seeds or pulp, whizz
the whole thing in a blender and pass through a sieve. I like to leave mine
with some texture, but it’s up to you. If you did pass it through a sieve put
it in a clean pan and put it over a medium heat.
Smooth or pulpy, beat in your butter with whisk or spoon
until it becomes glossy, then add the cream.
Add more sugar if you like – remember it isn’t supposed to
be sweet like apple sauce.
Serve alongside grilled or fried mackerel, but also pork,
chicken or goose.
‘Country life has its advantages’, he used to say, ‘You
sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and
everything smells good…and there are gooseberries.’
Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries,
The humble gooseberry is not the first of the British summer
fruits that springs to mind, but it is the first of the season, and I think it should
be celebrated just as much as the strawberry or blackcurrant.
It’s quite difficult to find gooseberries in the shops these
days – even good greengrocers don’t seem to sell them, which is odd, because they
keep better than any of our other soft fruits. I suppose one of the reasons for
its unpopularity is that they are usually sold when vibrant green, looking lovely
and fresh but tasting very sour and astringent. In this form they need to be
cooked and sweetened with sugar. Its other disadvantage is that it usually has
to be cooked, no competition amongst the huge variety of exciting dessert fruits
available. It’s a crying shame. Gooseberry season starts in June, but you have
to wait until July for them to ripen into dessert fruit. Patience is a virtue,
The gooseberry is usually a fruit more suitable for cooking, needing considerable sweetening for palatability unless a savoury accompaniment for meat or fish.
Laura Mason &
Catherine Brown, The Taste of Britain
The gooseberry is one of 150 species of the Ribes
genus, which also includes the smaller and daintier black, red and whitecurrants.
They can be found growing wild in patches of scrub all over Britain, so keep an
eye out wherever you see such areas on walks, there may be a hidden gooseberry
plant (I have my own a secret patch). Gooseberry shrubs are typically three for
four feet high, and as any gooseberry forager knows, somewhat spikey.
There are many cultivated varieties including two hybrids;
red and white gooseberry varieties have been crossed with red and whitecurrants
respectively. The hybrids make excellent dessert fruit, helpfully indicting
ripeness when they’ve achieved a good ruby or white colour.
Though looked over now, gooseberries were extremely popular and
have been cultivated in Britain since al least the Fifteenth Century. They were
important because they were the first soft fruit of the summer, cropping well
as far north as the Shetland and Orkney Islands. In the Midlands and Northern
England they were revered, a tradition of competitive growing quickly developing.
There was a single aim in these competitions: to grow the heaviest berry. These
clubs were widespread and at one point there was 170 growing clubs, a handful
still exist today in Yorkshire and Cheshire. To achieve heavy berries, by the
way, you must strip your shrub of berries as soon as they appear, leaving
behind a dozen so that the plant can put all its energy into growing just a few
Gooseberries are also known colloquially as feabes, feaberries,
carberries and wineberries – the latter name coming from the fact
they make excellent wine.
Aside from some parts of northern Europe, gooseberries haven’t
really travelled much further than Britain from a culinary point of view.
According to Jane Grigson, the French ‘have no name for them distinct from that
of redcurrants’. This does seem to be the case; the French word for redcurrant
is grosielle and when gooseberries are called for, they are called grosielle
maquereaux – the mackerel redcurrant.
Although sometimes served with goose, it is not the origin
of the gooseberry’s name as you might assume. It comes from the Old Norman/Middle
English groses or grosier, the old word for – wait for it – grosielle,
the French for redcurrant, so in effect we called gooseberries redcurrantberries!
All of these words come from the Frankish root krûsil
which means ‘crisp berry’, and the gooseberry certainly is that.
Yellow and red are dessert fruit, let them lie on the
hottest sunshine till warm through before serving – it brings out the sweetness
Dorothy Hartley, Food
Preparing and Cooking Gooseberries
Whether you are picking them or buying them, you need to know
how ripe your gooseberries are. This important because small, vivid green
gooseberries are best for accompanying savoury dishes, and large riper ones are
best made into puddings. I remember as a child, dipping raw, tart gooseberries
straight into the sugar bowl. I expect the Sugar Police would have something to
say about that these days.
To prepare your gooseberries, wash well with and top and
tail them with sharp scissors or pinching fingernails.
If you have lots of gooseberries, you can do several things.
Pop some straight into freezer bags or stew them with sugar, a little water and
a knob of butter and freeze that. I prefer to make jam or vinegar if I’m going
to preserve them. When they cook, they start to lose their colour and if boiled
very thoroughly, like for jam, they attain a lovely deep pink.
Gooseberry compote is very useful; it can be served simply with ice cream for a quick dessert, or baked in the oven as a pie, crumble or cobbler. A classic dessert is gooseberry fool, simply compote folded into lightly whipped, sweetened cream, or even better a mixture of custard and whipped cream.
Other desserts include steamed puddings and a delicious baked pudding rather like an Eve’s pudding: I shall be certainly posting a recipe for that. Old fashioned pies called Oldbury tarts made with hot water pastry used to be very popular. Sometimes the pies were filled with red or whitecurrant jelly, just like an old-fashioned raised pork pie – I bet they would be great served with cheese.
I cannot talk about the culinary potential of gooseberries
without mentioning elderflowers. I love their delicious sweet-musk scent and
add it to anything I possibly can. Back in the days of the restaurant, I made
an excellent elderflower blancmange with gooseberry compote and shortbread
biscuits, and I must say it was one of the best desserts I’ve ever made.
To add an elderflower air to your gooseberry dishes simply
tie up a few heads in muslin before dunking them in your gooseberries or whatever.
In the next few posts, I’ll show you some of the recipes I
have mentioned above, just in case you get a glut of them or spy a punnet in
Fine oranges well roasted with sugar and wine in a cup, they’ll make a sweet Bishop when gentlefolk sup.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
I spent part of the week in London this week and made sure I had a wander around the Tower Bridge area, my favourite part of the great city. The tiny roads are still so very evocative of Dickens with many of the street names and yards appearing in his writings. Much of Little Dorrit takes place in this area of London, but it was such a bitingly-cold day that it put me more in mind of the winter scenes described in Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.
At the very end of the story, when it dawns upon the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s nice to be nice, he offers his long-suffering clerk a well-deserved pay rise and some delicious steaming-hot smoking bishop:
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”
The Christmas Bowl:
Original illustration from A Christmas Carol by John Leech
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a heady hot boozy snifter and smoking bishop is the best of all, in my opinion. Everyone is sick of mulled wine these days – or at least I am – this is the way to go; a marvellous mixture of port, oranges and spices.
The drink is smoking because the oranges – preferably bitter Seville oranges – are roasted until blackened. The drink is a bishop because it is one of several drinks once known as ‘ecclesiasticals’; drinks named after various orders within the Catholic church. Indeed, if you substitute the port for claret, you have a smoking cardinal; better still, use champagne and you’ve got yourself a smoking pope! I have never tried these, but I think I might give smoking pope a go but using Prosecco instead. There was a spate of these somewhat anti-Catholic snifters during the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was just a wry dig, compared to what had happened in the past (e.g. this post). If you look up the recipe for a smoking bishop in Eliza Action’s classic 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, inset is an illustration of a mitre-shaped punch bowl into which it should be served!
A mitre-shaped punchbowl, from Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845
Many port drinks were created around this time too because France and England were tied into an out-of-control tit-for-tat game with tariffs for exports between the two countries, making French wine – the preferred drink at the time – too expensive for most people, and so eyes moved to Spain and it was soon Cheerio! Chateau Neuf de Pape and Hello! lovely port wine.
One of the reasons I don’t always like mulled wine is that it can be a little heavy on the spices. A smoking bishop uses fewer spices, in fact my recipe uses only one: cloves. The only other aromatics being the oils released from the burnt bitter orange rinds. Aside from that, just a little water and some dark brown sugar are added to taste.
It’s a delicious and easy drink to make, and you will never go back to mulled red wine again once you’ve tried it, so please give it a go; you won’t be disappointed!
Smoking bishop can be made ahead of time, strained, and reheated with great success.
One 750 ml bottle of port
3 oranges (Seville, if possible)
Dark brown sugar to taste
Place the oranges on a tray and bake at 200°C for around 25 minutes until they have started to blacken and give off their delicious burnt aroma. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before slicing them up.
Next, pour the full bottle of port into a saucepan (very satisfying to do) along with the oranges and any orange juicy bits, as well as the cloves and water.
Bring to a bare simmer – don’t let it boil! – and let it gently tick away at a scalding temperature (around 80°C) for around 20 minutes.
Add sugar to taste – if the oranges are very bitter and black, you might need quite a bit. If you don’t want bits of orange pulp and clove floating about in the drink, strain into a clean pan before adding the sugar.
If, in the unlikely event, you do not have a mitre-shaped punch bowl, you can simply ladle straight from the saucepan into punch glasses or small mugs.
It’s medlar (aka openarse) season at the moment, and I thought I would try the recipe I mentioned in the medlar post from last year.
There’s quite little to go on with medlar preparation in books and the internet as people don’t really eat or cook with them these days, beyond medlar jelly, so every year, I learn a little more about eating and cooking them.
This year I have been more patient and waited for them to get fully-bletted. Medlars are a strange fruit in that they cannot be eaten until they have gone very dark, ripe and soft, a process called bletting. Any other fruit would be thrown away in this state, but medlars are unique because they go from sour and astringent to a tart, soft date-like fruit. They can be sliced in two and the soft flesh can be squeezed or spooned out. Within there are 5 large seeds, so you have watch out for them.
This medlar tart recipe comes from the 1597 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson. It is a very simple paste made from medlar pulp, cinnamon, ginger and sugar baked in a pastry case. Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book:
Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling till it be somewhat thick. Then season them with sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.
Back in Tudor times (Elizabeth I was on the throne when the book was published), sugar was not always as refined as today, so to replicate this I used soft light brown sugar. I decided to use rough-puff pastry as my ‘paste’, as it was often used for the more delicate desserts and posh pies. I changed the method slightly and instead of thickening the medlar mixture in a pan, as you would for pouringcustard, I put the uncooked mixture into the case and baked it in the oven.
I did have a look for other recipes and found that things like butter, nutmeg, candied fruit or citron, sweet cider and musk powder (that final one might be a little tricky to source) were all added merrily.
This tart is very good indeed, evocative of the American pumpkin pie. I would certainly give it a go should you happen upon a medlar tree.
For the tart:
Blind-baked shallow 8-inch pastry case
750 g well-bletted medlars
75 g caster or soft light brown sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger
Cut the medlars and twist in half widthways, as you might do with an avocado (except there are 5 pips rather than one large one). Scoop or squeeze the soft flesh into a bowl, removing pips as you go. I tried to pass the squeezed flesh through a sieve, which was a little tricky and boring but realised quite quickly that I wasn’t patient enough and decided instead that the flesh was smooth enough straight from the fruit.
Beat in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the pastry case and bake for 20 minutes at 175°C.
Last post I told you all about the overlooked fruit the medlar (or openarse). It’s a tricky one as it can’t just be picked and eaten like most dessert fruits. The way to get the most of any medlars you do get your hands on is to make a jelly, a beautiful deep vermillion preserve which makes an excellent accompaniment to game, roast or cured meats and cheese.
I thought it would also be a good opportunity to go through the process of making a jelly preserve; something I have been threatening to do for a while. This recipe works well with the close relations of the medlar: the quince and the crab apple.
Choosing the fruit:
There is a bit of disagreement as to how ripe your medlars should be; some say only unripe medlars should be used, others that ¼ to ½ of them should be bletted (soft and brown). I have only ever used unripe ones – these produce a clear, bright jelly with an astringency comparable to strong tea. Next time, I’ll be patient and wait for a good proportion of them to blet.
Medlars are high in pectin, a chemical glue that sticks plant cells together. As fruit ripens, the pectin is broken down by enzymes making the fruit soft. When making a jelly, one needs to release the pectin by boiling the fruit until pulpy so that it can set the jelly. If using a lot of ripe fruit, I would suggest adding some crab apples or tart eating apples such as Cox’s orange pippins or russets. Alternatively, a proportion of the sugar can be replaced with jam sugar, ensuring a decent set.
Quince and crab apples do not have this problem and you should be okay.
It’s worth mentioning that if you only have a few medlars, quinces or crab apples, you can supplement with some regular apples and the resulting jelly will be still be great. I’ve made quince jelly with 50% apples before and it was delicious!
Ingredients and equipment:
Aside from the fruit, all you need is water, granulated sugar and some optional cider vinegar. I think a little vinegar cuts through the sweetness very well, but you can leave it out if you prefer.
I don’t add herbs and spices to medlar or quince jelly, but crab apple jelly can benefit from some subtle flavouring: things like rosemary and thyme work well as do cinnamon, cloves and black pepper.
Specialist equipment is easy to get hold of and inexpensive: you’ll need a good-sized sheet of muslin or a jelly bag (though a tea towel or pillowcase will also do the job), a sugar thermometer or temperature probe, and some jars with lids.
Scrub the fruit(s), chop roughly – there’s no need to peel or core the fruit – and place in a large pot along with any herbs and spices if using. Just cover the fruit with water and bring to a good simmer and add some cider vinegar, around 50 ml per litre of water.
Turn on the heat, cover and simmer until very soft. Very hard fruit can take an hour, though I do give things a helping hand by squishing the fruit against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon.
When the fruit is ready, scald your muslin or jelly bag iwith hot water. If using a jelly bag, place it on its stand with a bowl beneath it, if using muslin, use it to line a bowl. Carefully, ladle the fruit and cooking liquor into the bag/lined bowl – be careful.
The jelly bag can be left to do its thing, but if just using muslin, a little extra work is required: collect up the edges and tie them well with string. You now need to hang this hot haversack of pulp over the bowl to drip overnight. I hook it over a cupboard handle and then in the fridge to keep the fruit flies off. However you do it, make sure things are securely tied – those bags can be pretty weighty.
By now, the liquor should have stopped dripping, but give it a squeeze just to see if you can get any more out. Don’t worry of the juice has gone cloudy, this is common with medlars.
Measure the volume of juice and pour into a heavy based stockpot. To this, add your granulated sugar in the ratio of 500g sugar for every 600ml of juice. Turn the heat on and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. At this point, clip on your sugar thermometer, if using. Turn up the heat so that the syrupy mixture can boil hard. As you wait for this to happen, pop a saucer into your freezer. Skim away any scum that is thrown up.
Let the syrup boil for at least twenty minutes and check the temperature – pectin sets at 105°C. Sometimes jellies don’t always set, so it’s best to double-check with the wrinkle test. Remember that sauce in the fridge? Take it out and drop some of the jelly onto it. Let it cool for a couple of minutes. If it wrinkles when you push it with your finger, all is well and the jelly is ready to be potted into sterilised jars.
(Sterilising jars is easy: place on a baking tray and pop into an oven preheated to 125°C for at least 25 minutes. I usually put mine in as the jelly is coming to a boil. Any rubber seals can be scalded in boiling water closer to the time.)
Use a jug to pour the jelly into jars, don’t overfill here, a gap of one centimetre below the rim is good. Some jars have a helpful maximum fill line on them. Seal with the lids as soon as you can. Be very careful here!
The next day, the jelly should be set, but sometimes it takes a few days, especially if vinegar was used.
The jelly will keep for 6 months unopened, once open keep in the fridge.
I’m continuing my mediaeval-themed posts with a somewhat infamous forgotten fruit: the openarse.
This unusual fruit is a member of the Rosaceae family which contains within its members familiar apples and pears as well as the less familiar, such as quinces, rosehips and sorbs; and like many of the cultivated varieties within this group, they made their way over here from Asia Minor. They quickly nestled themselves into the English mediaeval orchard, becoming an essential fruit crop.
The openarse looks superficially like a russet apple’s withered twin; all squat, rough and green-brown. Turn it over and you’ll see how it gained its name. The calyces, usually small and tightly puckered on the underside of an apple or pear, are very large and lobular, protruding somewhat, giving it a definite rusty sheriff badge appearance. They also sometimes called grannies’ arses. Nice.
According to Jane Grigson in her Fruit Book, the ‘English name openarse, gradually and politely, …was superceded by the French-derived medlar.’ That said, the French also call them dogs’ arses. Trust them to be more vulgar us!
During the mediaeval period, medlars were widely cultivated in England, reaching peak production in the 1600s. They were a useful fruit because they store well, ripening up quite a while after picking. At first, however, they are rock hard, sour and terribly astringent. Picked in late autumn (some say to wait after the first frost) and stored in a cool, dark place, they begin to soften and sweeten. This controlled decay – called bletting – converts starch to the fruit sugar fructose and reduces the acid and tannin levels dramatically. It’s quite nice to see the fruits bletting at different rates and times; some blet on the tree, some take weeks post picking. You can see how this steady supply of ripening fruit would have been extremely important to mediaeval people during winter (see this post on mediaeval feast and famine for more information).
A bletted medlar
The traditional way to eat the fruit is to squeeze your openarse between your fingers so that the pulp can be either picked or sucked out. The medlar was considered very good for digestion and so would be taken after a meal with port (science is revisiting these ideas and has provided some experimental evidence that it is indeed the case). The taste is pleasant, lying somewhere between tart apple and sweet prune. Because the medlar was generally eaten in this way, recipes don’t tend to appear in old cook books; the only common recipe is for medlar jelly (which will be the subject of the next post). However, I did find one for a medlar tart in Thomas Dawson’s 1596 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel:
To Make a Tart of Medlars
Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling it till it be somewhat thick. Then season them sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.
Thomas Dawson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and an openarse can be found in a Shakespeare passage. From Romeo and Juliet:
Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!
A pop’rin pear, by the way, looks rather like a cock and balls. O! the camp bawdiness of it! I’m going to have to lie down.
Amusingly, the prudish Victorians replaced ‘openarse’ with ‘et cetera’, which – if you didn’t know of the replacement – makes no sense at all and, more importantly, spoils the joke.
FYI: Chaucer mentions openarses in the Canterbury Tales, and the earliest known use of the word goes right back to the 10th Century!
Colour plate from unknown source
After reading this, I expect you are simply dying to get your hands on some openarse yourself. This will be tricky; they are no longer grown commercially, so you’ll either have to plant one yourself or find a feral tree. If you live in the south of England this may not be an impossible task as many villages grew them in public spaces.
They are lovely trees – they grow untamed, sprawling in any direction they choose. They grow slowly, but still produce quite a large crop, so even a small tree would provide you with a decent glut of openarse. This is definitely the fruit tree for the lazy gardener.
As for me, I know the whereabouts of an ignored medlar tree in Manchester, but I’m keeping quiet about it; I don’t want all and sundry picking at my openarses now do I!?
A Gloucestershire Wassail, dating to the Middle Ages.
Yesterday was the 6th of January, the final feast day of Christmas, the day of epiphany, Twelfth Night. Down in the counties of South-West and South-East England a very old and special ceremony takes place in the apple orchards; the Wassail was a way to celebrate the end of Christmas and to bless the trees so that they will bear plenty of fruit for the cider. It was a time of celebration and merry-making. All of this happened at dusk, a magical time of day, where the world faeries and spirits overlapped with the world of Man. In different parts of England, the day upon which the Wassail occurs changes: some celebrate it on the 5th of January (the Eve of Epiphany), and others on the 17th of January (this is day Twelfth Night would occur before the Introduction of the Gregorian Calendar, “Old Twelfthy Night”, as it was called).
A blurry, dusky Levenshulme Community Choir leading our Wassail
For the Wassail ceremony a Wassail King and Queen are nominated who lead the other revellers a merry dance around the trees. In the largest trees, the Queen is lifted into the boughs so she can spear pieces of toast that have been soaked in Wassail punch (I’ll get to that in a moment or two) as an offering to the tree spirits of the orchard. As folk dance about the trees, other run around banging pots and pans to drive out the evil spirits.
Wassailing predates the Battle of Hastings and is thought to have its origins in Ancient Rome, where people would make sacrifices to the Pomona, the Roman Goddess of Fruits. The word Wassail originates from the Anglo-Saxon waes-hael, meaning “to your health” and the word is used just as we would use Cheers! today. Below is one telling of its origins by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1135 book History of the Kings of Britain:
While Vortigern was being entertained at a royal banquet, the girl Renwein came out of an inner room carrying a golden goblet full of wine. She walked up to the King, curtsied low, and said “Lavert King, was hail!” When he saw the girl’s face, Vortigern was greatly struck by her beauty and was filled with desire for her. He asked his interpreter what it was that the girl had said and what he ought to reply to her. “She called you Lord King and did you honour by drinking your health. What you should reply is ‘drinc hail.'” Vortigern immediately said the words “drinc hail” and ordered Renwein to drink. Then he took the goblet from her hand, kissed her and drank in his turn. From that day to this, the tradition has endured in Britain that the one who drinks first at a banquet says “was hail” and he who drinks next says “drinc hail.”
I was lucky enough to go to a Wassail in Levenshulme in Manchester, which is not in the south of England, but the north. In Levenshulme there is a lovely community orchard, and it should be blessed just like any other. It was a great evening and really interesting to see just a glimpse of old England. If you have apple – or any fruit – trees, they why not have a Wassail. Indeed anything that needed blessing could wassailed like other crops like barley and livestock. Of course you’ll need to make some wassail to drink…
Spiking the trees with toast offerings
The drink wassail is essentially a hot mulled cider or ale, sweetened with sugar and made aromatic with spices and made much boozier with sherry, brandy or sack (a sweet, fortified ale similar in taste to sherry) and sometimes thickened with eggs. An essential ingredient in the wassail drink is roasted apples, which would quickly burst and fall apart, giving wassail its alternative name ‘lamb’s wool’. Also floating on the surface would be plenty of toast.
The hot wassail is poured into a large carved wooden bowl and it is passed around the crowd so that everyone can take a good mouthful, raise it above their head and shout “Wassail!”. It is because of this celebration, we “raise a toast” when having drinks.
Two Wassail Recipes
Here’s a recipe dating from 1722 that appears in the excellent book Food in England by Dorothy Squires:
Take 1 lb. of brown sugar, 1 pint of hot beer, a grated nutmeg, and a large lump of preserved ginger root cut up. Add 4 glasses of sherry, and stir well. When cold, dilute with 5 pints of cold beer, spread suspicion of yeast on to hot slices of toasted bread, and let it stand covered for several hours. Bottle off and seal down, and in a few days it should be bursting the corks, when it should be poured out into the wassail bowl, and served with hot, roasted apples floating in it.
I liked that it is diluted with beer! What brew it must have been.
Below is my rather pared down recipe for wassail:
4 to 6 apples
3 litres of good cider
6 cinnamon sticks
dark rum, to taste
soft dark brown sugar, to taste
around 500ml of water
Prepare the apples; cut around them a circle halfway down, this stops them bursting when cooking, place on a tray and bake in a moderate oven until they have begun to collapse, around 30 minutes. Whilst you wait for the oven to do its job, pour the cider into a large pan with the cinnamon stick, at least 3 generous tablespoons of sugar and 250ml of rum and half of the water. Bring to a simmer and add more sugar and rum, and dilute accordingly with more water. Lastly, for tradition’s sake, atop with slices of toast.
By recent request, I have written another post on fruit curds. I have come up with several more recipes since I wrote the original post and they all originate from a common source; a single recipe that pops up in River Cottage Handbook No.2: Preserves by Pam ‘the Jam’ Corbin. This is a truly excellent book (as are all the RCHandbooks), that deserves a post of its own as part of my rather irregular Favourite Cookbooks series.
Anyway, this recipe is the best I’ve come across, it is for lemon and Bramley apple curd – and it is ripe for modification. Apple purée is used, giving a great texture, making a light nicely-set curd that needs less sugar than your typical lemon curd. Below is the original recipe that I have only very slightly tweaked, and then there is a few more: blood orange, spiced orange and pink grapefruit.
Lemon and Bramley Apple Curd
This recipe makes around 1200ml of curd.
500g Bramley apple curd, peeled, cored and chopped
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
125g butter, cubed
350-400g granulated sugar
5 medium eggs
Put the apples and water in a small saucepan, cover and simmer until the apples break down into a purée. When cooked, put them into a large glass mixing bowl with all of the remaining ingredients except the eggs. Mix together – the heat of apples will dissolve the sugar and begin to melt the butter – and place the bowl atop a pan of briskly simmering water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the base of the bowl.
Whisk the eggs well and pass them through a sieve straight into the mixture, stirring them in well. Keep an eye on things and stir the curd frequently until it thickens; it doesn’t require constant stirring, but don’t be going off and dusting the sills. If you want to be scientific about it, eggs thicken at around 80⁰C, but temperatures of 75⁰C and above will thicken the curd sufficiently. Taste and add more sugar if liked – remembering that cold curd will taste much less sweet than hot curd.
Pot in sterilised jars (25 minutes in a 125⁰C oven does the trick), cool and refrigerate. The curd will keep for 5 weeks.
You can pretty much use any fruit juice you like, but you always need a little bit of lemon to add bite as well as to take advantage of its flavour enhancing properties.
Blood orange curd: as above but use the juice and zest of one lemon and two blood oranges.
Spiced orange curd: use the juice and zest of two lemons and two oranges, along with half a teaspoon of mixed spice. When the curd has thickened, add two teaspoons of orange flower water.
Pink grapefruit curd: use the juice and zest one lemon and two pink grapefruits.