Tag Archives: seasonal food

Gooseberries

‘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, 1898

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, after all.

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.

Gooseberry colour plate from the Oxford Book of Food Plants

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 fruits.

A gooseberry shrub in the rain

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 à 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 and flavours.

Dorothy Hartley, Food in England

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.

The top and the tail

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.

A gooseberry haul from just two modestly-sized shrubs

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 the greengrocers.

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Asparagus

asparagus plate

A botanical plate showing the life cycle of the asparagus plant

Asparagus season in the UK very short, going from only May until June. Of course, these days we are no longer a slave to the seasons and can have fresh asparagus that has been grown in Peru or Kenya whenever we like. I love the stuff, but I do feel that our food loses some if its magic when seasons no longer matter. It is for this reason I only buy British asparagus.

Asparagus has been eaten in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and has been loved in France for many centuries, and it is the carefully cultivated and selected French type of asparagus that made its way to Britain in the seventeenth century, a time of great ‘vegetable improvement’, and it is still grown here today. This does not mean that prior to this date we did not eat it or try to cultivate it.

The etymology of asparagus is interesting – many people think that it was called sparrow grass, but the upper class thought it a vulgar term and subtly changed its name to asparagus to make it sound more posh. This is not quite true: it actually began life as asparagus coming from Mediæval Latin, then it was shortened to sparage in Late Old English and then further modified to asperages in Middle English. It was anglicised to sperach or sperage in the 16th century, but strangely it was officially spelled as asparagus to be in line with Latin. The word asparagus became associated with “stiffness and pedantry”, and the “folk-etymologi[s]ed” sparrow grass arose in reaction to these Latin throwbacks. All this information came from the wonderful Online Etymological Dictionary. I love the Old English word – eorðnafela – sounds like some kind of elf queen from a Tolkien book.

There are three main types of asparagus which all come from the same plant: there are the common all-green tender spears that have very good flavour, and then there is white asparagus, made by ‘forcing’ the spears to grow in the absence of light by earthing up around and over tips. These are not typically grown in Britain, though you do spot them from time to time, though they have usually come from Holland or Belgium, where white asparagus is popular. Lastly, there is lavender-tipped asparagus which is simply white asparagus that has been allowed the see the sun again and just colour slightly. White and lavender-tipped are much more fibrous than the green but have a much more delicate flavour.

Asparagus is also infamous for a certain side-effect after it has been eaten and digested: the distinctive smell it leaves in our urine, which is liked by some, but hated by others:

[Asparagus] cause a filthy and disagreeable smell in the urine, as everybody knows.

Louis Lemery, Treatise of All Sorts of Food, 1702

all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of [asparagus], they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare’s Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Times, 1913

[Proust always overdid things – have you ever read his description of madeleines?]

The chemical in question is called asparagusic acid, though not everyone has the ability to produce it (though most do) and not everyone has the ability to smell it (though most can).

Proust

Big ponce: Proust

Preparing Asparagus.

It is very straight-forward to prepare asparagus. You first need to remove the woody part at the base of the stem. You can do this with a knife, but this involves guess-work, so it is easier to break the spears one at a time because they have a natural snap point where the woodiness lessens. You can trim the ends of course if you want to be fancy. If you have very thin young spears, you may not have to snap them at all. Along the stem of the plant there are strange little leaves that lie flat against the stem; you can remove these if you like, but I tend not to unless the spears are particularly thick.

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Asparagus and Eggs

Asparagus needs little cooking: just a few minutes steaming is required. Traditionally it is cooked in a tall asparagus pan so that the spears can be boiled upright. Here’s how I like to cook mine – it shows off the flavour of asparagus cooked simply.

Prepare your spears and place them in a pan in just a few millimetres of salted boiling water. Cover so that the asparagus part-boils and part-times. Check if they are cooked by probing the thickest part of a spear – it should be nice and tender. Asparagus spears of a middling thickness will take no longer than four minutes, and will most likely be done in three. Once cooked, Remove the spears and keep them warm, whilst you return the pan to the heat and whisk in a few cubes of butter and reduce to just a couple of tablespoons. Season with salt (if needed) and black pepper.

Serve on toast with some of the asparagus-flavoured butter and poached eggs.

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