The gooseberry has a long and illustrious history, in literature and in the kitchen. The Normans ate green gooseberry sauce with mackerel, and pigeons were stuffed with gooseberries. For dessert, there were gooseberry pies, tarts, pastries, puddings, jellies, jams and even a gooseberry wine celebrated by the English writer Charles Lamb.
Finding the goose in the gooseberry
There has been a lot of speculation about just where the “goose” in gooseberry comes from. Some sources say they are called gooseberries because they were used in a sauce for roast goose. Others say it is a corruption of the Dutch word Kruisbes or the German Krausbeere — or Crossberry. The species name grossularia means “curl” or “crisped,” which probably refers to the leaves, and that may have been corrupted into “gooseberry.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says plants so often have names associating them with animals that the inappropriateness or illogic of the pairing does not provide sufficient grounds for believing that the name is an etymological corruption.
No matter how the name came to be, gooseberries were so common in Elizabethan England that Shakespeare used the expression “not worth a gooseberry.” A few centuries later, Anton Chekov wrote a short story called “Gooseberries,” in which a man’s brother pines for the countryside: ” ‘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.’ ”
Growing up in the country, my family always picked wild gooseberries in our woods. We picked them hard and green since it seemed the wildlife ate them by the time they turned purple-black. They were tart little suckers, needing an equal amount of sugar to make them into a palatable pie or crisp.
But my sister Teresa now grows varieties that have beautiful red berries about three times the size of wild gooseberries, and they are meant to be picked ripe for eating fresh. Her main type, Hinnomaki Red, is a Finnish variety that is considered a dessert-quality berry. They have a perfect sweet-tart balance, and a wonderfully firm, meaty texture. I like to eat them plain like grapes, but I’m no fool, and now and then I splurge and make a Gooseberry Fool.
No fool like a gooseberry fool
Arguably the most famous dish made from gooseberries is a fool, a dessert made of stewed fruit mixed with milk, cream or custard. The “fool” is probably named after older fruit trifles — the use of “fool” in the sense of “foolish or silly” being suggested by “trifle.” In any case, gooseberry fool has been an English favorite for centuries.
Gooseberry Fool (adapted from “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” 1861)
1 pint gooseberries, topped and tailed
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup sugar, or to taste
2 – 3 tablespoons water
1 cup heavy cream, whipped
1. Put the gooseberries in a non-reactive saucepan with the butter, sugar, and the water.
2. Cook very gently until the gooseberries are soft enough to mash, about 30 minutes.
3. Put them through a sieve or food mill and add more sugar to taste.
4. Fold the gooseberry puree into the whipped cream.
5. Chill for several hours and serve in a glass bowl.
Gooseberry Fool with Yogurt
This is a modern, healthier take on the classic Gooseberry Fool.
2 pounds gooseberries, topped and tailed (or keep them on for a little extra fiber)
1 cup Greek yogurt
¼ cup sugar
1. Put the gooseberries in a shallow 9-inch baking dish, sprinkle on the sugar, and bake uncovered in a 350 F oven for 20 to 30 minutes.
2.When they are cooked, tip them into a sieve set over a bowl to drain off the excess juice. Reserve about a quarter of the cooked gooseberries to use as a topping.
3. Place the rest of the gooseberries into a food processor, add 4 tablespoons of the reserved juice and process into a thick purée and then let cool.
4. Put the yogurt into a bowl, and fold in half the purée. Spoon into serving glasses.
5. Top each glass with a spoonful of the reserved purée and then a spoonful of the reserved gooseberries. Chill and serve.
Top photo: Red gooseberries. Credit: Terra Brockman