Of all our Irish fruit the gooseberry has the earliest natural season and is ideally suited to our climate - yet it seems to be inexplicably underused. Admittedly the bushes tend to be thorny and the most commonly grown green varieties need a lot of sweetening to make them palatable, but it’s a very versatile fruit and this harbinger of summer is delicious in many traditional puddings, cold sweets and preserves – in fact, it is interchangeable with rhubarb, in any of the treats that we enjoy when made with that equally easily grown and prepared, but much more popular, early ‘fruit’.
The gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa, syn. R. grossularia) is a species of Ribes, native to Europe, northwestern Africa and southwestern Asia. The spiny bushes are grown, on both a commercial and domestic basis, for their fruit which is most often green and hard – but there are delicious dessert varieties available too, which glory in colourful names such as ‘old rough red’ and ‘hairy amber’.
If you have gooseberries in the garden, they tend to be very prolific and it is worth making the effort to use them in a variety of ways so they won't be taken for granted.
They freeze very well - just top and tail them and store in freezer bags to use in pies and tarts or for sauces during the winter. Being a naturally 'free-flow' product, they are extremely convenient to use from the freezer.
They are delicious simply stewed and served with cream or ice cream (and, perhaps, some almond biscuits or fingers of shortbread) or used in pies, crumbles and layer cakes. And, as gooseberries need a lot of sweetening whatever you do with them, they're absolutely ideal for preserving.
They have much greater versatility than they are normally given credit for, especially as they have the added virtue of combining well with other fruits and flavourings to produce interesting and unusual combinations – gooseberry and elderflower is a classic.
RECIPE: Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool
The first gooseberries are ready for picking at just about the time when the elder is flowering in hedges throughout the country and this makes a natural partnership, the elder flowers giving an exotic flavour reminiscent of muscat grapes to the familiar green berries. (But elderflowers are not all the same - the right one for the kitchen smells pleasantly perfumed and, needless to say, should be picked well away from busy roads.) Don't leave the flowers in with the gooseberries for more than a few minutes, or they will overpower the fruit. And it's worth remembering that a lot of the flavour in gooseberries is in the skin, so they should be crushed (or liquidised) rather than sieved if you don’t want to use them whole.
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