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The reluctant sensuality of gooseberries

The reluctant sensuality of gooseberries
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  • The reluctant sensuality of gooseberries

    Post #1 - July 26th, 2007, 8:20 pm
    Post #1 - July 26th, 2007, 8:20 pm Post #1 - July 26th, 2007, 8:20 pm
    Anton Chekhov wrote:It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of land. But surely a corpse wants that, not a man. And I hear that our intellectuals have a longing for the land and want to acquire farms. But it all comes down to the six feet of land. To leave town, and the struggle and the swim of life, and go and hide yourself in a farmhouse is not life -- it is egoism, laziness; it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without action. A man needs, not six feet of land, not a farm, but the whole earth, all Nature, where in full liberty he can display all the properties and qualities of the free spirit.

    My brother Nicholai, sitting in his office, would dream of eating his own schi, with its savoury smell floating across the farmyard; and of eating out in the open air, and of sleeping in the sun, and of sitting for hours together on a seat by the gate and gazing at the fields and the forest. Books on agriculture and the hints in almanacs were his joy, his favourite spiritual food; and he liked reading newspapers, but only the advertisements of land to be sold, so many acres of arable and grass land, with a farmhouse, river, garden, mill, and mill-pond. And he would dream of garden-walls, flowers, fruits, nests, carp in the pond, don't you know, and all the rest of it. These fantasies of his used to vary according to the advertisements he found, but somehow there was always a gooseberry-bush in every one. Not a house, not a romantic spot could he imagine without its gooseberry-bush.

    "'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.' --Gooseberries (1898)

    Auguste Escoffier wrote:One can but deplore the arbitrary proscription which so materially reduces the resources at the disposal of a cook, more particularly at a time when the universally imperious cry is for novelty and variety. --Le Guide Culinaire, 1903


    Gooseberries have existed for some time on the edge of my consciousness, as something once familiar in the midwest kitchen-- 60 or 100 years ago-- but now rarely seen even as jam. For all I knew, they were like true American chestnuts, a once significant source of nutrition wiped out by some blight. In fact they are more like black walnuts, easy enough to find-- but too difficult for our food industry to handle profitably, possessed of a thin stem at one end and a tuft of dry husk at the other, both of which must be snipped away by hand. Spending a good half hour trimming a pint of them will make you realize how much fruits that were once exotic in the midwest, like tangerines or bananas, have benefited from being convenience foods, every bit as much as pizza puffs or Go-Gurt tubes.

    Then, suddenly, in one of those cosmic practical jokes, gooseberries were everywhere in my consciousness. Phil Vettel informed me that gooseberry pie was a specialty of Phil Smidt's, a fact which had somehow escaped me until now. Scanning a list of types of fruit used in pies in The Pie and Pastry Bible, they jumped out as one of the few I'd never seen or eaten. Vital Information wrote of finding them at one of his markets and making a gooseberry fool, a dish of cream and gooseberries, which acquainted me with the fact that the gooseberry, even more than a traditional midwestern fruit, was a traditional English one-- though as so often with English memoirists, the writer reminiscing about gooseberries in childhood sounds a tart note with the sweet:

    Theodore Dalrymple wrote:As a child, I thought them an inferior fruit. In part, this was because of their color: pale green, while I thought that a real berry ought to be red. Also, they were extremely sour: so sour, indeed, that—as the Germans say—they draw the holes in your socks together. For some reason that I now cannot recall, I conceived the idea early in my life that it was weak and ignoble to sweeten fruit with sugar. Even now I experience a vague feeling of guilt on doing so. If God created gooseberries sour, it was because He wanted them eaten sour.

    Gooseberries were always served in the England of my childhood with custard, a disgusting yellow concoction with lumps in it and a skin that sent shivers down your spine. The lumps and skin were evidently regarded in the same light as outdoor team games in inclement weather: that is to say, they were character-building. Meals in England in those days were treated as an ordeal that had to be gone through; nowadays, thanks to an increased awareness of the health implications of nutrition, they are more like medical procedures. --"Gooseberries," The New Criterion, 1999

    But the key point was, VI had seen them at his farmer's market and there was a chance that I might find them at mine, if I hunted, if I poked around, if I quizzed the sellers about the season and when they might be ripe and begged them to save some for me and... oh here they are. "Try one," one of the farmers at Green City Market said.

    I picked off the stem and put one into my mouth. It popped like a grape, it tasted like... a tortilla. I'm not kidding here, in fact my son, unaided, made the same comparison when he ate the final result a week later. There's a corn tortilla note in gooseberries-- at least in the American variety I bought (probably Welcomes), which are clearly less tart than the English/European sort eaten by Chekhov's narrator and the dyspeptic Dr. Dalrymple.

    They were green, mostly, when I bought them; by the time I was ready to do something with them they had nearly all turned purple. Looking around for recipes I realized that I didn't have nearly enough for a full gooseberry pie, but two cups would do for something using some form of cream, which would cut the tartness if it got too strong and give me the chance to experience both the fruit pie and the creamy fool approach to making a dessert out of gooseberries. I found this recipe for a sour cream pie, and made it with only a few minor adaptations (upping the amount of gooseberries, and mashing about 1/3 cup of them to spread the gooseberry flavor throughout the custard):


    The primary fruit flavors are so burned into our consciousness from an early age that imagining another flavor in between orange and strawberry and grape is as hard as imagining a new color between yellow and green and blue; few distinct new fruit flavors come along (who can really say what the flavor of kiwi or starfruit is?) and we struggle to assemble new flavors out of impressions of the old ones (lulo is orange, lime, a little pineapple). So what is gooseberry, besides tortilla? In sour cream custard, at least, it was like strawberry rhubarb pie with only one fruit, tart and sharp; somewhere between grape and cranberry, perhaps. A dry, laconic fruit well suited to dry English wit and midwestern resoluteness, the sort that pioneer folk would have considered a judicious gift from a stern God who didn't want people getting any idea from their fruit that life is lush and sensual.


    I'm going to look for two pints next time. Maybe I've already missed the season, I don't know, but I'm going to give it a shot. I like a fruit that doesn't jump in my lap and lick my face but keeps its secrets and plays a little hard to get. We cannot know the sweet without the tart.

    Anton Chekhov wrote:In the evening, while we were having tea, the cook laid a plateful of gooseberries on the table. They had not been bought, but were his own gooseberries, plucked for the first time since the bushes were planted. Nicholai Ivanich laughed with joy and for a minute or two he looked in silence at the gooseberries with tears in his eyes. He could not speak for excitement, then put one into his mouth, glanced at me in triumph, like a child at last being given its favourite toy, and said:

    "'How good they are!'

    "He went on eating greedily, and saying all the while:

    "'How good they are! Do try one!'

    "It was hard and sour, but, as Pushkin said, the illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths." --Gooseberries (1898)
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  • Post #2 - July 27th, 2007, 6:48 am
    Post #2 - July 27th, 2007, 6:48 am Post #2 - July 27th, 2007, 6:48 am
    Thanks for doing much more thinking about the gooseberry than I ever have; I’m inspired to eat some, though I’m fairly certain I have never eaten a raw one. As I recall, my only encounters with gooseberries have been in jams, where sourness was the overriding sensation (not in a bad way).

    About the tortilla flavor, I wonder if what you and your son are connecting with there is the slightly acidic notes of a tortilla (more the result of liming than of the corn itself), yielding a slight sourness shared by the berry.

    I’m not usually a fan of fish with fruit, though fish and lime is, for me, a tasteful combo, so why not fish and gooseberry, perhaps even in a ceviche-type preparation?

    Could we promote the GNRs later and let our weekly tagline be “a judicious gift from a stern God who didn't want people getting any idea from their fruit that life is lush and sensual”? Getting ideas from fruit is, indeed, hazardous to one's eternal soul.

    "Don't you ever underestimate the power of a female." Bootsy Collins
  • Post #3 - July 27th, 2007, 4:00 pm
    Post #3 - July 27th, 2007, 4:00 pm Post #3 - July 27th, 2007, 4:00 pm
    why, just last night I was curled up with my tattered old copy of "Cooking by the Garden Calendar," published in 1955 by Ruth Appleton Matson (who also happened to hold down the post as Associate Director of the Cleveland Mental Health Association) and in the chapter for July, subtitled "Start Picking," she enthuses about gooseberries and how verasitle they are. Her first recipe is for a Fool, then for old-fashioned four-fruit jam and then she provides a Spiced Gooseberries recipe (to accompany meats) as well as a Gooseberry Chutney. If you would like these recipes, PM me and I'll happily get them to you. (I also saw her book used on Amazon for about $4, if you like to cook based on what you grow or get at farmers market, and you like a matter-of-fact encouraging narrative to go along with it, this is the book for you.) By the way, if a recipe says to "head and tail" the berries that means remove the stem and blossom ends.

    Thanks for the inspiring gooseberry post!

    "eating is an agricultural act" wendell berry
  • Post #4 - July 28th, 2007, 1:16 pm
    Post #4 - July 28th, 2007, 1:16 pm Post #4 - July 28th, 2007, 1:16 pm
    Lovely-looking gooseberries were spotted yesterday at Marketplace on Oakton. They also had red currants and some beautiful champagne grapes -- tiny and delicate.

    Don't you just love Theodore Dalrymple?

  • Post #5 - July 28th, 2007, 6:28 pm
    Post #5 - July 28th, 2007, 6:28 pm Post #5 - July 28th, 2007, 6:28 pm
    So I was at Green City today and found the same vendor offering gooseberries again. Went up to them and five-almost-six-year-old son, who had not been very fond of the sour cream and tart berry pie, said, "Can you not make that pie next? It's my last favorite of your pies."

    I thought that was pretty diplomatic for 5, or even almost 6, and so I now have 2 pints of gooseberries frozen in my freezer, awaiting the fading of the memory of the last gooseberry pie....
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.