Gooseberry: a fool’s guide

Even though I encounter it all the time, I never cease finding the immense ignorance of the general UK population shocking. I can barely believe the speed with which the masses have been turned into comprehensively deskilled, unquestioning, uncurious, uncritical, compliant idiots who know absolutely nothing about virtually everything. In just over a generation the vast store of accrued human knowledge and all the limitless possibilities of human talent and creativity have evaporated, to be replaced by the dumbed-down junk consumerism, self-obsessed superficiality and pea-brained infantilism of the lowest-common-denominator trash culture intravenously injected into the hive by the sinister manipulators of corporate Anglo-America.

I will give just one example – unimportant in itself, but from which the vast scale of the stupidocracy can be extrapolated. The other day I was chatting to a bright, articulate bloke in his 30s in a bar. When the aimless conversation meandered to the subject of food, as aimless conversations so often do, I happened to mention the huge crop of gooseberries I’d been picking in my garden throughout June. I was amazed when he responded by saying he had not only never eaten a gooseberry but also he had never seen one and had no idea what they even looked like! Do you see what I mean? This common native plant, universally known in the UK as recently as the 1980s, a familiar staple food of home-made puddings and school dinners and a ubiquitous thorny presence in back gardens and allotments, was a complete mystery to this university-educated, socially-engaged, ostensibly intelligent middle-class Englishman. For me, his blithe unknowingness somehow explained how and why humans have made such a catastrophic mess of the world. It comes to something when merely posting a picture of the humble gooseberry counts as educational…

The gooseberry (Ribes grossularia) is a fantastic fruit. The firm, vividly green, translucent, downy-haired baubles have a taste all of their own, bursting with a quenching, sharp, tart juiciness that combines superbly with a little sugar to make a host of delightful desserts. My single bush has not stopped producing fruit for a month and there are plenty more fattening up on the outer branches and the shaded lower shoots. The shrub doesn’t make it easy for us herbivorous animals to get at the fruit, camouflaging the luscious bounty behind a jungle of soft, shiny bottle-green leaves and providing double protection with wickedly sharp little spikes that will turn an ungloved hand into a veritable pincushion of little pricks. Being the sort of little prick who derides the very concept of gardening gloves, my hands are therefore a hideous melange of scratches, punctures, grubby Elastoplast remnants and blobs of Germolene – but it’s all been worthwhile for the conveyor belt of pies, flans, cakes, crumbles, jams and fools I’ve been churning out like a whirling dervish.

And here I come to the main reason why that guy had never clapped eyes on a gooseberry: the mainstream supermarkets where 90% of people shop don’t sell them. And the reason they don’t sell them is because their algorithms reveal that the average punter doesn’t buy them. And the reason Joe Public doesn’t buy them is simply because they take time to prepare – time that could be better spent watching American crap on a wall-mounted telly while waiting for someone on a scooter to deliver the pizza. In this descent through the circles of passive deculturalisation there is no place for the gooseberry – as well as so much else of worth.

Yes, they are indeed a bit of a fiddle to prepare. You need a lot of berries to make anything substantial and each berry has to be topped and tailed with a sharp knife to rid it of the hard nodules left by the stalk at one end and the calyx at the other. Then they all have to be washed, and pretty thoroughly too if you grow your own and live somewhere drenched in toxins, pollutants and particulates like south Cardiff. I don’t mind these chores, as I’ve got something called a “mind” which allows me to entertain myself with things called “thoughts” while my hands settle into a steady automatic rhythm. Once prepped, the gooseberry compensates you for the effort by requiring almost no cooking. The washed berries just need warming in their own juices in a covered saucepan with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and are ready in a matter of minutes. If forced to choose a favourite gooseberry recipe it would have to be:

Serves 4

300g (10oz) gooseberries, topped and tailed
2tbsp caster sugar
200ml (7fl oz) double cream

1 Gently cook the gooseberries with the sugar until the fruit bursts
2 Transfer to a bowl, cover and put in the fridge until chilled
3 In a separate bowl whip the cream with a whisk until it forms soft peaks
4 Fold the fruit into the cream (or the cream into the fruit, it doesn’t matter)

No discussion of the gooseberry can avoid the puzzling question of its name in English. Given that geese neither eat gooseberries nor have any known relationship with them, that no part of the bird resembles any part of the plant, and that the two have never been combined for culinary purposes, etymologists have long struggled to explain the origin of the word, especially since its traditional pronunciation is ‘gooz’ not ‘goose’. Mind you, taxonomists have not even managed to agree on the gooseberry’s Latin botanical name. I’ve used Ribes grossularia above, meaning ‘crooked currant bush’, but Ribes uva-crispa (‘thorny grape bush’) is equally valid and some botanists treat Grossularia as a separate species and name it Grossularia uva-crispa.  Being indigenous to virtually the whole northern hemisphere and eaten by humans since pre-history, the gooseberry has a wide range of different vernacular names in each different language, most referring to the plant’s thorny nature like uva spina (‘spiny grape’) in Italian and stachelbeere (‘thornberry’) in German. Some languages took a more idiosyncratic path, like the French groseille à maquereau (‘mackerel currant’), reflecting classic French cuisine’s use of them to make a sharp sauce to accompany oily fish. That’s not a route I will ever take with gooseberries, as I’m so wedded to them as sweet rather than savoury, never keen on eating something with eyes anyway, and these days not wanting to fill my digestive system with the micro-plastics that riddle the bodies of every marine creature. In Welsh gooseberry is eirinen Fair (plural: eirin Mair), essentially meaning ‘Mary’s plum’, one of countless plants that reference the Madonna in the language of heaven (see for a few more) – a legacy of an era when Welsh burgeoned with new coinages during the early Christian ‘age of saints’. Come to think of it, eirin Mair’s modern translation would be ‘Mary berry’ – which adds a layer of depth to the 84-year-old TV cook and her peculiarly inappropriate fondness for archly coquettish sexual innuendo. As for the English language formulation, the mundane likelihood is that the notoriously slack and sloppy Anglo-Saxon gob couldn’t be bothered to get its lolling tongue around the Old French ‘grosele’ and corrupted it into that silly ‘goose’.

When the last of my generation has died off – imminent, if my address book is anything to go by – the gooseberry will probably go the way of fruits like medlar and bilberry, functionally extinct to all bar the ‘heritage’ niche market. Already gone are the colloquial idiomatic phrases inspired by the gooseberry, routinely familiar until comparatively recently. Nobody says ‘play gooseberry’ anymore, meaning acting as a killjoy chaperone policing a romantically inclined couple, or even less flatteringly the sad bit of spare stymying the lovers’ action, while ‘found under a gooseberry bush’, long a coy way for parents to avoid the ‘where do babies come from?’ question, evolved from the 18th century use of gooseberry as slang for pubic hair, now seems as archaic and redundant as a wind-up gramophone. Hey – the sun’s out, there’s picking to do…