I've been trying to figure out what it is about gooseberries that makes me love them so. These are the kind of questions I ponder idly, you see, while rolling out pastry or chopping up fruit; measuring out tablespoons or stirring something around a pan. Cooking for me isn't something I do just to feed myself; it's something I like to think about, to analyse, to question and explore. I guess that's why my cooking is also something I balance alongside an increasingly difficult and mind-bending PhD. One of these days I'll find a hobby that doesn't involve thinking...I tell myself, knowing it'll never happen.
I went into Waitrose the other day to get a few things for dinner. I'd planned on some sort of cherry or apricot dessert; possibly a cherry frangipane tart, or an apricot galette. I was approaching the soft fruit aisle, when my gaze was immediately diverted by a punnet of bulbous jade green berries.
I've resigned myself to the feeling of disappointment that inevitably accompanies a visit to the supermarket in late June and early July. The reason for this being not a dearth of sausages, or the horrendous price of raspberries, or even the fact that it's a hot day and the barbecue charcoal is sold out because everyone else had the same idea.
No, the reason is, in fact, the tragic resemblance between gooseberries and green grapes. I can't tell you the number of times my heart has leapt with hopefulness upon (apparently) spying a punnet of my favourite berries, only to discover that I am in fact looking at another box of boring old grapes. Grapes are fine, don't get me wrong, but they're a little bit boring, delivering nothing but bland sweetness. Give me the gooseberry any day, with its complex floral aromas and muscat perfume, its addictive tartness and ability to soften meltingly under a buttery crumble or pie crust.
So, when my eyes landed on the last two punnets of gooseberries in the shop, there was barely a split second before they were in my arms. Romantic, I know. This is the extent of my love life at the moment - I embrace berries. Green, slightly prickly, very sour ones. I'm sure there's a metaphor there somewhere.
So why do I love gooseberries so much, enough to whisk them up in my arms in the middle of the supermarket, enough for their acquisition to turn a depressing day into a cheerful one? I think it's their elusive nature, only available for a very short window of the year, demanding to be greeted like an old friend when they do finally show their little faces. Or perhaps it's their demure appearance, jade pale and swollen, barely suggesting the luscious muddle of juice and skin they will become with the application of a little heat. It could of course be their unmatchable flavour, simply unlike no other fruit, possessing the tart surprise of rhubarb but also a heady, honeyed perfume that is entirely their own. Maybe it's because they're quintessentially English and underrated, and I feel a slight duty to champion ingredients that fulfil these criteria.
Gone were the apricot and cherry dessert plans, to be replaced with a simple gooseberry crumble.
You can do things that are a bit fancy with gooseberries. You can make these gooseberry and elderflower cheesecakes, which look beautiful in their individual glasses. You could make a fool, if you're into heavily creamy things, which I'm not. You could go mad and make a billowing gooseberry meringue pie, a fabulous combination of tart, juicy berries and sweet, frothy meringue, so much more interesting and complex than the standard lemon.
But sometimes the most simple things are the best. I really don't think you can beat a gooseberry crumble, done properly. By 'properly' I mean you roast the gooseberries in sugar first, to slightly caramelise them and cook out some of their juice (no one wants a watery crumble). Then you make a crumble with a decent amount of butter, and add some important texture with flaked almonds and jumbo oats. You scatter this over the berries, and let the oven work its magic: the gooseberries release some more delicious thick, sweet, tart juice, which soaks into the underside of the crumble making it sweet and soggy, while the top turns crisp and crunchy, so much so that a spoon cutting through it will make a crackling sound. The berries underneath keep their shape, mostly, becoming slightly squashed and puckered, but still pale green and beautiful, each one delivering a little mouthful of delicious perfumed juice as you bite into it.
This is how to make the perfect gooseberry crumble. Cold vanilla ice cream is essential for serving.
Gooseberry crumble (serves 4):
- 350g gooseberries, topped and tailed
- 3 tbsp light brown sugar
- 160g spelt or plain flour
- 80g cold butter, cubed
- 80g light muscovado sugar or demerara sugar
- 80g jumbo oats
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tbsp cold water
- 2-3 tbsp flaked almonds
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Put the gooseberries and brown sugar in a medium baking dish or pie dish. Bake for 15-20 minutes, stirring once halfway, until slightly caramelised and juicy.
Meanwhile, make the crumble. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, oats and ginger, then stir in the cold water. Scatter over the gooseberries in the dish, then sprinkle over the flaked almonds. Lower the heat of the oven to 170C.
Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the crumble is crunchy and golden, and juice is bubbling up around it. Remove and leave to cool for 5-10 minutes, before serving with vanilla ice cream.