Gorgeous gooseberries are a must for any newcomer to fruit growing. They’re self-fertile, aren’t particularly fussy when it comes to soil type, and will even tolerate some shade. All but the most wilfully neglectful gardeners can expect a decent harvest from these bombproof plants, though a little extra attention goes a long way towards bushes responding with bigger, better gooseberries.
Having recently moved house and garden I have the unfettered joy of experiencing a steady succession of surprises as my first growing season unfolds. Pulling back the bindweed in one border revealed an incredibly resilient gooseberry bush, which, despite having been choked by weeds, is proving to be a star performer. It’s positively groaning with fruits, ready to pick, I’d say, by the end of next week. A rough estimate suggests about 4-5kg (10lb) of fruit from this single bush – a remarkable haul from a plant that’s been skulking in the shade and in need of a good prune. What a generous reward for a little weeding!
Dessert Vs Culinary Gooseberries
Gooseberries, or ‘goosegogs’ as we affectionately call them in our family, are usually picked as pale green berries. Backlit by the sun they appear to glow like precious gems. Some varieties have a gloriously golden hue, while others ripen to a majestic ruby red. The faint bristles on these underrated fruits only add to their charm.
So which type is best: dessert or culinary? Both have their merits, but if you’ve only ever bought the hard, under-ripe fruits sold in supermarkets or grocery stores you’re in for an indulgent discovery should you opt for a dessert type.
Dessert gooseberries may be eaten straight from the plant and if picked at their peak of perfection will combine mouth-filling juiciness with sweet, floral flavours. Dessert gooseberries don’t need fancy treatment – serve them up with a curl of smooth, creamy yoghurt and perhaps a drizzle of honey for an extra touch of sweetness.
Culinary varieties are too sour to eat fresh but combine them with sugar and they’ll form the delicious centrepiece to all manner of jams, pies and jellies. Their tartness is the perfect complement to meats such as pork or fish like mackerel, cutting through the fattiness to give a refreshing balance.
A few gooseberry varieties offer the best of both. Pick ’em young for smaller, tart berries to cook up into your favourite dishes, or leave them to swell and develop their full flavour to eat fresh.
How to Grow Gooseberries
Gooseberries need light and space, so don’t crowd them. You’ll get the best crops from bushes planted at least 1.5m (5ft) apart into moisture-retentive soil. Then keep the soil in tiptop condition by laying well-rotted manure or garden-made compost around plants every winter. This will gradually feed the soil – and the plants – while ensuring weeds remain in check.
Towards the end of winter a further addition of organic, slow-release fertiliser will give soon-to-burst-into-life bushes a boost that will last all season. Blood, fish and bone is recommended by the pros, but you could use pelleted chicken manure or any vegan alternative.
Pruning in winter helps to encourage a more open habit and lots of fruit-bearing spurs, which ultimately means more fruits. Prunings from vigorous stems can be used as cuttings to make more plants. Cut just below a bud to form the base of the cutting, then remove the soft growth from the top, this time trimming just above a bud. Cuttings should be about 20cm (8in) long. Remove the lower buds to leave just three buds at the top, then insert the cuttings into soil enriched with compost and some sand for added drainage. Transplant rooted cuttings to their final positions a year after taking them.
3 Lip-Smacking Gooseberry Recipes
Gooseberries are among the first fruits of early summer and there are plenty of ways to indulge in them. Here are a few ideas, starting with my all-time favourite.
Gooseberry Fool: Push soft, ripe gooseberries through a sieve (strainer) using the back of a spoon. If they’re hard, warm them first to soften. Add the puree to a pan together with a splash of water and some caster (superfine) sugar to taste. Stir to combine, simmer until the fruits burst, then leave to cool. Whip thick cream to a fluff, then fold in the chilled gooseberry puree. Serve in glass bowls.
Gooseberry Cooler: Melt sugar in an equal volume of water. Add freshly squeezed lemon juice, about a quarter of the volume of the existing syrup, plus a few strips of lemon zest. Now add your gooseberries – you want about a third more in weight than there was sugar – plus a few sprigs of mint. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook through for 10 minutes before mashing with a potato masher to extract the juice from the gooseberries. Leave to cool then push through a sieve or strainer. Chill before diluting one part with two to three parts icy-cold water (sparkling’s best). Serve with plenty of ice, lemon and fresh mint.
Gooseberry Crumble: For a satisfying crumble start by combining topped and tailed gooseberries with a little caster sugar and a splash of water in a baking dish. Cover with a crumble topping made from flour, sugar and butter then bake for three-quarters of an hour at a medium heat until the crumble is golden and crunchy. If you’re lucky some of the gooseberry goo will have bubbled up at the sides and caramelised to a sticky, yummy deliciousness!