"In this country especially, there is no fruit so universally in favour," wrote Mrs Beeton in her Book of Household Management in 1861. "In Scotland, there is scarcely a cottage-garden without its … bush." The fruit the doyenne of British cooking was extolling was not the juicy raspberry or today's superfood superstar the blueberry, but the hairy gooseberry, traditionally seen as the first fruit of summer.
So popular was the meadow-green berry in Georgian and Victorian times that gooseberry clubs sprang up across northern England – at one time there were 120 – where growers (mostly men) competed to grow the biggest fruits. As men well know, size is everything, so bushes were pruned almost out of existence to allow just a handful of fruits to be coaxed to supersize proportions.
The names of the varieties were as delicious as the fruits. Some described their origins (Lancashire Lad), cultivator (Whinham's Industry), colouring (Woodpecker) or their grower's pretensions (Roaring Lion, Hero of the Nile). Others hinted tantalisingly at some unexplained incident, as in Dan's Mistake (who was Dan and what was the error that committed him and his red gooseberry to the culinary history books for ever? one wonders.)
Today, though, the bristled fruit has become a relative rarity, playing gooseberry while we cavort with sweeter, more colourful fruits such as the strawberry. You might struggle to find gooseberries in the supermarket, although some have a limited supply. As a result, many of us will never enjoy a creamy, citrusy gooseberry fool that used to be as integral a part of summer as Wimbledon or cricket on the village green.
In fact, when London chef Jason Atherton questioned people in the street for the BBC's Great British Food Revival series due to be screened in October, many had never even heard of gooseberries. "Kids didn't know what they were and had no interest in them. It's a shame that many will never enjoy their lovely complex taste," he told me. "The gooseberry is an integral part of our fruit heritage. It's time we became proud of it."
Like many other chefs, Atherton loves the acidic gooseberry's pairing with oily fish, particularly mackerel. (So harmonious is this marriage that the French word for gooseberry is groseille à maquereau, the mackerel berry). At his London restaurant, Pollen Street Social, Atherton marinates mackerel in a blend of gooseberries and cucumber to great effect.
At the Coq d'Argent, French-born chef Mickael Weiss makes a gooseberry salsa to accompany grilled Cornish mackerel, while Tim Allen (at Launceston Place) makes a ballotine of mackerel and preserved gooseberries served with a horseradish sauce. As the English name suggests, gooseberries also partner well with fatty meats such as goose, duck and lamb. Atherton makes a gooseberry and elderflower jam which he serves with duck, for instance, and Weiss marries a sharp gooseberry relish with salt marsh lamb.
Up on the Yorkshire Moors, meanwhile, the residents of Egton Bridge are nursing their precious gooseberry bushes ahead of their annual gooseberry show on 7 August. The show, held in the village schoolroom, is the oldest in the country, first held in 1800. From breakfast time onwards growers from the village and around arrive bearing fruits carefully cradled in egg boxes, to be solemnly weighed by the judges following procedures that have barely changed in 212 years.
Top contender is Egton Bridge resident Bryan Nellist, who in 2009 forged his way into the Guinness World Records with a golfball-sized gooseberry weighing over 2oz. He says the secret is plenty of rotting salmon and well-matured pig manure. It's a nail-biting process, though: two years ago he had a weighty wonder that was set to outgrow his record-breaker, but it split the day before the show so had to be turned into a pie. Bryan related the story to me with almost as much emotion as a father mourning a cherished child.
Julia Brierley, one of Egton Bridge's few women exhibitors, believes the gooseberry is unjustly maligned because many eat them when unripe, and tart. "It's such a shame that people think of gooseberries as hard, sour things," she told me. "If allowed to ripen until they're pink, they're as sweet as grapes or kiwis. In Victorian times they resided in the fruit bowl. People bit the end off then squirted the contents into their mouths."
Jim Arbury who looks after the Royal Horticultural Society's gooseberry collection at Wisley – one of the largest collections in the country, with around 170 varieties – agrees. His favourite is a variety called Yellow Champagne that he says is syrupy and delicious. "Gooseberries have a complexity of flavour that other fruits lack. Ripe ones are sweet, not tart," he says. "Ideally suited to the British climate, they're also easy to grow, especially if you choose a mildew resistant variety. Plant a bush and you will have fruit year after year."
Gardeners, chefs and foodies may be versed in the virtues of the characterful gooseberry, but is it time the rest of us re-embraced the hairy habit too? Otherwise we're missing out on one of the quintessential fruits of a British summer.
Don't play the fool
You might be more familiar with green gooseberries, but they can also be red, white and yellow. These varieties are all good to grow at home, and many are available in supermarkets.
Invicta: popular green gooseberry that's good for culinary use. When fully ripe, can be eaten raw. In most supermarkets.
Careless: Old variety which has remained popular because of its large fruit and good flavour. Stocked by several supermarkets.
Leveller: large golden-green flavoursome fruits that are good eaten raw. Grown since 1851. In some supermarkets.
Langley Gage: syrupy sweet small globes.
Whinham's Industry: sweet, dark crimson gooseberry, dating back to about 1835. A great dual-purpose red.
Pax: Ruby red, round berries with plenty of flavour. The bushes are thornless.
Grilled mackerel and gooseberry salsa with cucumber and celery salad
By Mickael Weiss
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped
300g gooseberries, cleaned and cut into quarters
Lime juice and zest from one lime
Another lime cut into segments
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
2 heaped tablespoons of shredded, flat-leaf parsley
2 heaped tablespoons of chopped chives
Sea salt and pepper
Gooseberry is known as "Groseille a Maquereau" in French, so turning my attention to the word's origin, I discover it was oven baked next to mackerel. Gooseberries were served with the oily fish as a sweet and sour sauce by the Normans and Danes. It was used widely in England and France from the Middle Ages. The gooseberry plants are from the Ribes family, an Arab term meaning sour. They probably originate from northern Africa and were brought to Europe after Spanish colonisation.
In a saucepan, place sugar and vinegar and bring to a simmer. Add the quartered gooseberries, season with salt and pepper and remove from heat (this will soften them without cooking). Once cool, add the rest of the ingredients and refrigerate for a minimum of 3 hours.
Using a peeler, make some cucumber and celery strip and place in ice water for a few minutes. Drain and add to some mixed baby leaves or pea shoot.
Grill the mackerel fillets. Season your salad with a simple lemon juice and olive oil. Place fillet on top of salad then top with gooseberry salsa and lime segments. Can also be served with salsa verde.
Gooseberry fool with elderflower
By Mark Diacono
A classic marriage of spring-into-summer flavours, as simple to make as it is delicious. You might top it off with a crumble mix. Alternatively, serve it with almond tuiles, gingersnaps or shortbread.
Ingredients: serves 4
4 tablespoons caster sugar
2 finely pared strips of lemon zest
12 medium heads of elderflower, plus a few to decorate
300ml double cream
Put the gooseberries into a pan with the sugar, lemon zest and a few splashes of water and throw the elderflower heads on top. Heat gently until the gooseberries begin to break up, then simmer for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Push the pulpy mush through a sieve and leave to cool completely. Whisk the cream until soft peaks form, then fold into the purée. Refrigerate for a couple of hours before serving. Spoon the chilled fruit fool into serving glasses and top with a sprig of elderflower to decorate.
Taken from 'River Cottage Fruit' by Mark Diacono (Bloomsbury, £14.99)