Gooseberry fool

A great glory of the British summer
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Indy Lifestyle Online
British summer cookery has become something of a cliche, invariably revolving around Pimms, picnics and paddling, with barbecues on the balmy evenings.

But real scorchers only happen here about once every 10 years; which doesn't sadden me hugely. In tune with the water authorities, I am not averse to summer's stormy skies. I think there's something rather wonderful about a garden after rain, filled with the scents of earth and plants. But in weather like we have been having, Mediterranean food is not as appealing as something as nurturing as a steamed gooseberry pudding.

Along with summer pudding, this is one of the great glories of British summertime cookery. To set the scene: steaming gooseberries in a vanilla-rich syrup cascade out from a pastry casing that's light and fluffy around the sides and deliciously soggy on the bottom where the juices have seeped into it. Drowned in an egg custard with lots of cream, it's well worth getting rained on.

The gooseberry is a very British berry; the Continentals have never really got the point. We created gooseberry fool: a nursery concoction affair of whipped cream, mixed with a sweetened pulp of gooseberries, that dates back to the 15th century. Then there's chutney, jam and jelly, often in unison with elderflower, which sheds a fragrance of muscat.

Such is the gooseberry's history that, in the 17th century, they were grown in shades of purplish red, blues, and the whitest green to yellow, with or without the hairs that always remind me of Desperate Dan's stubble.

In 1821, there were 300 commercial cultivars,, more than doubling in the next 10 years. These berries were of the dessert varieties, which, to a great extent, have lost popularity, although late July is still the time for Levellers. The acceptance of this particular variety has all but eluded me, so if anyone knows the history, I would be interested to hear. It seems to exist in a league of its own.

But, in my mind, sweet gooseberries are not as interesting as the hard and tart green ones. They lack the acidity that creates the fabulous, mouth-puckering sweet-sourness. It was only, though, after the abolition of sugar tax in 1874 that the tart ones loomed into fashion. Before this, they were occasionally used in place of verjuice to sharpen dishes.

Savoury gooseberry sauces are another great tradition. I'm not wild about gooseberries with salmon, but I do like them with the intense oiliness of smoked mackerel. The sauce needs a little sweetening; it also needs to remain sharp: a well-reduced puree mixed with whipped cream.

But, like so much of our native fruit, gooseberries are at their best enfolded in the comfort of baked batters and puddings, pies and tarts. I have been busy exploring Mary Norwak's English Puddings, Sweet and Savoury (Grub Street pounds 13.99), a lovely book that's full of this kind of thing: basin puddings filled with rhubarb, damsons, blackberries mixed with apples, blackcurrants and cherries, with a pinch of freshly ground cloves, ginger or cinnamon here and there.

Not that it's been a great year for home-grown fruit. When I got home from the supermarket yesterday, I found I had bought grapes from Israel, blueberries from the USA, peaches from Italy, passion-fruit from Kenya, physalis from Colombia and grapefruit from Florida. Saving the day were four punnets of English gooseberries.

Old-fashioned gooseberry pudding and custard, serves 4-6

For those who find suet crust a bit heavy, this has all its unctuous charm with a casing of pastry instead. Gooseberries give out masses of juices as they cook, so, if you prefer, place a layer of dried apricots on the base and another in the middle to absorb some of it. Hot creamy custard is the nicest accompaniment, but any cholesterol-rich cream will do.

Pudding:

225g/8oz self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

pinch of salt

150g/5oz caster sugar

10g/4oz chilled unsalted butter, diced

700g/112 lb gooseberries

1 vanilla pod, slit

Sift the flour and the baking powder into a bowl, add the salt and 50g/2oz of the caster sugar. Rub the butter in so the mixture resembles fine crumbs - you can do this in a food processor. Add 2-3 tablespoons water, just enough to bring the dough together.

Butter a 1.1 12 pint pudding bowl and dust with caster sugar. Top and tail the gooseberries and mix in a bowl with the remaining sugar.

Roll out two-thirds of the pastry on a floured surface and line the basin. You may have to partly press it in with your fingers - it'll be fairly soft. Make sure there are no thin places where the juices will seep through. Fill with the gooseberries, placing the slit vanilla pod in the centre. Make sure the pod is opened out so the seeds can escape into the juices. Roll the remaining third of pastry into a lid and press the edges together to seal it.

Cover the pudding with foil and tie this in place with string. Place in a saucepan with water that comes halfway up the sides of the basin. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook over a very low heat for 2 1/4 hours. Run a knife around the edge of the pudding to loosen it, place a plate on top and invert it. Serve with the custard.

Custard:

7 large egg yolks

75g/3oz caster sugar

400ml/15fl oz milk

150ml/5fl oz double cream

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a bowl until they are pale. Bring the milk to a boil in a small saucepan. Blend a little with the egg yolk mixture and return to the pan. Cook the custard over a low heat, stirring until it thickens slightly and coats the back of a spoon. It mustn't boil. Strain it into a jug, cover surface with cling film. Stir in the cream once it has cooled

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