Cousin Mairi gave me a bag of gooseberries from her allotment at the end of the summer, after she’d had to listen to me lamenting about how hard it was to find them in any shop these days. Yes, you can get them tinned or frozen but it’s my memory that they used to be quite widely available in their season and I so wish that they still were. Have they become victims of the end of seasonality and the ubiquity of fruits shipped and flown in to meet our ever-growing ridiculous demands? Are they regarded as difficult to handle or cook? Is their season too short or are they too ‘sour’ for our modern tastes?
And yet, they’re a fairly popular flavour for yoghurts, fools, icecreams, beers and now for gins, especially mixed with elderflower which is a beautiful combination. I remember the gooseberry bush in our back garden; we may even have had two – one with green fruit and one with red – and we wouldn’t have been unusual in having these. I say let’s get back to traditional cottage gardens but I fear the trend is for monoblocking and artificial grass. (I was also going on about this in “Comfort me with apples …… “ in May this year.)
In Flora Celtica, published by Birlinn in 2004, William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater say that gooseberries can be found growing wild in the woods, naturalised there along with blackcurrants and redcurrants (page 42).
I used a few of Mairi’s green fruits to put inside a whole mackerel which I oven-baked; I got the fish in Morrisons, surprised and delighted to see it there, and I remembered Nigel Slater praising this combination of sharp fruit and oily mackerel. (My father had a ridiculous anti-mackerel prejudice, refusing to eat it and calling it a “dirty fish”.) I also made a fool with some thick yoghurt and bought custard but it was on the watery side though tasted excellent with no added sugar. Having frozen the remainder, I took out about a dozen the other night as I’d bought more Morrisons mackerel; it was fillets this time, so instead of stuffing the fish I made a sauce with the berries, some shallots and a wee tait of cider vinegar. My own invention and a modest success.
In the days long before freezers, clever folk came up with other ways of preserving gooseberries. Christian Isobel Johnstone, in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Meg Dods first published in 1826, recommends drying them out in a slow oven: “Gather green gooseberries, not over ripe; and pick them as soon, and as gently as possible. All bruised ones must be laid aside. Drop them softly into wide mouthed short necked glass bottles, and shake the bottles that the fruit may lie compactly. Stop the bottles with good corks, and set them in a slow oven till the fruit begins to shrivel. Take them out, and in a little while make the corks firm, dip them in bottle rosin, and keep till wanted.” (Rosin is a “solid form of resin obtained from pines”, Wikipedia tells me.) Two pages of her book later, she provides a recipe for a “cheap and beautiful preserve” using red gooseberries. Each gooseberry has to have its top clipped off and then no doubt it was the same poor skivvy who had to make a slit in every one with a needle. Equal weights of these pre-treated gooseberries and sugar were combined but once the skins were transparent, they were to be taken out with a “sugar skimmer” and put into glasses or pots; the syrup was then boiled “till it will jelly”, strained through a fine sieve and poured on to the berries. The reason for removing the fruit early was to prevent it from becoming leathery if it was boiled too long.
Maw Broon’s Cookbook has a Gooseberry Trifle recipe which layers “a good pint” of stewed and sweetened (to taste) gooseberries on top of sliced sponge cake, topped with a layer of homemade custard and another of whipped cream. Catherine Brown in her From Broths to Bannocks Cooking in Scotland 1690 to the present day offers us Gooseberry and Elderflower Brose which starts with toasted medium oatmeal mixed with milk or single cream and left to thicken. Meanwhile she’s simmering, with 1 table spoon of sugar, 8 oz gooseberries and “2-3 large elderflower heads in full bloom”, though this is where I’d be adding a glug of elderflower cordial. When the berries are just soft, we’ve to remove the flower heads and “beat the gooseberries to a rough pulp” before adding to the oats when they’ve cooled. She wants us to add more sugar, top with Greek yoghurt or whipped cream and a “thin trail of runny heather honey”. I’d have thought all that extra sweetness would detract from the essential sharpness of the gooseberries, but each to their own taste I suppose.
In Gaelic, a gooseberry is groseid (with downward sloping accent on the o) and has the Scots word grozet (or groset or groser) come from this source? Williams Brothers Brewing Co in Alloa still makes a Grozet Ale. Tibbie Shiels who lived from 1783 to 1878 was the owner of an inn at St Mary’s Loch where among others she hosted Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Walter Scott and James Hogg; of this last writer she’s reported to have said: “he wrote a deal of trash but was a sensible man” (she’d worked for his mother). Anyway, she drank a sweet green grozet wine with Scott and Hogg in particular. In The Scots Cellar, F Marion McNeill provides a recipe for this wine which calls for 8 lb gooseberries, 2 gallons of water, 6 lb of sugar – and a muckle big pan.
Brambles can be found in the shops though those cultivated ones are often gey tasteless. Luckily they can be gathered growing wild and not just in the countryside either. The writers of Flora Celtica tell us that from pollen records we know that Scotland’s original hunter gatherer peoples would have had brambles to eat (also blaeberries and raspberries); they were being cultivated before 1600 and were used in medicine from the early 17th century: a decoction of their roots was used to treat and prevent asthma and bronchitis.
Like gooseberries, they used to be added to flavour beer, as were elderberries, cowslips, birch leaves and pine needles – all in the 18th century. More recently, Moniack Castle used to produce bramble wine though I think all their fruit wines have been discontinued; happily, Cairn o’ Mhor still do one.
The long stabby branches can be used in basket-making, but are woven into willow and hazel to make them stronger – and so is honeysuckle which must be much more pleasant to work with. Before modern hives, beekeepers bound up their skeps made from straw or rushes with brambles. They must have been hardy, coping with the tiny thorns as well as the threat of bee stings.
Gaelic has an expression cho crosda ris an dris, meaning as cross as a bramble, and the word for bramble – dris – has given us the place name Ardrishaig, meaning the “promontory of thorny brambles by the bay” (George Mackay’s Scottish Place Names), also Drumdrishaig, meaning a thorny ridge (David Dorward’s Scotland’s Place-names).
Traditionally, brambles were to be picked before Michaelmas Day at the end of September though this seems a bit early as I’m sure we did our family picking in October and I ate one on a mid-November walk yesterday. I think it’s heavy rain and then frost that does for them.
Recipes for bramble jelly are easily found but here’s one from Scotland’s Natural Larder for a fruit leather which involves first boiling the fruit along with apples and then baking the puree in a low oven overnight.
And here’s one from Flora Celtica for my wee sister who, when not re-pointing her house, has recently been making bramble liqueur and elderberry vinegar. Next year, she can get out gathering rose hips and try to recreate the ghastly concoction we used to be given in the autumn.
Finally, let’s spare more than just a thought for the migrant workers who’re picking so much of our supermarket fruit in the south of Spain, living in shacks without electricity or running water and earning about 5 euros an hour in conditions of extreme heat with only a half hour break in a working day lasting from sunrise to sundown. See “Under a fiery Spanish sun, migrants who pick fruit for UK live in squalor” in The Observer, 20 September 2020.