This was once the trend of the century?

 

This year was a great year at Beekman 1802 Farm for gooseberries. We don’t know if it was because we installed our new beehives this spring, or because the weather has been conducive, or if our bushes have finally matured…but whatever the reason, we’ve been picking a few dozen quarts of gooseberries over the past few weeks.

Historically neither of us are big gooseberry fans…in fact, like most contemporary Americans, we couldn’t even recall ever eating any before growing our own. They’re one of those fruits – like currants, boysenberries, huckleberries, persimmons, etc – that have a much higher name recognition than actual trial or use. When was the last time you saw a pint of gooseberries for sale at your local grocer? (And if you have, we hope you snapped up every last box.)

So why were gooseberries among the first fruits we planted at the Beekman? Well, when we first started researching the history of the 1802 farm and the crops that were grown during that era, we stumbled on some curious trivia. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was, believe it or not, a “Gooseberry Craze” that began in England and spread to America. At its height, the time, money, and passion spent on this humble berry would have made Beatlemania look like a passing fancy.

No one is exactly sure how the Gooseberry Craze began. The fruit had been fairly popular even before the fad started. Gooseberries are a close relative to currants in the ribe family, and are native to the cooler climes of northern Europe, the mountain regions of southern Europe, and far Western Asia. The berries come in several colors, including red, yellow, green and white varieties. There are also indigenous American species, though these were much smaller, tarter, and generally less palatable. Gooseberries were  first cultivated in English and Dutch Gardens as early as the 16th century, and English colonists first brought the tastier English varieties to America, where they soon became nearly as popular here as in England. In fact, gooseberries were included in the favorite dessert recipes of at least three U.S. Presidents, including John Adams (Gooseberry Fool,) Abraham Lincoln (Gooseberry Pie,) and James Buchanan (Gooseberry Tart.)

But sometime, around 1800, gooseberries began taking over the English imagination. “Gooseberry Clubs” began forming. In nearly every region of the country, gardeners began cultivating new varieties of the fruit – over 2500, by some count. These breeders even created their own Frankenstein cross between their much-loved gooseberry, and another favorite, the black currant. The result was dubbed a “Jostaberry,” and it remains in limited cultivation today.

Egton Bridge Gooseberry Show is one of the last existing Gooseberry Clubs. (Photo: Mike Kipling)

At the height of their popularity, there were over 170 Gooseberry Clubs in Britain, and at least two formal clubs in America. Their meetings and yearly competitions were breathlessly reported in the newspapers of the day. The main purpose of these clubs was a competition for growing the largest, heaviest Gooseberry. While most gooseberries are approximately the size and shape of an average green grape, some of the early prize-winning “monsters” weighed almost an ounce and a half, and were the size of small plums. These contests were held in such importance that the entries were weighed using grains of sand, meted out individually with the use of a feather.

Much secrecy formed around top growers’ prize-winning propagation methods. Husbands and wives were allowed to compete against each other, but had to grow their fruit in separate, contained areas of their garden. Growers developed elaborate cultivation  procedures, including plucking all of the unripe berries from a bush except for one, which they hoped would absorb all of the energy of the plant. Other strange rituals took hold, such as placing a saucer of milk directly underneath a ripening berry, so that the blossom end dipped into the liquid, and purportedly sucked up more nutrients. Of course most of these procedures have no scientific merit, but added to the cult-like fever of the competitions.

In 2009 Bryan Nellist smashed the world record for largest Gooseberry. (Photo: ©Middlesbrough Evening Gazette 2009)

The demise of the Gooseberry Craze came swiftly, in 1905, when a mildew disease from American plants was introduced to England, nearly wiping out all of the gooseberries in the country. Perhaps this was a form of karmic payback, since the introduction of new European gooseberry varieties to America around 1900 brought a deadly fungus to these shores. That fungal blight, dubbed White Pine Blister Rust, was hosted on ribe plants, and began killing swaths of America’s valuable pine forests. As a result, the propagation of many ribes were outlawed, and it’s still illegal to ship gooseberries and other ribe plants to Idaho, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Washington.

But probably what most diminished interest in gooseberries was their popularity itself. Like all fads, the Gooseberry Craze was a victim of it’s own popularity. After World War I and through the 1920’s, when the world began embracing all things “modern,” the fusty idea of gardeners competing for prizes with an old-fashioned fruit seemed hopelessly passe. Gooseberries were stricken from chic menus, and with the advent of better food distribution systems, more exotic fruits from around the world supplanted the familiar native gooseberry on grocer’s shelves.  Only a handful of all the thousands of gooseberry varieties developed during the 19th century remain in cultivation today, and almost none of them commercially. There are no Gooseberry Clubs extant in America and only two left in England, the oldest of which, Eton Bridge, was founded in 1801 – one year before William Beekman built his mansion and farm.

Maybe that’s why gooseberry bushes were among the first crops we planted at the Beekman 1802 Farm. Like “taking the waters” in Sharon Springs, the gooseberry lost its popularity with the advent of modern ideas, and we think it’s a shame to desert an old favorite dessert simply because it’s no longer fashionable. So let’s all start the Gooseberry Craze of the 21st Century.

You in?

Try our modern twist on one of the oldest recorded European desserts, “Gooseberry Fool.”

Don’t have gooseberries for sale near you? Buy red or green varieties them frozen from Northwest Wild Foods.

Rather plant your own? We bought ours from Indiana Berry Company

Bringin’ em back!

Comments28

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  • By: Jacqueline Ann Pollack

    I used to buy Fortnum & Mason and Harrods gooseberry jam when I lived in London…..please make me some!! You have a customer already…..

  • By: Deana

    I have them growing wild down my fence row and use them as a substitute for rhubarb. My husband thinks my cobbled together strawberry/gooseberry pie is one of the best treats, especially coming directly from the oven with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to melt over the top. In Missouri they are seldom the size of a grape…more the size of a pea which means I must work harder and gain more pricks and scratches to get enough to compliment the pie. None-the-less it has become one of my favorite. If anyone would like to know how I compile this prize, just google a strawberry/rhubarb pie; a gooseberry pie and then wing it…or you can contact me for what I have experimented with and found to work. I can say that even if the crust doesn’t work because of too much liquid, the “mush” that results is still heavenly.

  • By: Joanne Voelker

    Wow, I had no idea the history about the Gooseberry. Now I’ll be going on a Farmers Market hunt for them. Thanks for the info!

  • By: molly

    found this very interesting. after a little research wonder how far south they can grow. here in Montgomery al we only get a few days below freezing and hven’t been able to determine hoe much “chill” they need. thanks for any help

    • By: Linda N Daniel Hoskins

      Glendale, pixwell and black velvet are supposed to do well as far south as zone 7. Mine are just one year old, but so far so good. Also, you might want to try the native American black currant called a “Crandall.” It is something inbetween a small gooseberry and a large currant. They are supposed to do fine all the way down to zone 8. I have heard of people growing them in Atlanta.

  • By: Laurie

    I have a very large gooseberry bush in my front yard in Westchester. I too had a very good crop this year. I think it had to do with it being big enough and old enough now as well as a good combo of rain and sun. I didn’t get anything like the gooseberries in the picture. Impressive! The original plant grew on my grandparents farm in Sunfield, MI. My mom took a cutting years ago and planted it in her front yard in the upper manhattan area of Inwood. Maybe it is the only gooseberry bush growing on the island of Manhattan! My cutting was from her bush. Gooseberries were a big part of my childhood memories and my mom was very sentimental about them as well. So much so that we buried some of her ashes under her gooseberry bush. I am happy to read that people are taking notice of gooseberries again. I think I may need to get some different varieties. Looking forward to talking gooseberries this coming Saturday. Enjoyed reading all the comments about gooseberries on this site.

  • By: Leslie

    I planted a bush 3 years ago mine turn red when ripe. Very thorny bush, looking for a jelly recipe.

  • By: Heather

    I have tons of goseberry bushes and have started growing Cape Gooseberries this year! Mom always made Gooseberry Mulberry pie when we were growing up..Yumm!

  • By: brook wilson, pawpaw

    Like others, I too have childhood associations with gooseberries. In recent years, I've been trying to establish them and currants at our farm, planting several different varieties of each. I'm also pleased that there is renewed interest in these fabulous, quaint fruits and hope that outdated ban is lifted.

    Indiana Berry is a great source for many plants, and I purchased my first Poormans there. Whitman Farms in Oregon is another great place for a very wide variety of ribes. Talking to the legendary Lucille there is always a great experience.

  • By: Louis Compo

    For many years you couldn't grow gooseberries in New York because of White Pine blister rot which effected the White pine trees, killing them by the thousands but now they have variegated gooseberry plants that don't attract the rot and rust.

  • By: Marie Lyon

    Love your information about the gooseberry. I remember then from my childhood when I visited my aunt's farm in Poland. She had the white and red gooseberry bushes and I remember having to pick them when they were ripe. I loved the red ones more because they are sweeter. She used to can them for the winter time. God, how this brings back sooooooooooo many memories!!!! Thanks!

  • By: Gabrielle

    Some great info on Gooseberries from the cookbook, "The Cook and The Gardener," 1999, by Amanda Hesser. Hesser is a former food columnist for The New York Times and is the founder of http://www.food52.com.

    "Gooseberries have a peculiar name in French: groseilles a maquereau or "mackerel currants." The history of the fruit is fuzzy; the etymology of the name even more so…. the name was adopted because the acidic berries were used to make a green sauce to go with mackerel. The berries have also been called groseilles vertes and rougeatres."

    "In English the gooseberry has also had various names: feapberry, dewberry-bush and sometimes wineberry. But gooseberry stuck the longest. At one time to act as a chaperone on a date was "to play gooseberry" – perhaps providing the thorn between the two? And the "big gooseberry season" is the time in Britain when Parliament is out of season."

    She has a nice recipe for gooseberry and currant tart. I got the book from my library but it's also available on Amazon as a new or used book.

  • By: Annie

    My Grandmother always had frozen gooseberries in the freezer from her yard. She would give me them as a treat with tons of sugar. I was the only one who would eat them. Interesting info.

  • By: Nancy McGee

    I really wonder how much of an effect you're having on the sustainable living world — even Mother Earth News had an article on Gooseberries this month! Makes me wonder who is reading your blog from over there.

    *CAN'T* wait to visit the Beekman next month! You guys are such an inspiration. You're living the dream! Hey, PLEASE tell me Josh is on the farm full time now… ?

  • By: Michael

    I would like to make a correction. You can have gooseberries and currants shipped to you if you live in Vermont. I had them shipped to me for the past couple years and very much enjoy the plants I grow.

  • By: sue tolbert

    There are two farmers who have been selling gooseberries the past few week at the market. Yes, they are a special treat especially if they join forces with my neighbors raspberries. Enjoyed

    reading another great flash back in time. sue t.

  • By: jolanta lafond

    my mother always had gooseberries in her garden so i grew up eating them, she still grows them and uses to make jams and also for making wine what can be better than that! Moms are the best!

  • By: Marcia L Clarke

    My mother had gooseberry bushes when we were teenagers, probably because her grandmother thought they were special; "Gram" Brown was a major influence in her life, and an avid organic gardener herself from the late 1800's.

  • By: Andrea Duke

    I just had goosberries about a month ago for the first time. I froze some, but not many. They are painful to pick!! :)

  • By: Holly

    Have you ever had a persimmon? They're not really something I'd recommend just taking a bite out of, but they're excellent in recipes such as pudding, breads and even ice cream. I happen to be from Mitchell, Indiana where the persimmon has it's own festival each year;)

    • By: Dr. Brent

      My childhood home was surrounded by wild, sweet persimmon trees. Persimmon pudding was a Sunday dinner staple

  • By: Linda Schnell-Leonar

    thanks for the link for the Indiana Berry Company. I am always looking for something new to plant. Which color gooseberries are the sweeter ones? Hope they will ship to me, I am in NJ.

  • By: Joel Cates

    My grandparents had a gooseberry bush in their garden while I was growing up. I just use to eat the berries right off the bush. But you had to be careful of the thorns, those things really hurt if you were not paying attention. Regardless, I have fond memories of picking those gooseberries along with grapes, strawberries, raspberries and plums.

    Finally, last year I fond a gooseberry plant at a local nursery and bought it right then and there. This year it produced a pretty decent amount of fruit for it's first full year and I'm looking forward for the years to come as it gets bigger and produces more.

    Thanks for sharing the history of the gooseberry bush. It's always interesting hearing these stories.

  • By: Robin

    Your blog really brought back some childhood memories. My father was raised on a farm in west central Indiana in the '40s and they grew many gooseberry bushes.I remember my grandmother making gooseberry pie, a tart/sweet treat that tasted even better when it was eaten when not quite cooled on her kitchen window sill. It's great to hear that you're gowing them at the Beekman! Enjoy!

  • By: David

    Very informative! A true "Who knew?". Thanks much Josh & Brent!

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