Etymologists have long speculated about the origins of the gooseberry's unfortunate name and have yet to reach a decisive conclusion (aside from the moniker's absolute absurdity). One plausible theory suggests that gooseberry is actually a corruption of the French word groseille, or red currant, a relative of the berry.
Truly unique and arguably exquisite in appearance, gooseberries are fragile orbs with pale veins running from top to stem, or "tail," as the British would say. Such a delicate appearance belies a mouth-puckering tartness in the more commonly found varieties. Berries range from smooth to fuzzy on the outside, firm to mushy on the inside, and translucent to fairly opaque throughout. Cultivated in a variety of colors, the pale white, yellow and green berries generally indicate a sour flavor while the pink and darker purplish hues are sweeter.
Most common in the British culinary realm, the gooseberry is practically synonymous with fool, a concoction of sweetened fruit sauce folded into whipped cream. Gooseberries also figure prominently in recipes for preserves, pies and tarts as well as chilled soups.
The sharp acidity level of gooseberries also graces savory sauces, making a pleasing contrast with the richness of roast meats and poultry, such as pork, goose or duck, as well as with somewhat oilier fish.
Gooseberry season begins in early July and lasts through early August, so make haste to your local market or berry farm.
Gooseberries are distinct from the cape gooseberry, otherwise known as the ground cherry; they are high in vitamin C and a plentiful source of fiber and potassium.
Buying and Storing: The variety of gooseberry most commonly found in supermarkets is small, pale green and tart. Look for berries that are taut-skinned, even-colored and firm. It is a rare treat to find the sweeter pink or purple varieties.
Gooseberries remain firm and bright for two to three weeks if refrigerated. With time, they gradually become softer and slightly sweeter while developing a slightly pinkish hue. If you find yourself up to your elbows in gooseberries, freeze them for future use.
Cleaning: Wash the berries under cool water and remove the tops and tails that once attached the berry to the bush with a knife or scissors.
Preparing: Traditionally, gooseberries are incorporated into fools, flummeries, preserves, pies and tarts. They can also be poached in a simple sugar syrup and served as a chilled soup (often with elderflower) or spooned over shortcakes.
For a wonderful savory sauce, add berries and a bit of brown sugar to the defatted pan juices from roast meats or poultry and simmer about 10 minutes, crushing the berries slightly.
A couple of cooking caveats: Green gooseberries take on a rather unappealing khaki-colored cast when heated. This is easily remedied by first refrigerating the berries for about 10 days to evoke a pinkish hue, or simply stir in a few blackberries. Also poach them gently over low heat as the berries tend to collapse if exposed to high heat.
And if you can locate the sweet pinkish variety of gooseberries, by all means pop them straight in your mouth or enjoy them with a dusting of confectioners' sugar and a splash of cream.