Inspired by a Nigella Lawson recipe, food writer Nicola Miller glorifies the humble gooseberry with her scrumptious cake recipe
Why does the gooseberry guard its fruits so fiercely? At this time of year, many gardeners bear the scratches delivered by this martinet of the fruit world. People used to say those thorns provided safety and shelter for fairies, hence its old name the ‘fayberry’, although I can’t imagine fairy wings and gooseberry thorns being particularly compatible.
The author Judith Moore said that when Rilke wrote “the imagination sympathises with the being that inhabits the protected space” she thought of pie filling: I imagine the fruits of the gooseberry bush surrounded, as Sleeping Beauty’s castle once was, by thorns.
Because of its fruity protection racket, one might think the gooseberry to be a delicate and vulnerable little fruit much like the greengage or redcurrant, both of which require little more than a grumpy sideways glance to raise a bruise, but no, these are robust fruits and the bushes they grow on seem to me to be more of the desert than the fruit farms of our more temperate climate. Their leaves are easily scorched in the harsh sun though, reminding us that these are not plants which would do well in extreme heat despite their spiky habit and crunchy, jellified fruit flesh. The fruit’s range extends nearly to the Arctic Circle and they do better in cooler climes.
You must really want to eat a gooseberry then because this is not a plant suited to casual picking as one meanders around the garden. Did anyone ever go gooseberry scrumping as a kid? At first glance, you may not even see the fruits until suddenly, your eyes adjust, and the little celadon Chinese lanterns come into view. Then it’s a not-so-simple matter of winding fingers, hands and wrists between some of the most unyielding branches you’ll ever have to contend with, until you snag each fruit between finger and thumb, pinching them neatly and decisively from its stem. It’s tasks like this that make me appreciate the evolutionary marvel that is an opposable thumb. Stripping a goosegog bush always feels like an achievement; an actual Darling Buds of May re-enactment moment.
I would sit beneath my grandparents’ fruit bushes and raze them to the ground. Having (then) the digestion of a goat, I suffered no ill-effects whatsoever from eating pounds and pounds of the fruit in one sitting. I don’t know whether the Scottish diarist and child poet Marjorie Fleming shared my predilection when she wrote: “here there is plenty of gooseberries which makes my teeth watter” in the journal she kept during the last few years of her life, but I like to think that she is paying the gooseberry a compliment. Gooseberries taste as you’d imagine the word ‘green’ might and I was so impatient to eat them. Night after night I’d sit by the bushes, imagining I could hear the fruits squeak as they swelled and ripened. They became invisible as dusk fell but I’d pretend not to hear my grandmother calling me in for bed. The swallows ceased their screaming, returning to roost in my neighbour’s barn and were replaced by ribbons of bats, spooling out into the night air. Whenever I see a gooseberry bush, I remember those bats and swallows.
It’s quite an autumnal cake except for the fact that the gooseberry is not an autumnal fruit unless you’ve frozen some in readiness
At this time of year, local markets are filled to bursting with punnets of soft fruit at decent prices and you don’t need a lot of gooseberries to make this cake whose genesis came by way of three different – and favourite – food writers; all of them resourceful and creative bakers. It began months ago in late autumn when I was charged with baking a birthday cake for a dear friend. Nigella’s winter plum cake from How To Be a Domestic Goddess was my choice but as I am wont to do, I fiddled with it, adding fresh figs and using the juice from the tinned red plums to make a spiced glaze. This made me wonder what red grapes would taste like if used instead, married with gooseberries. I have always been attracted to food with a sharp, sweet and sour edge but you may not be which is why the grapes are such a useful, tempering device for those of you who are less gooseberry bold.
Late night foraging through the mountains of cookbooks in my dining room led me from Nigella to Geraldene Holt and then Nigel Slater and their respective gooseberry kuchens. Holt’s is more of a tart with a cloud of gooseberry meringue, whilst Slater’s is a German-style crumble-topped cake with a crumb tenderised by ground almonds. I wanted something a little more robust in flavour to deepen the sweet sharpness of the fruit, so I subbed in ground hazelnuts for half of the ground almonds. This results in a rustic-looking cake with a slightly ramshackle layer of crumble which also makes it suited to serving up with custard as a pudding on cooler summer evenings or, if it is a warmer day, with cream, crème frâiche or ice-cream. It’s quite an autumnal cake except for the fact that the gooseberry is not an autumnal fruit unless you’ve frozen some in readiness.
It is said that the competitive growing of gooseberries in the north-west of England was once as prevalent as the growing of giant leeks in the north-east. The bushes would be stripped of all their newly set fruit bar one, which, once grown, would be submitted for judging in a sealed box. I don’t encourage this; I’d rather have lots of smaller gooseberries on top of one giant slice of this cake.
HAZELNUT, GRAPE AND GOOSEBERRY CRUMBLE CAKE
150g red grapes
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
180g softened salted butter,
90g golden caster sugar
90g soft brown sugar
2 large eggs
40g ground almonds
40g ground hazelnuts
150g self-raising flour
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
110g plain flour: 110g
½ teaspoon mixed spice
80g fridge-cold salted butter
2 tablespoons golden caster sugar
* Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4.
* Line the base and sides of a 20cm springform tin with baking parchment.
* Wash the grapes and gooseberries, top and tail the latter and place them both into a saucepan with a tablespoon of granulated sugar. Cook over a low heat, stirring for five minutes until some of the fruit has started to split. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.
* Place the chopped hazelnuts into a mortar and grind with a pestle until they become a soft, nubbly flour. You can do this in a food processor but the scent of the nuts as you pound them is so glorious, I like to do it by hand.
* To make the cake: beat the butter, golden caster sugar and brown sugar until pale and fluffy. Crack both eggs into a separate bowl and beat them with a fork until just combined. Slowly fold them into the butter/sugar mixture until well combined.
* Fold in the ground almonds, the ground hazelnuts, and the flour, and add the vanilla extract. Dollop the batter into the cake tin and smooth the top. Arrange the gooseberries and grapes over the batter’s surface in whatever pattern pleases you.
* To make the crumble topping: Add the mixed spice to the flour, cut in the cold butter then rub together until you have a crumbly, pebbly mixture. Now add the sugar and blend it in; adding a couple of drops of water if you think more moisture is required. Scatter the crumble mix over the cake’s fruity top layer.
* The cake will take around an hour to bake, depending on your oven calibration. I start testing it using a cake skewer after fifty minutes. Remove when done and leave to cool before slicing.
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