A berry nice treat

I’M NOT sure why gooseberries haven’t had quite the same revival and surge of popularity in recent times that rhubarb has, but I totally love them. Everyone should have a couple of gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes in their garden as well as a few rhubarb stools.

They are all perennial, so once you’ve chosen good varieties and planted them, they will delight you year after year. I will concentrate here on green gooseberries, which although later than usual this year are now perfect for tarts, pie, fools and sauces. By a fortuitous coincidence in nature, elderflowers bloom in the hedgerows all over the country just at the time the green gooseberries are best for cooking. Mind you, it takes an act of faith to pick the green under-ripe berries at present as they are still hard as hailstone — they may not seem palatable but trust me, they make the best desserts and are even more delicious if you add a couple of elderflowers while they are bubbling away in the pot or oven.

A compote of green gooseberries flavoured with these wild blossoms is delicious alone, with carrageen moss pudding or panna cotta. It’s vital that the berries burst in the elderflower-flavoured syrup, otherwise they will be too tart, so don’t worry about the appearance, it should look like stewed gooseberries. This compote is good served warm with rice pudding or chilled and also lasts in the fridge for a week or more.

Green gooseberry sauce (really just stewed gooseberries) makes a delicious alternative to Bramley apple sauce with roast pork and the combination of grilled mackerel with green gooseberry sauce is a marriage made in heaven.

These tart green gooseberries also make the most delicious jam but there is just a brief window of opportunity to make this each year because the berries swell and sweeten by the day.

The old-fashioned gooseberry sponge pudding is as yummy as ever it was. You might want to serve it with a big jug of Birds custard for old time’s sake but a drizzle of Jersey cream also makes it into a feast.

The best early variety is Careless but it’s also worth planting a few dessert gooseberries like Invicta, Sulphur and Black Velvet to enjoy when they are plump and ripe in June. Meanwhile, rush to your garden or your local farmers’ market and enjoy the green gooseberries while they are in season.

Gooseberry and Elderflower Fool

Serves 6 approx.

450g (1lb) gooseberries

3-4 elderflower heads, tied in muslin

225g (8ozs) sugar

300ml (½ pint) water

Whipped cream

As the summer goes on and the gooseberries mature, less sugar is needed for this fool.

Barely cover the green gooseberries with the elderflower heads tied in muslin with the stock syrup.

Bring to the boil and cook until the fruit bursts, about 5 – 6 minutes.

Liquidise, puree or mash the fruit and syrup and measure.

When the puree has cooled completely, add – ½ of its volume of softly whipped cream according to taste.

Note: If you want to make the fool a little less rich, use less cream, and fold in one stiffly beaten egg white instead.

Green Gooseberry and Elderflower Compote

When the elderflowers come into bloom, then I know it’s time to pick green gooseberries. They feel as hard as hailstones, but for cooking it’s the perfect time. Enlist the help of little ones to top and tail the elderflowers.

900g (2lb) green gooseberries

2 or 3 elderflower heads

600ml (1 pint) cold water

450g (1lb) sugar

First, top and tail the gooseberries.

Tie the elderflower heads in a little square of muslin, put the bag in a stainless-steel or enamelled saucepan, add the sugar and cover with cold water.

Bring slowly to the boil and continue to boil for two minutes. Add the gooseberries and simmer just until the fruit bursts. Allow to get cold.

Serve in a pretty bowl and decorate with fresh elderflowers.

Elderflower and Green Gooseberry Jam

The gooseberries should be tart and green and hard as hailstones — as soon as the elderflowers are in bloom in the hedgerows search for the gooseberries under the prickly bushes or seek them out in your local greengrocer or farmers market. In season: late spring.

Makes 6 x 450g (1lb) pots

1.6kg (3½ lb) green gooseberries

5-6 elderflower heads

600ml (1 pint) water

1.57kg (3½ lb) sugar

Wash the gooseberries if necessary. Top and tail them and put into a wide stainless steel preserving pan with the water and elderflowers tied in muslin. Simmer until the gooseberries are soft and the contents of the pan are reduced by one-third, approx two hours. Remove the elderflowers and add the warm sugar, stirring until it has completely dissolved. Boil rapidly for about 10 minutes until setting point is reached (220F on a jam thermometer). Pour into hot clean jars, cover and store in a dry airy cupboard. This jam should be a fresh colour, so be careful not to overcook it.

Gooseberry Sponge Pudding

Serves 4-6

1lbs (450g) green gooseberries

1 tbsp water

3-4ozs (85g-110g) approx sugar

For the topping:

2ozs (55g) butter

2ozs (55g) sugar

1 beaten egg, preferably free-range

3ozs (85g) self-raising flour, sieved

1-2 tbsp milk

1 pie dish, 1½ pint (900m) capacity

Set the oven to 200C/400F/regulo 6.

Top and tail the gooseberries, put them in a heavy saucepan with the water and sugar, and cover. Stew them gently until just soft, them tip into a buttered pie dish.

Cream the butter until soft, add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Add the beaten egg by degrees and beat well until completely incorporated.

Sieve the flour and fold into the butter and egg mixture. Add about one tablespoon milk or enough to bring the mixture to dropping consistency. Spread this mixture gently over the apple.

Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, or until the sponge mixture is firm to the touch in the centre. Sprinkle with caster sugar. Serve warm with homemade custard or lightly whipped cream.

This comforting dessert — sometimes called Eve’s Pudding — can also be made with rhubarb, cooking apples or a mixture of blackberry and apples or rhubarb and strawberries.

Pan-Grilled Mackerel with Green Gooseberry Sauce

This is a master recipe for pan-grilling fish and is the simplest and possibly the most delicious way to cook really fresh mackerel. Use the tart hard green gooseberries on the bushes at the moment, they make a delicious sauce.

Serves 1 or 2

2-4 fillets of very fresh mackerel (allow 6ozs (170g) fish for main course, 3ozs (85g) for a starter)

Seasoned flour

Small knob of butter

First make the green gooseberry sauce.

Dip the fish fillets in flour which has been seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper. Shake off the excess flour and then spread a little butter with a knife on the flesh side, as though you were buttering a slice of bread rather meanly.

When the grill is quite hot but not smoking, place the fish fillets butter side down on the grill; the fish should sizzle as soon as they touch the pan.

Turn down the heat slightly and let them cook for 4 or 5 minutes on that side before you turn them over.

Continue to cook on the other side until crisp and golden. Serve on a hot plate with some gooseberry sauce.

Green Gooseberry Sauce

10ozs (285g) fresh green gooseberries

Stock syrup to cover (see below) — 6 fl ozs (175 ml) approx

A knob of butter (optional)

Top and tail the gooseberries, put into a stainless steel saucepan, barely cover with stock syrup, bring to the boil and simmer until the fruit bursts. Taste. Stir in a small knob of butter if you like but it is very good without it.

Stock Syrup

4 fl ozs (120ml) water

4ozs (110g) sugar

Dissolve the sugar in the water and boil together for 2 minutes. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator until needed. Stock syrup can also be used for sorbets, fruit salads or as a sweetener in homemade lemonades.

Wild food

Elder Flowers (Sambucus nigra)

The common or black elder grows in profusion around the Irish countryside and is in full bloom at present.

It’s really easy to grow — even a twig pushed into the ground will root. If you have the space, it’s really worth considering so you can have an elderflower tree of your very own.

The low-growing, bushy tree with it’s greyish-brown bark smells musty and unappealing, but its tiny white flower heads, hanging on reddish stems, are transformed on cooking and impart a delicious Muscat-like flavour to syrups, lemonades, cordials, tarts, sorbets, and compotes and more.

The fact that elderflower tastes delicious and is so versatile is reason enough to gather it, but it is also known to contain antioxidants and is commonly used in remedies against hay fever, rheumatism and the common cold.

The elder tree was traditionally known as the ‘village pharmacy’ and people were reluctant to cut it down. The roots, bark, leaves and berries were all used medicinally and recent studies have shown that elderflowers have the ability to inactivate viruses.

We’ve noticed a growing demand for organic elderflowers at our local farmers’ market.

Hot tip

BIG excitement at Midleton Farmers Market as today they celebrate their 10th anniversary. Look out for green gooseberries and elderflowers as well as lots of fresh gorgeous local produce, artisan bread, fish, free range pork, farmhouse cheese. Saturdays 9am to 1.30pm.

Brown Envelope Seeds are having an open day at their farm in Ardagh, Skibbereen, Co Cork, on Sunday, June 6, with a walk around the farm and a cup of tea. Contact Madeline McKeever at 028-38184.

Good reports about O’Carroll’s, beach bar and restaurant in Caherdaniel, Co Kerry. Maria, a graduate of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, sources most of her ingredients for the restaurant locally. Lobsters, crab, oysters, mussels and lots of fresh fish come from local fishermen. They also serve really good pizzas, make all their own dressings and sauces and bake fresh bread every day. O’Carroll’s is nestled in a sub-tropical cove, with rare wild flowers and plants that don’t occur anywhere else in Ireland. Open Monday to Sunday 11am to 9pm; 066-9475151.

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