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Groundwork: Green, mouth-puckering and fabulous

Gooseberry season at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

People who grew up in northern states or, as in my case, northern Europe, think of the gooseberry as a fruit with a lot of complexity. Not least the complexity of its nostalgic associations. Here was a fruit of childhood, branches laden with berries at eye level, but with a strongly acidic flavor that was decidedly better suited to the adult palate. Throw in the arm-ripping thorns, and behold a treat that is not remembered as warm and fuzzy to kids. It's also not a fruit seen much in commerce and rarely in gardens. I asked young colleagues if they liked it, and most hadn't even heard of it. Variably green, pinkish green or pink-red by variety, it is the size of a grape, a little rounder and marked by white veins.

Recipe Included

What really sets it apart, though, is its tartness. Pick one too green and it really is disagreeable. Pick one at its peak of flavor, and it is still sour, but in a sophisticated foodie kind of manner. It's the stuff of tarts, crumbles and fools. It's fabulous.

Like its cousins, the currants, the gooseberry is at its southern limit here, but grows well if given a little afternoon shade and set in native clay soil that is not prone to waterlogging. Before planting, enrich the soil with organic matter. A little light mulch will keep its roots moist and cool. Grown in our hot climate, however, it does attain a quality I have not seen before. It gets ripe. This is not a good thing. What you gain in sweetness, you lose in flavor and texture. Instead of the skin bursting with an acidic frisson in your mouth, it just collapses into a bland and mealy affair. Reaping gooseberries, thus, is a skill: Wait for the fruit to attain full size and show some hint of blushing, and you should be in gooseberry heaven.

Gooseberry Invicta: thorny but a good bet for hot, humid Washington. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

At Green Spring Gardens near Alexandria, a variety named Invicta is an early gooseberry coming into its peak season. It has really wicked thorns, but offers a delicious and plump fruit. This plant is just 2 years old from a slip and is now 3 feet high but almost 6 feet across. It blooms on year old wood, and is thus yielding a fair harvest for the first time.

If you read about pruning gooseberry, you can get confused quickly with lots of esoteric information about cordons and the like. All you have to remember is to treat a gooseberry bush like a raspberry patch. In late winter, thin out the suckering canes, tip back the previous year's growth, and remove the oldest, woodiest canes. You want to keep the plant open and airy to get light to the fruit and minimize problems with powdery mildew.
It pays to get varieties that are resistant to mildew and bred for heat tolerance. In addition to Invicta, look for Glendale, Poorman, Captivator, Whitesmith and Hinnonmakis Red.

Spring-planted cabbages are heading well in June. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

As you ponder the gooseberry, keep weeding and watering. The garden needs attention at least twice a week and preferably a little every day. Weeds thrive on bare soil and the absence of the gardener. At Green Spring Gardens, the broccoli has been harvested and pulled, though the cabbages are just beginning to hit their stride. Some of the wonderful kale of spring, Red Russian, is looking sad, wilted and worse for whitefly, and should be pulled. As beds are cleared, turned and weeded, the gardeners are sowing pole beans, yard long or asparagus beans and Malabar spinach.

Cindy Brown and the volunteers are sowing some corn for a September crop, thinning the carrot seedlings and tending to the stretchy plants in need of tethering, watering and general attention, including the tomato vines and pole beans, and the cucumbers, now in flower and beginning to set fruit. The fava beans, sown directly in the cold ground of March, are heavy with pods and beginning to signal their demise with discoloration of their foliage. Time to pull the plants, take their treasures and use their beds for such things as more beans, winter squash or those leftover tomato plants that you couldn't find room for.

Gooseberry bushes are sometimes hard to find, in part because some states don't allow them due to concern about disease in white pines, which they share. The folks at Virginia Berry Farm, a wholesaler, said if you email them, they can have plants available through a related company, at farmers markets in Northern Virginia. The address is

-- Adrian Higgins
(Follow me on Twitter.)

Gooseberry and Currant Crumble
6 servings

(Cynthia A. Brown)

Showcasing seasonal berries in a homemade pie is a marvelous idea, but who wants to spend the required kitchen time? An old-fashioned crumble is a delectable alternative. A few simple ingredients are all that is needed.

If you are not lucky enough to have a supply of fresh gooseberries or currants other seasonal fruit can be substituted. Adjust the amount of sugar accordingly.

Serve warm with ice cream or lemon gelato or whipped cream.

From gardener Cynthia A. Brown.

4 to 5 cups mixed gooseberries, red and black currants (see NOTE)
1/3 cup granulated sugar, or to taste
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking rolled oats (do not use instant)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have an 8-by-8-inch baking dish at hand.
Arrange the berries in the baking dish. Sprinkle the granulated sugar over the berries and stir to coat. (This amount of sugar will sweeten the berries, but the final flavor will still be tart. If you'd like the dish to be sweeter, add sugar to taste.)

Combine the flour, oats, brown sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl; mix well.
Use your fingers to work the butter into the flour mixture, which should result in some pea-size crumbs. Spread the crumb mixture evenly across the berries.

Bake about 40 minutes, until the fruit begins to bubble through the topping.

NOTE: The currants you have may or may not be stemmed, so remove any stems you find. To prepare gooseberries, use a sharp paring knife or scissors to remove the stem tips and any dried blossom bits.

Per serving: 370 calories, 4 g protein, 40 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 50 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 10 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 32 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 21, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, recipes  
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