“… under a gooseberry bush.”*
Graham R. Cooper
A couple who recently moved to the district came round on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve to pick our surplus gooseberries. Two grandchildren in tow – six and ten or thereabouts.
Two girls, they were enjoying eating them raw, despite the older one screwing up her face in mock disgust as she told me how sour they were. I was surprised and delighted; I demonstrated how much I also liked them raw by enthusiastically chomping on the ones I took from the younger girl’s outstretched hand.
June’s like many an adult and won’t eat them raw. But children will often surprise you with what they actually do like. I recall how astonished we were when daughter Jemma started feeding mashed up raw sheep’s liver as a first solid to baby Saleh when he was about eight months old. He’d open his mouth wide, gurgle, swallow. “Like a little bird,” June said. What didn’t go down fanning out in a brown drool over a white bib.
Jemma decided to try Saleh with the liver after dipping into a book on good nutrition called Nourishing Traditions, which is based on Weston A. Price’s ideas. In fact, June and I have a diet that’s in tune with much of the advice in that gem of a book. We’re not about to try raw liver though, or any other raw meat for that matter!
The other day we watched in amazement as Olive, two and a half year old daughter of son Joseph and partner Imogen, demolished a large slab of homemade Xmas cake. We didn’t think young children liked fruit cake so rich it threatens to stick to your teeth and the roof of your mouth.
June uses the recipe she got from Pauline, the cleaner at the place where we stayed when we lived in London for a year in the early 80s. Pauline sent us on our merry way round Europe with a Xmas cake she’d made: massive, rich, dense, well-preserved in brandy. Filled many a hungry gap over several months as we saw Europe On $10 A Day. In the early 80s, it was quite doable (as the book title suggests), on ten U.S. dollars a day.
Dad was a huge fan of raw gooseberries, and in his later years when he didn’t have much of a crop himself, he’d get us to give him whatever we had leftover after our bottling, pie making, and my feasting on them raw, had come to an end.
Gooseberries had always been a food favourite of his, but shunting our surplus his way had more to do with his notion that they did their bit in a quest for a long and healthy life. He told me that researchers looking into the long life spans of people in a remote village in one of the Central Asian ‘stan’ countries (I can’t remember which one), thought it might have something to do with the large quantities of gooseberries they consumed.
Our seven bushes can be relied on to be heavy laden with ripe berries by Xmas time: more than enough for our needs. I’ll have fresh gooseberries on my breakfast porridge for about a month – that’s how long they’ll keep stored in an open container in a fresher draw in the fridge.
But for now, the gooseberries on the one bush left unpicked are still fine plucked straight from the bush, so I’ve been eating a freshly picked handful every morning this week. Fresh or from the fridge, that still leaves eleven months when if we want them on a regular basis we’ll need to crack open a preserving jar. They burst and go mushy when frozen and we don’t find that at all appetizing.
So we’re putting more faith in the blackcurrant as an aid to aging healthily. They freeze brilliantly straight from the bush. Most years there’ll be enough to take us through nine or ten months. Scoop a small bowl full out of the freezer bag, put it in the fridge overnight, and next morning the texture and flavour aren’t much inferior to freshly picked.
I’d eat raw gooseberries most every day of the year given the chance – the chance to add yet another goodie to a balanced daily diet. I wonder if the berries kept for ages on the bushes in that remote village, or whether they preserved them – goodness intact?
They can’t have had a blackbird (or its equivalent) problem. They’d strip the bushes within days if we didn’t cover them with bird netting. Obviously the fine, tapered to a needle-point thorns that bristle the branches didn’t evolve to deter birds!
Gooseberries grow naturally in alpine thickets and rocky woods, so perhaps they didn’t want animals distributing the seed in their dung out on the open plains. Better to protect those low fruiting branches from browsing animals and let the birds poop out the seed while perched in trees.
Our gooseberry patch was started with cuttings, not seed, pooped out or otherwise. Dad gave us a couple of heritage varieties but they soon succumbed to gooseberry mildew disease. Often called American gooseberry mildew, its arrival on New Zealand soil wiped out a colourful array of red, white, green and yellow fruiting varieties.
We switched to a modern variety called Invicta – bred to be resistant and with a green berry, we planted them in a sunny spot with good air flow and they’ve never got mildew. Cuttings and self-rooted off-shoots from our plants have gone to several locals and family further afield over the years.
June prunes the bushes in winter, building a big heap of spikey branches on the bonfire site in Owl Gully paddock. I keep the cattle out till they’re burnt – they’d shunt them around and leave needle-sharp remnants all over the place.
Gooseberries don’t fruit on new season’s growth, so June can safely take out all the densely packed new shoots that come up in the middle of the bush, leaving more of a bowl than your classic fruit tree vase shape. A strong new branch or two towards the outside of the bush will be left to replace any weak old shoots she removes.
Air circulates well with such an open structure, and just as importantly, you can get at the berries without having your hands and arms mercilessly punctured and bloodied as you pick.
When there was mum, dad, and the two kids, June would bottle three dozen quart preserving jars of gooseberries. Most years now, she’ll bottle either one or two dozen depending on how supplies are holding out.
Citrus, even the relatively hardy Meyer lemon**, don’t survive for long down here and as I lamented in an earlier post, we’ve given up trying. But we’re just as keen on our berries, and the ones we grow do just fine in our climate and soils: gooseberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, strawberries, blueberries. So listen up yous lemons: “The answer’s not a lemon after all.” (See a-bit-on-the-side-a-k-a-the-answers-a-lemon.)
*Gooseberry bush was 19th-century slang for pubic hair, and from this comes the saying that babies are “born under a gooseberry bush”. (From a WIKIPEDIA article on the gooseberry.)
**Joseph gave us four big, juicy Meyer lemons from his young bush when he arrived with his family on Boxing Day!
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully till next Monday. It’s haymaking season, and we got in sixty small bales from someone’s lifestyle block just the other day. It was stinking hot and they were tight, heavy bales – we were totally stuffed way before we had it all stored under cover. Can’t get through summer without talking about hay though, so that’s next week’s topic lined up.
It’s great to be posting again after a two week festive season recharge of the blog writing batteries! A heartfelt shout-out to my readers – thanks guys. Bye for now.