Posted in Family, Personal life

My Gooseberry Harvest

Unlike their camouflaged green cousins, red gooseberries are easy to spot amongst the thorns.

Picking gooseberries in my garden today for the first time in years, I murmur (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) that gooseberries do not go gentle into that dark night (of my deep freezer). I’d forgotten just how painful they are to pick, due to the long, sharp spines cunningly interspersed between the fruits.

In the early evening sunshine, it’s a battle of wills. I want to harvest its fruit at the peak of ripeness, before the forecast thunderstorms arrive and turn their now firm berries to mush, but the spiny bush seems determined to repel me. But I don’t give up. To stop myself fretting about how much time it’s taking, I fall to thinking of when I first became aware of gooseberries, when I was a child.

Forbidden Fruit

There was a neat grid of soft fruit bushes at the bottom of our next door neighbour’s garden. The man of the house tended his soft fruit carefully, and I watched the berries fatten from a distance. Although I was friendly with his children, and used to go next door to play, I was never allowed to taste a single berry; nor were his children allowed to pick them from the bush. They were forbidden fruit.

Old photo of Grandpa and Grandma
My Grandma and Grandpa, around the time I went to their house for school dinners every day

But I did get to taste gooseberries regularly at my Grandma’s house, where I went at school dinner time every day during my primary school years. (In those days, it was a case of eat school dinners or go home – I don’t know why packed lunch was not an option.)

Grandma’s gooseberry tart was sublime. She baked it in an old-fashioned dish, which lent a not unpleasant tinny flavour to her delicious pastry. After it was cooked, she sprinkled caster sugar over the top, which pooled in little indentations where the pastry lid undulated over the gooseberries. We’d eat the pie cold, as she’d have made it for Sunday dinner with my Grandpa the day before. From the first bite, its chilled acidity coated the inside of my mouth. As I ran back up the road for afternoon school, I carried the delicious tang with me. I can even taste it now.

Cottage Garden Idyll

20 years later, finding soft fruit in the garden was one of the reasons that I was desperate to buy the cottage I live in now. For a long time, I had enough blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries to justify jam-making. By the end of August, one shelf in my larder had the look of a jewellery box about it, rich colours shining out through deep rows of neat glass jars.

But about ten years ago, these bushes reached the end of their natural lives. In the interests of crop rotation, their former beds were designated for less beautiful foods – potatoes, courgettes, beans. All useful staples but none to make your colander look like you’ve plundered Aladdin’s cave.

Then last year a kind gardening friend bestowed upon us some surplus soft fruit plants. Thanks to the wet spring and recent heatwave, I’m now able to pick my own blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries for the first time in a decade.

Sharp Reminder

A decade is long enough for me to have forgotten how prickly gooseberry bushes are. Picking gooseberries is as hazardous as clipping a hedgehog’s toenails. My arms and hands are quickly etched with scratches.

These fat red fruits may be raging against the dying of the light, but soon they’ll be in the dark depths of my freezer (not quite enough for jam this year). In a few months’ time, I’m planning to rustle up my own gooseberry pie. On a dark winter’s day, it’ll be a great way of bringing back memories of this summer’s heatwave – and, from a much more distant past, the warmth of my grandmother’s love.


If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read:

 Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma.

Posted in Family, Personal life

Who Says Men Make the Best Chefs?

"Rhodesian Cave Man" from Scientific...
Caveman doing the grocery shopping - Image by Wyoming_Jackrabbit via Flickr

“Mummy, when I get married, I’m going to choose a man who likes to do all the cooking,” declared my daughter Laura the other day.

Her assertion surprised me because we’ve recently made a very successful batch of cookies together. Her schoolfriends requested she bring more to school in her next day’s packed lunch.  She also enjoys Let’s Get Cooking Club at school, which I’d hoped would set her on the right track to self-sufficiency in the kitchen.

It’s not that she’s hoping to marry a man like her father.  In ten years of marriage, he’s only ever cooked me three meals.  The first, on our second date, was a stew.  I later discovered it was a blend of everything edible that he could find in his kitchen.  Considering evidence I collected later, I had a lucky escape that night.  Usually, a mutual friend told me, his was the typical bachelor’s fridge, containing only mouldy fruit, bought in a fit of resolve to eat more healthily but never actually consumed, and beer.

The second meal was a frozen supermarket ready meal.  Maybe this was to stop me thinking that this cheffing lark might become a habit.  Then, eight years later, came his third dish: a poached egg on toast, when I was ill with flu in bed.

The poached egg has recently become his signature dish – much as an X becomes the signature of a man who cannot write.  More as a technical enquiry than with the intent of using it, he asked me a little while ago how the egg poacher worked.  To my surprise, he was sufficiently intrigued to try it out.  After many repetitions of the instructions, he finally mastered the art.

I was shocked.  In our household, we have a pretty traditional division of labour: I do the cooking, the food shopping and the laundry, and he does the DIY.  I don’t object, as it gets me off the hook for decorating, and he’s a lot better at it than me.  So I wondered whether his embrace of this tiny corner of catering precipitates a subtle shift in our balance of power.  Suddenly, I was no longer needed to cook his breakfast in the morning: he could make it himself.

Until this point, he’d always been proud of his lack of prowess in the kitchen, citing it as an indication of his descent from stone age man.  Apparently, he-men evolved to operate only on a grand scale in providing food for his family, tracking down wild animals and dragging them back to his cave.  After all that hunting, he’d need to receover his strength while the female of the species prepared his kill for the oven. He claims that’s also why he’s not good at finding things around the house – his glasses, his car keys, his slippers – because men are programmed to find big things far away – like mammoths.

It’s always amused my colleagues that the only phone calls I ever get from him while at work are requests to help him find things: his swimming trunks, his measuring tape, our daughter.  And just last week I had another plaintive call from home.

“Debbie, I can’t find the egg poacher.”

It seems there’s no danger that I’ll be made redundant in the kitchen just yet.