I first saw this idea over on Ivan Day’s site, Historic Food, and knew that I had to try it at some point. But that was actually several years ago, when I didn’t even know where to buy gooseberries in New England, let alone expect to have any of my own.
But when I found myself in my own house, with heaps of fertile dirt outside (the place used to be a giant sheep farm), I went in search of a few currant and gooseberry bushes of my own. In the process, I discovered that they are scarce in the states in part because of what I’ve nicknamed the War on Fruit. It turns out that the genus ribes, of which gooseberries and currants are members, can also be a carrier for a disease that harms pine trees.
But surely, I thought, New Hampshire will sell me some of these plants- they live free or die! Nope. They’re banned in the entire state! But trusty old Vermont came through for me, and you’d better believe I planted one of each- red currant, black currant, and gooseberry. This was the first year they produced anything in quantity, so I get to actually play with the fruits, and see what cool old recipes I can dredge up. They’re all classic fruits, noted throughout the medieval period, and especially in colonial American cooking. So that’s where I’m headed for the gooseberries!
This is a recipe from 1792, which means it’ll be a perfect contender for colonial Thanksgiving this year. The idea is to string together several sliced gooseberries so that they look like candied hops flowers. It’s so quirky. I love it.
I followed the instructions (below) pretty much exactly. I’m also lucky enough to have inherited some massive concord grapevines, so the leaves for blanching were no problem. And I’ve got to say, I’m utterly charmed by how they turned out. They look just like little juicy hops! I could easily see them being a simple subtlety down in the Reach, where they love all things green and growing, but I could also see them being a treat up North, where they would be preserved to liven up some cold blustery day.
That’s what I’ve done with mine- they’re in a jar of the sugar syrup in the fridge, topped off with a little brandy, until I can pour a bit of beeswax in there to seal them up until Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to seeing how they are then!
Recipe for Gooseberries in Imitation of Hops
TAKE the largest green walnut gooseberries you can get and cut them at the stalk end into four quarters. Leave them whole at the blossom end, take out all the seeds, and put five or six one in another. Take a needleful of strong thread with a large knot at the end; run the needle through the bunch of gooseberries, tie a knot to fasten them together, and they will resemble hops. Put cold spring water into your pan, with a large handful of vine leaves at the bottom; then three or four layers of gooseberries, with plenty of vine leaves between every layer, and over the top of your pan. Cover it no that no steam can get out, and set them on a slow fire. Take them off as soon as they are scalding hot, and let them stand till they are cold. Then set them on again till they are of a good green, then take them off, and let them stand till they are quite cold. Put them into a sieve to drain, and make a thin syrup thus: To every pint of water put in a pound of common loaf-sugar, and boil it and skim it well. When it is about half cold, put in your gooseberries, let them stand till the next day, give them one boil a-day for three days. Then make a syrup thus: To every pint of water put in a pound of fine sugar, a slice of ginger, and a lemon-peel cut lengthways very fine. Boil and skim it well, give your gooseberries a boil in it, and when they are cold, put them into glasses or pots, lay brandy-paper over them, and tie them up close. –The Housekeeper’s Instructor,1792
- 1-2 cups fresh gooseberries
- several fresh grape leaves
- 1 lb. sugar to every pint water
- a slice of fresh ginger
- a little lemon peel
- a large needle and some thick cotton or linen string
Cook’s Note: The original directions are pretty great, and I followed them fairly closely until near the end; my gooseberries were ripe when I started, and I worried that the continuous boiling in sugar syrup would cause them to fall apart. We’ll see if I was wrong to mess with a good thing!
Take your gooseberries and slice them into four segments, starting at the stem end, and leaving the blossom end still attached. Carefully scoop out all the seed and discard them. Tie a large knot in one end of the string, then thread about 6 of the prepared gooseberries onto the string, turning each slightly so the petals are alternately spaced. It helps if you start with a larger gooseberry on the bottom, then slightly decrease the size of each as you go up. Cut the string, leaving several inches at the top, and repeat this until you’ve used up all your gooseberries.
Line a pot with grape leaves, then lay the gooseberry hops on top. Cover with a few more grape leaves, then cover the whole assortment with water. Put the cover on the pan, and bring up to just under a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer the hops to a clean jar, and make up your sugar syrup. Dissolve the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium heat, along with the ginger to give it a little flavor. When it’s dissolved, pour over the “hops” until the jar is mostly full. You may need to gently push the gooseberries back down. At this point, I topped the jar off with a little brandy, but I also plan to seal it with a little wax on top. It’s in the fridge for now, until I get a spare moment to melt the wax!