When was the last time you tasted a gooseberry? The encounter may well have been short and sour – you could even be one of a growing number of people whose first experience of a gooseberry is their last. In the not-too-distant future, however, these encounters (pleasurable or not) could be few and far between.
In August 2015, The Telegraph reported that ‘the death of the British gooseberry is nigh’ – but how close are we to the extinction of this heritage fruit from the British isles?
Piers Pool’s fruit farm, High House, is one of the few places left in the country that you can pick your own (PYO) gooseberries. ‘Their status somehow has changed,’ he said, ‘from being a sort-of staple to something that is a little bit more select and sought-after’.
The Suffolk farm has been growing gooseberries on a small-scale for 15 years. Before that, when Piers’ father ran the farm, the gooseberry field was nearly five times larger, spread over two and a half acres. ‘When we used to open [the field] for pick your own there would be cars parked all the way up that road and the public would come in here and clear the lot in one weekend – it was just unbelievable.’
Piers now sells an 100th of that quantity over the entire six week gooseberry season, but what is driving this fall in popularity? ‘Gooseberries, like rhubarb, are not something you can just buy and put in your mouth like you can with strawberries or raspberries,’ Piers said. ‘I think our cooking habits and our eating habits have changed, and now I think people aren’t so keen on the things that you actually have to cook and do something with.’
There is, according to Piers, still a small and steady demand for them as a ‘seasonal rarity’, but their short shelf life and limited availability make it difficult for the majority of consumers to buy them. On paper at least, there is very little incentive for farmers to invest in this small, grape-like fruit – so why grow them at all?
‘The sort of fruit farm that we are, we like to grow a little bit of everything,’ explained Piers. High House can also boast a number of apple and pear varieties, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and a rarer relative of the latter – loganberries.
‘They’re not particularly difficult [to grow],’ Piers admitted, ‘but you’ve got to pay attention to detail…the biggest difference in growing gooseberries over the last few years is that pigeons are a massive problem.
‘We’ve had to start netting the gooseberries to keep [the pigeons] off, otherwise we would lose the whole crop.’ This intervention is only driving the cost of production higher, something that is not ideal for growers and buyers alike. Will Piers continue to grow gooseberries? ‘As long as the demand, albeit on small scale, is there.’