Are we losing our taste for gooseberries?

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?

A basket of gooseberries.

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.’

A bowl of gooseberries.
A bowl of gooseberries.

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.’

How it all started

A little over a year ago, on a weekend home from uni, I had my first taste of real bread. Never before had I considered bread and it’s possibilities, other than a sandwich or toast.

Pump Street Vermont sourdough
Pump Street Vermont sourdough

I cannot claim to be a life-long bread lover, as until I had sampled the dark caramelised crust and nutty open crumb of slow fermented bread, I hadn’t spared it much thought. The bread I am referring to is shaped, scored and baked just shy of 10 miles from my front door, in a village called Orford, in Suffolk.

Pump Street Bakery produce some of the finest naturally leavened bread around, picking up awards on a national and international stage. It is here that my curiosity for dough evolved into a passion, and ultimately an obsession.

My first loaf

I began baking at home immediately, not such an easy task in student halls of residence, searching books and the web frantically for the perfect recipes. I was amazed that with just three ingredients (flour, water, salt), such varied results could be achieved just by alterations in time and percentages.

I was quickly baking more bread than any one man could eat in a normal diet, so I started to sell my test-bakes to other students living close by, providing me with an opportunity to test more recipes, and giving them an alternative to the Chorleywood processed bread at a large ‘saving you money everyday’ supermarket close by.

Pump Street cafe

Four months later and I was still chasing the perfect loaf, a little part of me hoping to never catch it. I realised that in order to find the bread I was after, I needed to return to where my bread mission had began, sat at the communal table of Pump Street Bakery’s cafe.

Pump Street shop

After half a dozen emails and tweets, and heaps of faith and kindness from co-owner Joanna, I had managed to secure a summer job at the bakery, waitering in the cafe where the bread and pastries are sold daily. As the summer went on and on, I caught a word with the bakers whenever I could, quizzing them with how’s and why’s.

I slowly began to understand Pump Street bread, and the slow fermentation techniques they employed to create their signature sourdough. Something I had not considered, however, only became clear to me at the end of my first shift in the bread section of the bakery. It was a huge piece of the puzzle that I had not even thought of, and that was passion. The bakers expressed it in different ways, but it was evident in every bit of contact they had with the dough. This passion made the bakery an exciting place to work and learn, and became infectious.

After a handful of 13 hour days, starting at the bakery and finishing in the cafe, the fatigue was catching up with me. I was struggling to fit sleep around family life, work, and my time in the bakery, but wasn’t willing to give up any of them. One morning when I arrived at the bakery, everything changed.

I walked through the shutter door to an incredible pattern of sound and light. Orange sunlight leaked through the wide windows of the bakery, catching particles of flour in the air and creating a haze of yellow light. The alarm from the deck oven rang, signalling the end of the doughs journey, and harmonised with the singing of bread on the rack, as the crust cooled and crackled.

It was then I knew I wanted to be a baker, and my journey to do so had begun.