It seems most of us have vivid memories of August and its edible treats, thanks no doubt to the power of school holidays. For me, a countryside childhood in hot climates instilled a fearsome respect for this month, which my peers and I cherished in spite of parched landscapes and heat mirage because it also brought those feral freedoms. We would disappear for hours, beyond (as we thought) the censoring eyes of adults, to adventure in the woods, hurl tomatoes at each other in the fields where they ripened under that brutal sun, forage wild berries, hunt for basking turtles, and indulge in other mostly harmless mischief, running ourselves red-faced and ragged in a landscape drained of green until we were called in panting for lemonade, or watermelon, or popsicles.
My father-in-law Neal grows gooseberries in his abundantly fruitful Derbyshire garden, and this year my curiosity overcame me and I accepted a good quantity at harvest-time, despite thinking I didn’t like them. I now realise how much I’ve been missing all these years, and hope I can convince you to try this under-rated fruit in this astonishingly good baked pudding from Jane Grigson’s excellent Fruit Book. I tried several recipes with my haul, and this one is not only an outstanding way to enjoy gooseberries, it is one of the best fruit desserts I’ve had. My other half agrees, and he’s had an aversion to gooseberries since childhood. What a pity — and what a lesson for us both, and to anyone else inclined to listen, on how our prejudices can deny us both knowledge and pleasure.
This pudding is pleasingly plain in appearance, and this makes its secrets all the more exciting. It is far easier than making a pie, but it’s still very much about the fruit, which is partly why it’s made my Top-Fruit-Desserts List — that, and the amber layer of butter and Demerara sugar upon which sits the tart and earthy gooseberries. It’s a fruit that can take that caramel treatment without being overwhelmed, and add an irresistible complexity to it. The golden topping is a tender, very buttery, cake-y layer that is thin enough not to dominate the fruit, but to provide the perfect balance with its texture and tartness.
It is difficult to compare this more-ish dish to a cake, or a pie, or a crumble or a cobbler. It has characteristics of all of these, but isn’t any one of them, and even has the slight chewiness of a really good homemade cookie eaten when still warm. Rich, tender, buttery, fruity, comforting, and pretty in its own right, no adornment needed, it is a romantically English country pudding that puts me in mind of green rolling hills, warm rain, and fruit bushes dripping with diminutive, translucent globes of the prettiest, freshest green. Such poetic gastronomic rewards are all the more satisfying considering the ease with which this pudding is thrown together, and the informal way in which it can be served. You could spoon it into bowls or cut it into pie-like wedges, eat it at the kitchen table, or serve it forth on china plates to end a special dinner. Either way it is, dare I say it, exciting.
Summer fruits are irresistible. Who can look at all that colour and not want to come away with a little of this, a little of that, simply because it all looks so gorgeous? Our markets right now are at their most vibrant, and we really should give in, because all this bounty is as fleeting as an English sunbeam.
Anyone who has ever picked fruit as a child surely feels a thrill at the first appearance of the real thing – berries that have ripened in the sun, mounds of fragrant cherries, peaches, apricots… Such scenes remind me of the blissful time I spent cooking at Chez Panisse in California, where fruits and vegetables were arranged instead of flowers like joyful still lifes to welcome guests to a meal cooked with simple respect for good ingredients. Boysenberries and loganberries, melons and magenta plums, fragile mulberries, alpine strawberries, wild raspberries full of sweetness from the foggy coast, were turned into tarts, pies, compotes, sorbets, bavarois, jellies, to delight the senses.