Berries are summer’s gift to our pantry. Farmers’ markets burst with locally harvested raspberries and blackberries in the hottest months. More and more, we’re seeing two curious varieties gain popularity amid the world of sweet berries—currants and gooseberries. These gemlike fruits have traditionally been associated with European cuisine in the form of jams, jellies, and the French liqueur cassis. They are unique summer berries because they are highly prized for their tartness, not sweetness.
Currants and gooseberries have been cultivated for more than a century in America, but not without controversy. They can transmit white pine blister rust, a potentially fatal fungal disease, to nearby white pine trees. In an attempt to protect pines, some states restrict the sale of currant and gooseberry plants. Currants have been slowly piquing the curiosity of berry growers because they are simple to grow and beautiful to look at. Currants are deciduous shrubs from the genus Ribes. They grow in grapelike clusters called strigs, with varieties that have either red, black, or white fruit. Currants are high in vitamin C, phosphorus, calcium, and iron. They are used often for decorative purposes, but their flavor, though intense, is great if you know how to pair them with rich or creamy foods.
Jams are an easy way to process currants because sugar can be added to mellow out the acidity of this pectin-rich fruit. But too much sugar dulls the brightness of the fruit. For me, baking them whole right into a dense cheesecake provides the perfect balance. Each bite will release a morsel of tartness surrounded by a wave of unctuous creaminess that is the perfect yin and yang of sour and sweet that I love about dessert.
Gooseberries are similar to currants—in fact, they are also in the genus Ribes. Varieties have either green, pink, red, or white fruits and, like currants, are typically used in jams or jellies. Often more tart than currants, gooseberries can be cooked with a lot of sugar but will still retain their tartness. Dessert may be the first thing to come to mind when cooking gooseberries, but they also pair brilliantly with rich gamey meats. Cooking them down into a glaze or chutney is equally appropriate on a scone or on pork.
The cape gooseberry, Physalis peruviana, shares the name of gooseberry but is an entirely different fruit. Native to South America, it has become popular in Australia and India. It flaunts a smooth, glossy orange-yellow skin and a pulpy flesh filled with edible seeds, all encased in a papery husk. The mild sweet and tart flavor make them addictive as a snack right out of the husk, but they are easily versatile in salads, stir-fries and desserts like the classic gooseberry fool.
The next time you see these curious summer fruits at your local farmers’ market, be sure to grab a container and start experimenting. You’ll realize that they are as tantalizing to cook with as they are to ogle.
Try Chef Lee's Berry Recipes:
This article originally appeared in Organic Gardneing June/July 2013.