A taste of neglected fruits
July 22, 2005
The fruit harvest in my garden begins with rhubarb in May followed by currants and gooseberries in early July. Rhubarb needs no introduction, but I seldom encounter currants or gooseberries in local gardens. These offbeat fruits are hardy and adaptable and not only add a wonderful zing to my summer diet but are attractive shrubs in their own right.Technically not a fruit but a perennial herb, rhubarb still flourishes around some abandoned miner’s cabins. One of my old plants receives no care and no irrigation but what the sky grants, and though it is no prize specimen and dies down by mid-summer, it produces enough stalks for at least one cobbler every year. My favorite Rheum x cultorum is an Englishvariety called “Glaskins Perpetual,” which I grew from seed. Like crocuses, rhubarb leaves grow straight out of the ground. Broad, oversized and slightly ruffled on thick, smooth stems, they look tropical in a big container or among finer textured plants in a border. I was taught never to let it bolt, but I usually do and without noticeable consequence to the harvest, because the tall seed stalks with their cloud of incongruously tiny flowers on top sticking up over the leaves are so dramatic. Warning: Do not eat any part of rhubarb but the stalks – it’s poisonous. The stalks are delicious in pies and cobblers but also stewed, plain for a snack, over ice cream for dessert or on oatmeal for breakfast.I have no idea where my mother got them but she grew white, red and black currants and gooseberries. My currants host aphids and their ant herders. My gooseberries are armed with thorns. Both are banned or restricted in some states because they transmit a disease called pine blister rust. Compared to more readily available fruit like apricots these berries taste unfamiliar or sour. They tend to be small and seedy and a hassle to pick and clean.Most of us prefer our fruit sweet, although there must be a sizable contingent of people who are fans of tart flavors for the Granny Smith apple to be a supermarket staple. So what’s good about them?Currants and gooseberries are related, both derived from various Ribes (pronounced rye-bees) species. The Germans call currants “Johannisbeeren” after St. John and prize them. In my garden, they ripen in order of color and palatability. First are the white currants, faintly striped from stem to blossom end and transparent rather than white. The pearls of berries dangle like miniature grapes; I like to eat them fresh out of hand. Next come the shiny red currants, clusters of translucent jewels. If I didn’t care for the taste, I’d still grow them for their beauty. They make ruby red jelly and a beautiful fruit tart, but when baked in a pie, the seeds toughen and the flavor becomes more pungent.The French call black currants “cassis” and make a liqueur from them, and my mother makes a wonderful jam by boiling them with sugar and a bit of water until the consistency of very thick syrup. They are high in anti-oxidants and vitamin C but definitely an acquired taste.The gooseberries ripen at the same time as the red currants. Mine are best dead ripe, after they have changed color from green to burgundy striped with faint green and the skin is tart and crisp while the flesh is sweet and soft. To pick them, I gingerly lift up the branches so the berries now dangling free can be pulled off in handfuls. Cleaning them by pinching off the tiny stem and dry brown blossom end is picky and tedious work but James Beard has a recipe for gooseberry fool involving nothing more than the cooked, strained gooseberries, sugar and whipped cream that is utterly simple and simply heavenly!I looked hard for my rhubarb, cultivated currants and gooseberries years ago, and they were simply labeled “red currant” or “gooseberry.” The varieties intensively bred in Europe for flavor, size and ease of harvest were unavailable. Now a good selection of outstanding cultivars developed in countries like Canada, Bulgaria and Scotland can be ordered by mail or online. The Raintree Nursery catalog presents comprehensive information so clearly I use it as my reference guide. If you are the least bit adventuresome, let gooseberry fool, rhubarb cobbler and berry tart tempt you to grow at least one of these most underrated and underappreciated fruits.Anna is trying to find room to grow more kinds of unusual fruit in her Basalt garden, but neither her husband, Gerry, nor her dog, Maggie, are willing to give up any ground. Write her at email@example.com. Please write Anna’s Garden Column # Garden in the e-mail subject line.