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gooseberry lore and more, with josh kilmer-purcell

Gooseberries, copyright Beekman 1802

ONE OF THE FIRST FRUITS that Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge planted when they took ownership of historic Beekman 1802 farm in Sharon Springs, New York: gooseberries.  Now the city-turned-country pair are having a bumper gooseberry year—and Josh joined me on the radio to talk about that and other aspects of “The Heirloom Life,” the subject of the duo’s breakfast slide lecture in my town August 17 to help celebrate my next garden Open Day. I’ve pre-ordered a couple of copies of the “Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert Cookbook” (due out in September) to share with some lucky winners, so read on for a chance to win–and some gooseberry lore, recipes and more.

prefer the podcast?

JOSH KILMER-PURCELL of The Beekman 1802 Boys, was the guest on the latest edition of my weekly public-radio show and podcast. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The August 5, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

“It’s my single-handed mission to bring gooseberries back into popular culture,” says Josh, who showcases this “underrated fruit” regularly on the Beekman1802 website (and yes, there are recipes in the new cookbook, due next month from Rodale Press). Neither Josh nor Brent could even recall eating a gooseberry until they grew their own, however.

There weren’t actually any gooseberries growing at the landmark Beekman property, either, when Josh and Brent took ownership in 2007. While tackling the garden cleanup, they uncovered some currant bushes—botanical cousins to the gooseberry in the genus Ribes.  It was through subsequent reading about black and red currants that Josh and Brent came upon listings for gooseberries, and ordered about a dozen different varieties.

That was also how they came upon the fascinating story of the gooseberry’s history—once a much-prized treasure and now relatively uncommon by comparison.

The reason for their fall from popularity resulted from what Josh calls “a double whammy.” They were a giant fad, or craze, in the 19th century, when gooseberry clubs formed throughout England, and even in America, with competitions for who could grow the largest gooseberry of all.

“There were many weird ways to grow them,” Josh says—including propping up saucers of milk under the blossom end of the flowering gooseberries, “in the belief that the milk proteins would be absorbed and create a larger fruit.” (At Beekman 1802, they could use goatmilk from some of their famous herd—but they’re not!)

“Like any fad: When it was over, it was over,” says Josh.  And if growers’ fickle affections were not enough to practically erase the plant from the American landscape, then came this: The white pine blister rust outbreak took hold, and currants and their cousins the gooseberries were actually outlawed because of the danger they posed to five-needled pines.

The detailed story of the gooseberry’s rise and fall is told on Beekman1802 (who knew all these curious bits of history?)

Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge, the Beekman BoysWhat? No gooseberries on hand at your place yet? How about a baking Josh and Brent’s Mini Strawberry Thyme Tart instead?  Or making Peaches in Cilantro Syrup? (The Beekman Boys’ simple syrup, a recipe that usually calls for equal parts sugar and water, is made with honey, and they use a little less water than they would if sugar were the sweetener.)

But strawberries combined with thyme, or cilantro with peaches? Hmmmm….

“We’re all about highlighting everything as simply as possible: the single note of the fruit, and the single note of the herb,” says Josh—and not just something expected (such as blueberries with a dash of cinnamon).

I suppose it all makes perfect sense, since nothing about the Beekman Boys is ordinary, run-of-the-mill—which is exactly how they like it.
Gooseberry pie, from Beekman1802.com website

more beekman goodies

how to win the upcoming cookbook

Beekman 1802 Heirloom Dessert CookbookI’VE PRE-ORDERED TWO COPIES of “The Heirloom Dessert Cookbook,” including more than 100 recipes, to share with you. (The prizes will be shipped to arrive on publication date, September 10.)

All you have to do to enter is to answer this question in comments below:

What’s your gooseberry story? Every tried one? Do you grow them in your garden?

As I admitted in on the podcast, I planted gooseberries decades ago here, but they are no longer in residence. I think I pulled them (too sour or unpleasant-tasting—which I now understand was probably my poor choice of variety, ‘Pixwell’). Maybe I’ll try again!

No answer? That’s OK. Just say “count me in” and I will. I’ll draw two random winners after entries close at midnight Monday, August 12th. Good luck to all—and please do join us August 17th if you can. Details and ticket information here.

(Photos copyright Beekman 1802.)

  1. Stephanie says:

    Reminds me of my grandmother and her gooseberry bushes. Haven’t thought about gooseberries in years – would love to try gooseberry jam.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Reminds me of my grandmother and her gooseberry bushes. Haven’t thought about gooseberries in years – would love to try gooseberry jam.

  3. Moni says:

    We grew gooseberries in our garden in Bavaria. My mother made jams and tarts with them; they tasted a bit sour eaten fresh. Gooseberry bushes are still grown there. As a Master Gardener I always look for new challenges and you sparked my interest in trying to grow some in South Carolina.
    Count me in.

  4. Lorna says:

    I grew up in the UK. My grandfather grew them and as a child I ate too many raw from the bush and gave myself a tummy ache. As a result for many years I avoided them, but my husband wanted to plant some a few years ago. We have red and blackcurrants too. This year was a bumper year for gooseberries and all our other fruits. I make a gluten free crumble, which now includes gooseberries and everyone seems to love it.

  5. Sharon Cavagnolo says:

    After visiting a Garden Conservancy garden last year, we visited a nursery where I came upon a plant with golden, round berries. I admit to popping one, OK two, in my mouth. Warm from the sun, juicy and delicious. Why the heck didn’t I buy the plant?
    Momentary idiocy on my part. I’ve been looking for plants ever since but would LOVE a list of the yummy ones so I”m not disappointed as you were.
    Thanks!

  6. Cindy says:

    As a youngster in Somerset County, New Jersey in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, our neighbor who was born and raised in Austria, enlisted me to pick gooseberries from her prized bushes. We gathered the tart, tart berries in a sturdy basket from the old country, then cleaned the berries, after which Mrs. Karpfen made a green golden marmalade that she shared with our family. I remember the jam as being quite coveted by my mother. My mother and I recently reminisced about our neighbor and her gooseberries, so how fun to read about Josh and Brent’s gooseberries and their recipe with goat cheese for gooseberry fool! The gooseberry gathering basket from Austria is now on my kitchen table!

  7. Laurie says:

    Gooseberries were always a big part of my childhood. My grandparents grew them on their farm in Michigan. Yes they are sour but that is the beauty of their flavor. That combination of sour mixed with just the right amount of sugar! My mom took a cutting from the bushes and grew gooseberries in the small front garden of our house in the upper Manhattan area of Inwood. I think they may have been the only gooseberries in Manhattan. Gooseberries have a strong sentimental value for us and my mom asked to have some of her ashes buried under the gooseberry bush. I took a cutting from that bush and now have a large, bush growing in front of my house in Westchester. We had an excellent crop this year. I think it was the perfect combination of rain and sun because I do nothing with the bushes. I am happy to hear about gooseberries making a comeback and I never knew gooseberries could get that big! I wonder if they have the same flavor with all that water in them. Looking forward to talking gooseberries this Saturday. See you at your garden.

  8. Irena says:

    I hope it’s not too late to chime in.

    Currants, gooseberries, strawberries and cherries were the garden berries of my childhood. The big, green gooseberries were always quite sour – I was too inpatient to wait until they ripen and turn slightly yellow and sweeten up. The reddish ones however were my favorites – hairy, slightly smaller, and once they turn red – oh, so sweet!

    When visiting Brooklyn Botanical Garden quite some years ago, my daughter – then a little girl – saw small gooseberry bushes for sale, picked one, and I had nothing left to do but to buy it. We have never found a proper planting spot for it in our microscopic garden, but “temporarily” plopped it in an empty pot – a huge one, where I kept autumn leaves which I would use to layer fresh greens in the compost bin. I didn’t even have a spare bag if soil to put in the pot, just those old leaves…. And guess what – the bush is thriving not afraid to freeze in cold winter and is bearing smallish red berries every early summer. They disappear into our mounths few at a time, as soon as they are ripe, never even making into the kitchen.

  9. Carole Liggett says:

    I first tried gooseberries in 2007. A friend in Hebron, Ny, has several bushes. I was amazed at their beauty! He grew the red ones (which ‘variety’ I have no clue) and a picked bowl of them looked like gems… and the flavor wonderful!!

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