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With so many names to go by and so many subgenera, this was one of the more challenging posts to write!
Incan berries are one of my favourite berries, sweet and tart with a great texture and usually found with the fun little dried-leaf husk still attached.
They’re not always easy to find fresh and even harder to find dried, but their flavour is not akin to anything else. A berry that’s relatively uncommon and under-appreciated by the North American market deserves some serious recognition!
Incan berries, golden berries, gooseberries, Cape gooseberries, ground cherries, Aztec berry, Physalis ~ the list of alternative names for this fruit is extensive. The name typically refers to the subgenus, and if you’re versed in this enigmatic berry, it also identifies its origin. For example, gooseberries are thought to be indigenous to the cooler climes of Europe, parts of Africa and parts of Asia. However, the Cape gooseberry is native to Brazil, and with its egg-yolk-coloured skin is the most commonly found varietal commercially sold in North America. However, the names are tossed around all willy-nilly, and it would be difficult for anyone who isn’t a botanist to put two and two together. These hardy berries are most closely related to the currant, though they are also in the same family as tomatoes and eggplants!
Colombia is the largest commercial producer of fresh golden berries. They are grown on a vine year-round and resemble small tomatillos with a crispy, papery husk protecting the cherry-sized fruit. Other varieties of golden berries grow on a shrub between three to five feet tall and three to six feet wide. The stems and branches are covered in sharp spines, making harvesting quite the task! Overall global statistics for golden berries is difficult to translate because of the extensiveness of the subspecies. However, one thing stands out: it is still illegal in many states to import them!
Like their familial counterpart, the currant, gooseberries are susceptible to white pine blister rust. We touched on the topic in the “Raisins: Product of the week” blog post. The growth and importation of currants (and gooseberries) was outlawed in the United States in 1911. White pine blister rust, a botanical disease, was threatening to wipe out the highly sought-after white pine. The disease needs the plants in close proximity to the pine trees to complete its cycle of destruction. Even today, there are many states that don’t allow the importation of gooseberries to eliminate the chance of white pine blister rust harming the lumber industry.
Incan berries grow best in humid, cool regions with cold winter temperatures. The fruit is fairly productive in Northern California and along the coast, though they would have difficulty growing in Southern California. With proper care and attention, Incan berries can be grown in containers.
American varietals of the gooseberry have weeping stems that will root wherever they touch the ground, and can be invasive. The roots are superficial, fine and easily damaged by frequent cultivation and temperature changes. The flowers, opening in early spring, are self-fertile and pollinated by wind and insects. Fruits of the European gooseberry may be very large, like a small plum, but are usually more like a grape.
Like its many names, the Incan berry may be green, white, yellow or shades of red, pink or purple. Average yield from one gooseberry bush is between eight and ten pounds of fruit. Gooseberries used for culinary purposes such as tarts and pies, etc. are usually picked under-ripe.
The gooseberry can be found naturally growing in alpine thickets and rocky woods in the lower countryside of Europe and Asia, from France eastwards, well into the Himalayas and peninsular India. However, the gooseberry has been cultivated for so long that it is difficult to distinguish wild bushes from feral ones.
Although the gooseberry is now abundant in Germany and France, it does not appear to have been much grown there in the Middle Ages, though the wild fruit was held in some esteem medicinally for the cooling properties of its acid juice during the height of a fever.
Improved varieties were probably first raised by the skilful gardeners of Holland, whose name for the fruit, kruisbessie, may have been adapted into the present English vernacular word. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the gooseberry became a favourite object of cottage horticulture, especially in Lancashire, where the working cotton spinners raised numerous varieties from seed, their efforts having been chiefly directed to increasing the size of the fruit.
The climate of the British Isles seems particularly ideal for bringing the Incan berry to perfect harvest. The flavour of the fruit is said to improve with increasing latitude, and varieties can be found along the coasts of Scotland, Norway and as far north as the Arctic Circle.
As with the various names and subspecies, the etymology of the gooseberry is convoluted and unclear. There are many possible places the term “gooseberry” may have derived from, the Dutch word kruisbesses or the German word krausbeere, for example.
Gooseberries were first cultivated in English and Dutch gardens as early as the sixteenth century. English colonists first brought the tastier English varieties to America, where they soon became nearly as popular in North America as they were in England. Gooseberries were included in the favourite dessert recipes of at least three U.S. presidents. They are now commonly used as a garnish in cocktails, desserts, juices and fruit salads. Buy them dry and rehydrate them for smoothies or steep them in hot water to make a delicious tea.
Gooseberries are edible and can be eaten as is or used as an ingredient in several desserts, such as pies or crumbles. They are also great for flavouring drinks, such as sodas, water or milk, and can be made into fruit wine and tea. Gooseberries are often preserved in the form of jams or dried fruit, sometimes even pickled or stored in sugar syrup.
There isn’t much information on the history of the Incan berry and its rise in popularity, nor its cultivation and global spread. However, sometime around 1800, Incan berries began exploding in European imaginations. “Gooseberry clubs” began popping up all over England and in nearly every region of the country; gardeners began cultivating new varieties of the fruit. It is believed there were over 2,500 varietals at one point! You may have stumbled across the “jostaberry” in your travels. If so, it should be scooped up, as it is in limited cultivation and a botanical “Frankenstein” between the black currant and the gooseberry.
At the height of their popularity there were over 170 gooseberry clubs in Britain and at least two formal clubs in the United States. The newspapers of the day covered the club meetings and yearly competitions without fail. The main purpose of the competition was to grow the largest and heaviest gooseberry! Typically, an average gooseberry is the size of a grape, some of the prize-winners were the size of small plums! Each entry was held in such high regard that they were weighed using grains of sand meted out individually with the use of a feather.
There was much to-do and secrecy surrounding the propagation and cultivation methods utilized within the gooseberry clubs. Husbands and wives were permitted to compete against each other; however, each had to grow their plants in separate and self-contained areas of their garden. Gardeners developed seemingly crazy and elaborate practices, such as plucking all of the unripe berries from a bush except for one in the hopes it would absorb all of the plant’s energy. Also common, but scientifically unfounded, was the practice of placing a saucer of milk directly underneath a ripening berry, so that the blossom dipped into the liquid and sucked up more nutrients. All this did was add to the cultish fever of the competition.
As swift as its popularity arose did its decline. In 1905, a mildew disease from American plants was introduced to England, nearly destroying all of the gooseberries in the country. Some think it’s a bit of karmic payback, as the white pine blister rust arrived on the shores of the United States from European gooseberry plants. Only a handful of the thousands of gooseberry varieties developed during the rush remain in cultivation today and almost none of them are grown commercially!
There are still two gooseberry clubs left in England, the oldest of which was founded in 1801.
Earlier mention of the gooseberry can be found in William Turner’s Herball, written about the middle of the sixteenth century, and a few years later it is mentioned in one of Thomas Tusser’s quaint rhymes as “an ordinary object of garden culture.”
Nutritionally speaking, Incan berries are being touted as one of the newest “superfoods” to hit the market. There has been a push in recent years to lift the U.S. ban on the importation of the berry and to familiarize North Americans with the tasty variety that they can bring to your plate. While their nutritional value is undeniable, their “superfood” status might be questionable, as the only nutrient in high quantity is vitamin C. Some say that golden berries have the ability to help people lose weight, detoxify the body, manage diabetes, reduce inflammation and boost heart health, among many other things.
In a 100-gram serving, gooseberries provide just 44 calories. The same amount will give you 33% of your daily value of vitamin C, and gooseberries are 88% water and 10% carbohydrates/sugar.
Superfood or not, Incan berries are delicious and a wonderful addition to several dishes. Grab a bag of dried Incan berries during Rancho Vignola’s upcoming wholesale ordering season and see for yourself!
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