Hinnomaki red gooseberries from Nourse Farm at Shepard
PHOTO: Hinnomaki red gooseberries from Nourse Farm at Shepard

Gooseberry? I hardly even know you!

Spring and summer are an exciting time as a chef in New England. The weather changes quickly, new produce appears out of nowhere and disappears as quickly. The myriad of tiny farms throughout Massachusetts and New England tend to be specialized, so you've got to keep in touch with your favorites to get your desired ingredients before they sell out.

I'm lucky at Shepard that our owner, Rene, has maintained such strong relationships with farmers in Massachusetts and around New England from his many years running Hi-Rise, that he keeps me well informed on the best seasonal produce.

Which is how I ended up with gooseberries. This is not a fruit I grew up eating, nor are they commonly found in the grocery store. You don't often see gooseberry products for sale, and your friends probably don't talk about how much they can't wait for gooseberry season.

But they are delicious, and you should seek them out in the peak of the New England summer.

So what is a gooseberry?

Gooseberries are grape-sized fruits, usually green, but sometimes red, with a thin skin and sometimes a pubescent fuzz on the outside. They are hugely popular in Eastern Europe, and gooseberries have even been featured in Russian literature! (Chekov wrote a short story aptly titled, "Gooseberry"). Gooseberry is the name we use in America and Britian (the Brits may also call them goosegogs), while the scientific name is Ribes uva-crispa (uva-crispa means 'curved grape', and Ribes is the genus that includes currants). Why is it called a gooseberry? Good question. The story isn't clear. The French call it groseille à maquereau, translated as "mackerel berries," as they were used for a sauce for mackerel.

Ok, who cares about its name, what does it taste like? Sweet, fresh, grape-like flavor (reminds me of grape-candy flavor sometimes, but much, much better than that). More flavorful than a grape or a blueberry, their sweetness and concentrated flavor mean they are delicious raw and make amazing jams and confitures. Mix it in with your favorite fruits during jamming/canning season.

At Shepard, we've been using them in apricot jam to use as filling for our hand pies, and dropped on top of our berry + pine nut tart. And I eat a few every time I go into the walk-in.

Where can you find them? Farmer's markets are a good bet. While gooseberries aren't native to New England (they come from Europe, and parts of Asia and Africa), they grow well here, and late July / early August is the time to look for them. The variety we're using are called Hinnomaki Red, originally from Finland. They come to us from the Nourse Farm in Westborough, Mass.

PHOTO: Hinnomaki red gooseberries from Nourse Farm at Shepard