I'm prone to burn out. I lose faith in the people who are meant to provide me leadership and try though I may I often find myself on the outer and wondering why I insist on speaking my mind. Twice when this has happened I have wound up washing dishes in one of Brisbane's best bistro's. The first time was when I dropped out of uni in 1998 and went to work for Philip Johnson's Ecco Bistro. It was there that I encountered cape gooseberries for the first time since my childhood.
A cape gooseberry in its lantern. Physalis peruviana
The cape gooseberry is not a true gooseberry. It is in fact a type of tomato native to Peru and brought to Australia in the same way that lantana came here, via English gardening fashions. What makes the cape gooseberry so endearing and what fascinated me as a child is the delicate 'lantern' that surrounds them. But what makes them so memorable is their flavour. They vary in acidity from tart to sweet but when the sweetness and tartness are in balance the flavour is thrillingly electric! Over the years I have tried to find words to describe the flavour but only the words 'grown up tasting' come to mind.
Since rediscovering the cape gooseberry I have gone on a long journey and made many mistakes. It has been a true test of my jam making skills. Compared to strawberry or peach jam, gooseberry jam, as the older ladies at my mum's charity The Little King's Movement call it, is exceedingly tricky to perfect. The berries have a high water content and while I have been tempted to cut them up to release more of the pectin in the seeds, I am too attracted to the berries' colour and shape. So producing a jam/conserve of an appropriate consistency requires diligence and commitment. I've developed techniques to release the pectin whilst keeping the golden berries more or less in tact.
A cape gooseberry lantern after a few months in the garden
In 2001 I went to wash dishes at Arc Bistro started by P.J.Macmillan who had been head chef at Ecco. He was ably assisted by Lynette Knowles, an alumnus of Le Bronx which Philip Johnson started on his return to Australia. Knowlesie would make a cape gooseberry conserve using brown sugar which was designed to be served with a banana and poppy seed upside down cake which had halved cape gooseberries placed in the bottom. Since then banana has been my favourite thing to pair with cape gooseberries.
A worthy cause
Each year, dependent on availability, I make a small batch of jam/conserve for The Little King's Movement fete which falls in late September at the end of the cape gooseberry season (they are very seasonal). The jam/conserve is a favourite of the older ladies and also helps to lure my friends along. Over the years interest in my jam/conserve has grown steadily and since I feel that I have sufficiently refined my method, this year I am going to make a larger batch, with a label and all. My friend Kristina who co-owns the charming Flamingo Cafe has agreed to buy some and my mum has given me permission to name it Little King's - Cape Gooseberry Conserve.
Mum and Dad enjoying a special dessert
So the 'hero' of the dish at the top is the cape gooseberry! And in keeping with Rick Stein's 'The hunt for Australia's top food blogger' competition I've made a rustic dessert that reflects Australia's diverse cultural heritage, our significant food people, and Queensland's subtropical climate (cape gooseberries grow wild an hour west of Brisbane). Oh and I provided Splayds (invented in Australia) with which to eat the dessert.
Toasted brioche with vanilla dusted lady finger banana, cape gooseberry conserve, and Maggie Beer's vanilla bean and elderflower ice cream
- Brioche slices 8mm thick
- Ripe but firm lady finger bananas
- Cape gooseberry conserve
- Vanilla dusting sugar
- Maggie Beer's vanilla bean and elderflower ice cream
Method: Dice bananas into 1cm pieces, add to a bowl, dust liberally with vanilla dusting sugar, and toss gently. Lightly toast the brioche slices and allow to cool a little. Place the brioche slice on a dessert plate. Place the diced banana at one end of the brioche slice and place a scoop of ice cream against the banana pieces. Dollop cape gooseberry conserve at the point where they meet and drizzle a little syrup over the bananas and ice cream, and serve.
Cape Gooseberry Conserve
- 2kg cape gooseberries
- 1.2kg white sugar
- 1 to 2 lemons
Method: Preheat a deep heavy based saucepan on medium heat. Vigorously sweat the berries stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until they begin to simmer in their own juices. Reduce the heat to low and allow them to simmer for 10 minutes, then add 1kg room temperature white sugar and stir till the sugar dissolves. Simmer for at least an hour on low stirring regularly and pressing the berries against the side of the pan to release the seeds. When the berries are almost translucent add the juice of one medium lemon and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. As the berries are becoming fully translucent begin skimming the foam from the top of the mix and start tasting. If the mix is too tart add a little heavy sugar syrup (pre-prepared), if too sweet add a little more lemon juice. When you're happy with the flavour test the consistency by dropping a little of the mix on a chilled plate to test for thickness (the mix should develop a slightly crinkled skin). Continue to skim and be careful not to let it caramelise much. It is better to remove some of the syrup than allow to reduce too long.