The Goostrey Gooseberry Show - keeping alive a longstanding Cheshire tradition
PUBLISHED: 00:06 17 July 2013
Once there were over 200 gooseberry shows in England and Wales. Now there are 10, but nine of them are in the east corner of Cheshire – places like Swettenham, Holmes Chapel and Lower Peover, with perhaps the most famous event run by the Goostrey Gooseberry Society.
‘I’ve got a register of shows going back to the early part of the last century, but it’s been going on for well over 130 years as far as we can make out,’ says Chris Jones, former chairman of the society and nicknamed the Gooseberry Doctor: ‘It used to be county wide and beyond – Leicestershire, Derbyshire, into parts of Wales and certainly Lancashire.’
Before male competitiveness kicked in, working men grew them for the pot, the plant suited to small gardens. But it isn’t a male preserve now – in 2010 the premier berry belonged to Emma Williams, the first female winner at Goostrey and the third grower to be awarded the Frank Carter Memorial Plate.
Frank Carter is a Goostrey gooseberry legend. A Blackden man all his life he bred 17 new cultivars, one of them – Montrose – a regular prize berry. Guardian of local history The Blackden Trust is archiving material relating to the shows, and has a living record of Mr Carter, thus far obtaining 14 of his 17 varieties.
With competitive gooseberry growing you can forget taste and texture: ‘It is all about weight, nothing else matters at all,’ says club secretary David Garratt: ‘The competition will start with them asking has anybody got any triplets – three together on the same stem, but they’re very rare. Then they go for the premier berry - the biggest berry - then twins. And there are four colour classes – red, green white and yellow, and you show in those various classes for twins and single berries. But your biggest berry must be the one shown for the premier berry.’
Few if any of these specimens end in the kitchen: ‘I don’t eat them, and most wouldn’t I imagine, knowing what they have been fed on and sprayed with,’ says David. Manure is certainly one feed, but there are rumours that beer processed via the kidneys helps growth, and dark murmurings about secret recipes: ‘There is always a mystique with anything that is grown for size, things that people will never reveal,’ says Chris. David concurs: ‘Some of the winners do have their own recipes, but they keep their secrets secret.’
Part of the craft is pruning, done in November and December, the trees cut back to a woody stump and four or five new growth branches arranged like a spider’s legs. In January they are trained to allow them maximum light, and given a feed. In June comes the thinning, any berries not looking like potential champions ruthlessly cut away: ‘In the show there are no split berries, and if there are any with a dry crack from the stalk that goes to the scrutineer, or if it’s showing seed and weeping it’s disqualified,’ explains Chris.
It’s a serious business: ‘A bit of underhand dealing has gone on,’ says Chris: ‘There are stories that one or two berries went missing overnight before the competition. But that was many moons ago, these days it’s a big friendship thing.’ The society meets four times a year, in January, March, June and September, and has its show at the end of July.
Chris has a theory about why the Cheshire shows have survived: ‘Maybe we’ve been lucky with our smaller villages. A lot of shows were quite large events and maybe more difficult to run in towns. With a little village everyone stuck to it.’
‘Ours is one of the few shows where to compete you have to live in the district or the parishes adjacent to it, unless you’ve lived and shown in Goostrey in the past before moving away,’ explains David: ‘There’s one exception, a gentleman who’s been a member of the club for a long time, 30 years or more. Only last year they had a vote and allowed him to come in - on the understanding it doesn’t set a precedent!’
They have 22 showing members and many more non-showing whose fees keep the society in funds, so Goostrey doesn’t look like going the way of those long departed bigger shows, especially if people like David remain committed: ‘ I think these things should be kept going. I just don’t like the idea of traditions like this dying out.’
This year’s Goostrey Gooseberry Show is on July 27th at the Crown Inn, 111 Main Road, Goostrey.
The Gooseberry belongs to the Ribes family which includes the currants. It is found in the wild across Europe and as far east as India.
Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants so something of a superfruit, its high pectin level makes it great for jam-making.
Some believe its English name derives from the acidic berry’s affinity with fatty goose, but more likely its roots are in the Frankish word krûsil meaning crisp berry.
From 1993 to 2009 Kelvin Archer of Rode Hall near Scholar Green held the world record with a 61.04g berry, then a grower at Egton Bridge in Yorkshire took his crown with a whopper of 62.01g.