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What is a Cape Gooseberry?
A bright, nutritionally packed, little fruit with an identity crisis. Let’s start with its botanical name — Physalis peruviana L. A sand colored papery husk surrounds this small golden fruit, similar to its much more common garden cousin the tomatillo and the lesser know Midwestern ground cherry. This fruit is a member of the magnificent edible family of nightshades.
I first discovered the Cape Gooseberry in my local co-op as a wrinkly, dried orange berry under the name of Goldenberry—its dried pseudonym. These little bursts of tangy flavor go both ways—savory and sweet. I also found them addictive and expensive so I decided that I would try to grown them. I could dry my own and save the $26.00 lb price tag. It was when I couldn’t find seeds for “goldenberries” that I discovered the inconsistencies.
There is some debate as to the origin of these husked South American fruits. I have read they are “a lost Incan” crop (could be a clever marketing story), and many sources do site the Andes of Peru and Chile being their home place. However a few sources say they are actually native to Brazil and naturalized in Peru and Chile a long time ago. In South America they have many colloquial names including the most common capuli. So why Cape? And why Gooseberry? Or even a berry—of which, they have no botanical relation too.
English settlers brought this fruit to the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in the early part of the 19th century. It was commercially cultivated and is still a common crop. It is canned whole or made into jam. Later in the century the seeds went with settlers to Australia. These little berries have many tiny seeds and reminded the English of their gooseberries at home. Hence Cape Gooseberries, since they were seedy little berries from the Cape of Good Hope. But it seems nobody is quite happy with that name and you will also see these same fruits labeled Peruvian Ground Cherry, Husk Cherry, or Poha—Hawaiian they are naturalized there as well.
In recent years they have been “rediscovered” and are being heavily marketed as “the next goji berry” or just “super”—a superfood like blueberries and acai. In this effort to pack these nutritionally packed antioxidant berries into our grocery bags there is another name, perhaps an attempt to rebrand, introducing…the Pichuberry. This is a trademarked name and from what I can tell it hasn’t overtaken the slightly confusing moniker of Cape Gooseberry, alias the Goldenberry.
What Do Cape Gooseberries Taste Like?
They have their own flavor. To me they do taste orange—not like the citrus fruit but like I imagine the color tasting. They are tart but also sweet like a pineapple. I taste tomato and I don’t—its like that. As soon as I think I found a flavor it becomes elusive.
The dried berries have a wonderful tart zing and I tend to put them in fermented recipes—like this Sweet, Sour, and Spicy Beet Salad.
Growing the Cape Gooseberry
These plants are perennials in tropical climates (just like the tomato) and annuals in temperate climates. That said when sheltered they will live through the winter. Our Cape Gooseberries survived our zone 7 Southern Oregon winter. They are in raised beds that are in a non-heated hoop house. I cut them back and mulched over them. Temperatures dipped below 10° F for a few days and I doubted they would return but as soon as the days lengthened and warm they started to grow. With established roots these plants are huge and robust. They are now headed over to the neighboring box—in hindsight I should have staked them.
A small yellow flower gives way to a green pod that looks like Chinese lanterns. The fruit inside is small and green as it matures the husks dry and the fruit turns an orange golden yellow—like the yolk of an egg from a happy, pastured hen. At this point you can gently peel the husk back and check the color.
Often you will find it is still partially green. At first I was getting one or two ripe fruits at a time, hardly enough to put up jam or dry them. But I learned these cherry-sized fruits take a full season to ripen and, unlike a tomatillo or tomato, they last for a month or more fresh. You can pick them and hold them in a cool dry place and wait for more. It is okay if they are a little green as they will continue to ripen in their husk. Some people recommend harvesting them when they drop.
While the plant is a jungle in itself it doesn’t produce copious quantities of fruit. I was beginning to understand the price tag. Still the plants are easy keepers, and, if you have the space they are delicious fresh by the handful or in a salad, cooked in a pie or in jam, chutney or marmalade, or dried to be added to granola, trail mix or as I do in a ferment.
Kirsten K. Shockey is a post-modern homesteader who lives in the mountains of Southern Oregon. She writes about sauerkraut and life—but not necessarily in that order. She’s written a complete book of Fermented Vegetables and maintains the website Fermentista’s Kitchen.
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