Eliza Smith, on Making ‘Gooseberry Tansey’

Put some fresh Butter in a Frying-pan, and when ’tis melted put into it a quart of Gooseberries, and fry them till they are tender, and break them all to mash; then beat seven Eggs, but four Whites, a pound of Sugar, three spoonfuls of Sack, as much Cream, a Penny-Loaf grated, and three spoonfuls of Flour; mix all these together, then put the gooseberries out of the Pan to them, and stir all well together, and put them into a Sauce-pan to thicken; then put Butter into the Frying-pan, and fry them brown: Strew Sugar on the top.”

Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife; Or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion (1729)

It’s very nearly almost gooseberry season, if the state of the plants on our allotment is anything to go by, so it’s probably a good idea to start digging out a few goosegog recipes in advance of this year’s anticipated glut.

This example, from Eliza Smith’s no-nonsense book of eighteenth century household management, is for some form of stodgy, gooseberry griddle cakes, by the sound of things.

Let’s see: two pints / 1 litre (approx.) of gooseberries, seven eggs (I wonder: does “but four whites” mean “only four whites”, “less four whites”, or “an extra four whites”? I’d guess a total of four whites and seven yolks is the answer? Mrs White suggested a similar ratio of whole eggs to yolks only for her Apple Fritter batter…) then a pound (450g) of sugar, three spoonfuls (okay… what size spoon? Again, it’s a guess, but I’d go with tablespoon for this one) of Sack (fortified Spanish or Canary Islands wine, so sherry will be fine) and three of cream (double), then a “Penny-Loaf” of grated bread. (What’s one of those? Aha! Foods of England Project to the rescue, as ever. A penny loaf is the smallest official size of loaf, so probably a half-size modern supermarket loaf, or similar). Three (table)spoonfuls of flour should be easy enough to get hold of. We can use plain, as there’s no call for anything to rise.

Then we just thicken the resulting gloop in a pan (presumably over a low heat?) before frying them (as opposed to it) in a pan of butter, which rather suggests a drop-scone type dollop of the bready batter, fried on both sides, presumably, rather than a single large pancake. Although maybe it’s actually a case of more than one of the larger size instead? It’s open to interpretation, as many of these old recipes are. Feel free to experiment.

Unusually (but not uniquely) for a ‘tansey’, there doesn’t seem to be any tansy (the herb) in the recipe. I’ve definitely seen other, earlier tansey dishes that do include the herb, I think as both flavouring and colourant. Perhaps by this point in culinary history the herb had fallen out of favour but the name had stuck, like Coca(ine) Cola?

Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be trying these myself – that’s far too much bread and flour for my system to take – but what about you? Do you like the sound of these gooseberry-flavoured, fried discs of stodge? Are you tempted to make some yourself? If you are and if you do, then as always please let me know how you get on, either via the comments (below) or by emailing me with your notes and photos.

2 comments

  1. A dish for sharing, by the sounds of it! Not sure how it would handle gluten-free bread. Probably be OK.

    1. That’s a good question. I suspect the lack of binding agent would result in a bit of a mess, but you never know. Worth an experiment when the gooseberries are in? I know of an allotment plot that should have a surplus in a week or three…

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