There is a particular fruit that causes no end of arguments in my life, simply because I know its common name. The fruit in question is the Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruvaina); indigenous to South America but cultivated in South Africa (hence Cape), it is not related to the common gooseberry which is a different genus entirely. Those botanists like to mess with our minds.
A few years ago I was at a wedding dinner; the dessert was served and next to a bauble of ice cream sat the innocent Cape gooseberry. A woman to my left, who’d glugged rather too much Chenin Blanc for her own good, blurted out “Oh I love those little orange berries! What are they called again?” I looked at the Cape gooseberry and it winked back at me. I cleared my throat. “It’s a Cape gooseberry,” I announced, clearly and precisely. But instead of the simple “thank you” that I had been expecting (and general praise with regard to how clever I am), she turned to face me slowly – eyes wide, jaw unhinged, ice cream dribbling down the side of her chin – and said in a tone that suggested I had deeply offended her, “It bloody isn’t! It’s not a gooseberry at all! What rubbish!”
I was rather taken aback. “Uh…yes, it is,” I retorted carefully. “It’s not related to the gooseberry, but its common name is the Cape gooseberry. It’s actually a member of the nightshade family. Like a potato.” This reassurance didn’t placate her. She eyed me suspiciously as if I were trying to pull a fast one – make her look an imbecile, a botanical philistine – in front of our fellow diners. She proceeded to question everyone at the table one by one. Confronted by this fruit-based fundamentalism and not wanting to cause a scene, the cowards meekly agreed that it probably wasn’t a Cape gooseberry, not that anyone could come up with an alternative name. Naturally I was irritated by this kowtowing. “Well you’re all wrong!” I growled, and popped the offending fruit into my mouth, barely withholding the urge to flip the table upside-down and storm out of the marquee in a cacophony of wicked language.
The lady to my right, who was rather less bookcased than Mrs Ice-Cream-Chin, decided to settle the debate once and for all; she called our waiter over to ask him the name of the contested fruit. The table fell silent, the orchestra stopped playing a poor rendition of Mozart’s Symphony 40 in G Minor, and it seemed as if everyone in the marquee had turned to observe us with interest. “It is,” he said, measuring each word, “a Cape gooseberry.”
Gasps rent the air. Somewhere in the distance a glass was dropped and smashed. A drunken man tripped over a plant pot and a bridesmaid fainted and fell into the vicar’s lap. I smiled the smuggest smile that has ever crossed my face, allowing it to grow slowly and pleasingly like the Cheshire Cat. Short of laughing in a maniacal way, I sat back in my chair and took a sip of coffee, ensuring that my little finger was poking out in a sufficiently poised and superior manner. I glanced to my left. A range of emotions swept through the flushed, pudgy face of Mrs Ice-Cream-Chin, and like a bad loser, she muttered “Oh well it’s a stupid name anyway” and immediately left the table.
She was later seen arguing adamantly with the vicar about the corporeal existence of the Antichrist while pointing insistently in my direction.
Fast forward, please, to the present day: Portal Bar & Restaurant in Clerkenwell serves Portuguese cuisine with a modern twist, but you’d probably pass it by if you didn’t know to look out for it. Hidden behind a charming green-tiled exterior on St. John Street is a cavernous and stylish venue; the bar at the front is comfortable and cosy, yet venture through to the restaurant at the back and you are surrounded by bare brick walls, industrial rafters, full-height windows, crisp white tablecloths, a beautiful courtyard for summer dining and all the attention to detail of a restaurant that really cares. I was somewhat agog, like Mrs Ice-Cream-Chin.
Felipe, the knowledgeable Assistant Manager, talked us through the menu and recommended a few of their specialities. I started with the Portuguese crab salad. A great mound of flaky white crab with tiny diced peppers was stuffed into what looked like an ice cream cone made of filo pastry; a novel dish of good proportions that delivered suitably in the flavour department. A promising start.
But oh! That’s this? Is that a Cape gooseberry I spy? Sure enough, as garnish on the corner of the plate, was a little orange basketball of doom. “Ah,” I said to my dining companion, “a Cape gooseberry.”
I should have known better. “No it’s not a Cape gooseberry,” she said with the confidence of a food critic, “it’s a kumquat.” I glanced uncertainly at the Cape gooseberry and then back at her. “Yes, it’s a kumquat,” she said again. I replayed the wedding dinner scene through my mind and decided against taking this fructosian conversation any further, as we were having a pleasant meal and I didn’t want her to storm out of the restaurant and leave me to finish on my own.
Mains arrived; a braised bisaro with runner beans wrapped in a ‘carpaccio’ of potatoes. Bisaro, Filipe had told me, is a cross-breed of domestic pig and wild boar. It’s a tough meat that needs to be cooked for a long time; in this case marinated for 24 hours and then braised for a further 24 hours. The result: a tender, juicy and delicate pork dish that dissolved pleasingly in the mouth.
But oh! What’s this? Another orange antagonist sat teasingly on the corner of the plate. I ignored the thing as best I could. “Another kumquat!” said my dining companion excitedly. I nodded and grunted, agreeing with the statement that there was another orange thing on my plate but silently disagreeing that it’s called a kumquat.
Mains were polished off with gusto. After a well timed pause, our desserts arrived – an amusingly titled ‘Surprised Chocolate Pudding’ (I won’t give the game away as to why the pudding is so surprised) – and the delicious Portal pasteis de nata with a mocha shot. These are small custard tarts that are traditionally eaten with a cup of coffee in the morning, but they also make a heavenly dessert. I could have eaten a box full.
As expected, another Cape gooseberry sat mischievously as garnish on the side of each plate. “More kumquats!” said my misguided dinner date. I could take it no longer. “I’m sorry to have to do this,” I muttered under my breath, entering ‘Cape gooseberry’ into a Google search on my BlackBerry. I clicked on the first website to display a photo of the fruit and showed it to her. “Oh…” she said, “Oh really?! Oh gosh I always thought that was a kumquat.” No. No it isn’t. I showed her a comparative image of a kumquat, just in case she still had doubts. I neglected to tell her that my aunt Milly has a kumquat tree in the garden of her Andalucian villa, because that’s just showing off. I know very well what a kumquat looks and tastes like. And I am now an expert on Cape gooseberries too.
I staggered out of the warm hospitality of this pleasant restaurant, happy to have enjoyed a good meal and to have put the taxonomic record straight with regard to this incongruous fruit. Next time I will use its Latin name instead – Physalis peruvaina – and see where that gets me. Probably a slap in the face.