Sometimes, I will learn a new word or concept and then see it everywhere. “Jostaberry” hasn’t been like that. Attuned, I looked out for it all over Taste of London and grocery shopping this week, but to no avail. (To be fair, none of these places sold aniseed either, which I had thought a staple spice.)

Jostaberries made no appearance because their commercial cultivation is, worldwide, negligible. The only places I have located which sell related products are things like jostaberry wine or jam on a few farms in Canada and the U.S. Jostaberries must be more widely cultivated than they used to be, however, a growing interest in the thirty-three years since hybridization created them.

The jostaberry is a hybrid between the gooseberry and the blackcurrant, plump, deep ruby-purple oblong spheroids which grow more like gooseberries but without the thorns, and taste sweeter, more like black currants. (Photo) Their North American relatives the Worcesterberry – I am not making this up – tastes more like a gooseberry, apparently. (See? You can mail-order them in the U.S.)

Developed over the course of the mid-twentieth century in Germany, the jostaberry was commercially released by the Max Plank Institute in Cologne in 1977. The institute continued to work on refining the hybrid. I note, as evidence of this, a 2000 article in Vol. 538 of the Acta Horticulturae entitled, “Progress in breeding Ribes X Nidigrolaria Jostaberries adapted to mechanical harvesting”. The “Josta” in the name comes from a verbal fusion of the German words for blackcurrant and gooseberry, respectively, “Johannisbeere” and “Stachelbeere”.

Their existence arrived in my life fully-formed. In the current issue of Olive (July 2010), an article on “British Fruit” helpfully notes that Jostaberries are in season in Britain in June through September, as if all readers of the magazine might nod to themselves and say, “Ah yes. I wondered when my local shops might be stocking jostaberries”.

Olive‘s advice is only helpful if one can figure out how to track them down. I could grow them myself, but I’ve read that it can be a good four-or-so years before they bear reliable fruit. I would really love to try some sooner than that. In theory I can: they are, after all, in season right now.


I was reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s autobiography, Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. Each chapter ends with a recipe, or helpful mini-guide to some aspect of Chinese cookery, which is how the lure of trying some of them out set in. Those recipes reminded me of a series of posts on reading Chinese menus. One of those posts told me, amongst other things, of a shop which sells a good brand of Sichuan chili-bean paste, as recommended in Dunlop’s blog.

Then, a few days ago, I was heading out to meet a friend at the National Portrait Gallery for afternoon tea when I realized I would be passing by Chinatown in central London. Chinatown, where that shop was, and shouldn’t I stop in as long as I was going to be passing by? As long as I was buying one ingredient, I bought others, including a large package of Chinese flour-and-water noodles. (In addition to being useful, the translation on the back charmed me: “Extra addition of meat and vegetables are suggested for palatable enchancement.”)

And that’s how we ended up cooking Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan noodles (p. 46) for dinner tonight, even though it involves no chili-bean paste. It was richly spicy-hot, but easier to eat because it was not also temperature hot. The noodles, fried mince, and pickled vegetables were cooled by the room-temperature oily sauce. The kitchen now smells beautifully of sesame and chili.

“Noodle” is such an odd-looking word, the more I think of it. Perhaps it’s because the available rhymes are still more ridiculous: oodle; kaboodle; poodle. (“Feudal” is close enough for most poetry, but not quite so silly-looking.)

How fitting, then, that its etymology is surmised, but not certain. Is it a derivative of knödel, dumpling in Middle High German, which itself might come from the same room as “knot”? Does it come from the same root as minute, by way of the Ladin language from the Val Gardena, whose word “menùdli” means “a small dough piece in soup”? The OED does not know and neither do I. It is a small knot of a mystery.

*© S. Worthen 2009