Köszméte, pöszméte, piszke, egres – gooseberry

We’ve just returned from a wonderful vacation in Hungary and, among other places, my wife and I visited Debrecen, my birthplace. Every year we see relatives there. I love this large, sleepy Eastern-Hungarian town – the “Calvinist Rome.”

When I was a child the city’s open-air market was located on Rákóczi Street, always a colorful cavalcade of local sellers, called kofák in Hungarian. There was also a separate flower market on Csapó Street. I discovered that flowers are still sold on the very same street but Debrecen also built a modern Market Hall with the longest escalator I’ve ever seen outside an airport. On the tables you can find every imaginable fruit and vegetable, among them gooseberry. I have not seen gooseberry for almost 30 years and it brought back memories.

Debrecen Market Hall - view from the second floor.

Debrecen Market Hall – view from the second floor.

Almost half a century ago we had a garden in Debrecen full of gooseberry bushes. Every summer I had cold gooseberry soup. I loved it, and my mother made her famous gooseberry preserves. Gooseberry was sold in huge baskets on the Rákóczi Street market, it was plentiful and cheap. Today gooseberry is a delicacy even in Hungary, it is surprisingly expensive due to the fact that it is quite labor intensive.

I told my wife, whose mother tongue is English, that the berry was called “köszméte” in Debrecen, at least we called it köszméte when I was growing up. Some called it “pöszméte” – with a “p”.

One summer I went to camp and the children laughed at me when I said “köszméte.” They called gooseberry; “egres.” I never heard the word before, I thought that it had something to do with the city of Eger. Later I learned another Hungarian name – “piszke.”



In the Hungarian language we had several names for this one-time popular berry and most of these words are not in use today. It seems that the official Hungarian name of gooseberry is “egres” now. In California, where I live, we never see this fruit at the markets, but recently I discovered that in the State of Oregon there are some gooseberry farms. These are mainly canning operations, some also sell preserves. European gooseberry is considered “classic” and superior for cooking or baking. American gooseberry is smaller. It was adapted to machine cultivation and the bushes are also more productive. Unfortunately, it has less character and flavor.

Oregon gooseberry - less tasty than the Hungarian.

Oregon gooseberry – less tasty than the Hungarian.

As I remember, picking gooseberry was almost an art and I was good at it as a child. The best picks in Hungary are in September when the berry turns red and sweet while still on the vine.

György Lázár

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