Thursday, August 23, 2012

harvest 2012: rowan rubies

The Mountain Ash Fairy, by Cicely Mary Barker (from The Flower Fairies of the Autumn, 1926)

I had a collection of Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairy illustrations as a child; this one was always one of my favorites; something about her turban and the art-nouveau drape of her robe - plus that gorgeous warm orange, I think it was, that did it. I liked the word "Rowan" and I liked the thought of sacred trees called "witchenwood." I must have spent every October of my childhood daydreaming about magic - Halloween was always a favorite holiday.

There are quite a few Mountain Ash (Rowan) trees in Seattle. The picture above is from wikipedia. Once you know what to look for, they're quite easy to spot by their brilliant clusters of berries - though the berries are not palatable raw, as they're quite bitter. The raw berries contain parasorbic acid which can cause indigestion and even lead to kidney damage - so it's not a terribly good idea to eat the berries raw.
However, heat treatment (cooking) breaks down the parasorbic acid into sorbic acid (which is used, like citric acid, as a preservative in foods). The berries are very high in vitamin C - much higher than  a lemon, even - and as the tree can grow in the far north, the berries are a traditional wild food gathered in Britain and Scandinavia. I decided to give it a shot and made my first batch of Rowan jelly this year.
The process was just the same as the one I used for my salal jelly and other wild jellies. I gathered berries (easy to do - it took about 5 minutes of picking low-hanging fruit from one tree to fill two big baskets!). Then I removed the berries from the stems (this took a couple hours). I rinsed the berries well and put them in a pot with enough water to cover by at least an inch. I brought them to a boil, then reduced the heat and simmered, pressing occasionally with a potato masher until the berries had broken down. This took about 3 hours for me. You need to cook the berries about 15-20 minutes at a simmer (a shorter period will work if you are boiling them) to break down the parasorbic acid, so obviously I was well within the "safe" zone here.
I ran the berries through my food mill and then squeezed the dregs through 4 layers of cheesecloth to get all the juice out. I returned the filtered juice to the pan and started adding sugar.
Now,  full disclosure: the rowan berry's flavour is bitter! That will not ever go away. So don't sugar it to death. This is not a jam you make to serve on your toast in the morning or spread on a slice of cake. Instead, it has traditionally been used with game meats, to which it supposedly lends a wonderful piquancy (I'll let you know once I've tried it myself).
So, I started sugaring. I added pectin when the jelly had reached a stage where I could enjoy its fruity tang and not be too bothered by the bitterness that set in with the aftertaste. I can't give a recommendation here, except that it was more sugar than I normally use, and I like my jam tart. Don't bother adding lemon to this jelly. You don't need to worry about lowering the ph to safely can it, and it'll only make the jelly tart from start to finish! However, you can cook the berries with a couple of apples or crabapples when you first boil the fruit - that's pretty common. I had an old granny smith on hand that I threw in, just to use it up.
Test the jelly mass on a frozen plate: if a few drops, allowed to sit for 30 seconds on the frozen plate, form a blob that wrinkles up when you poke at it (instead of smearing across the plate), you're ready to can! At Seattle's low altitude, I only needed to process my jars (in a water bath) for 10 minutes.
And this is the result! (only there were a *lot* more of these little jars!) Isn't it beautiful? I think it may be the downright loveliest jelly I've ever made. I'm really looking forward to trying this out. I'm daydreaming about glazing a pork tenderloin with rowan jelly, and serving it with sauteed bitter greens or baby bok choy, with some chopped pickled buddha hand for some lemony brightness!


Michelle Huddleston said...

I just named my newest Golden Retriever puppy Rowan after this tree. She's a firey little redhead. Full of spunk... Thanky you for posting the photos, and let us know how the jelly turned out!

Hillary Ryan said...

Thanks for your post. I've been wondering what if anything to do with these in my backyard. I am not up for jelly this year, but I'd love an update about what it tastes like when you use it.

chelsea said...

Keep meaning to write. The jam is amazing!!! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I've read a few forums concerning the bitter factor in rowan berries. I found one mention of freezing the berries overnight to remove "the worst" of the bitterness, as well as a mention of waiting until after the first frost to harvest. Both methods would result in the same situation.

fleur_delicious said...

Hi everybody! The jam is good - fruity, but with a bitter edge.

Anonymous - I've read similar recommendations for harvesting rosehips and haws (the fruit of the hawthorn tree); it seems like this is common advice for the more bitter members of the rosaceae family. If I get a chance to harvest more rowan this year, I'll try freezing them first and see if it produces much difference. Though I think we're in for an early autumn this year in Seattle, good hard frosts are still fairly hard to come by before winter has really set in (and by then the fruits will long since have rotted)!