The Hawthorn tree is another of my favourites. I’ve munched on the flowers and young leaves for two Springs, and this year made a tea from drying the same, most of which went to my grandmother who has been using it as a heart tonic*. This will be my third Autumn making preserves from the small red fruits or ‘haws’. Two years ago I came to them rather late but full of enthusiasm after seeing what Ray Mears did with them in his ‘Wild Food‘ series on the BBC:
My berries were more the purple than the orange side of red, and mashing them by hand in the sink they quickly turned a highly suspect, sticky brown which was up to my elbows by the time the bell rang and I answered the door to my mother (with a rather quizzical expression on her face!) Still, the resulting ‘fruit leather’ tasted okay after a few hours in a low oven, and I quickly nibbled my way through the lot.
Last year was my first big jam/jelly season and hawthorn berries got squeezed through sieves and muslin into a variety of preserves. They tasted good just on their own, but my favourite was a mixture of ‘hips, haws and crabs’ which came out a lovely clear, dark red. The crazy-high levels of pectin in the berries, as the Mears footage demonstrates, helps with other fruits (eg: rosehips) that have trouble setting.
I don’t know what it is – whether I’m noticing them in an earlier, juicier phase, whether there’s an especially hard winter coming, or it’s just that they’re showing a special exuberance because they see somebody (human) finally paying attention to them – but the haws in my locality have never looked so fat, juicy and plentiful (hahaha – say it out loud):
Growing a little tired of eating jam (ie: a half-weight of sugar) all the time, I thought I’d try a chutney recipe I found in Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs. I gathered a plastic bagful of the berries, mostly from the above bush. Just grab clusters of them by hand and twist them off the main stalk. Mind the thorns which are much harder & spiny-er now than they were in the springtime. Then comes the rather arduous process of stripping away stalks and leaves. Best done with a friend, and sharp fingernails come in handy:
It took me about an hour to fill the above bowl – slightly less than 1.5kg in total. But I was in an OCD frame of mind and you don’t have to be so fastidious 😉 I saved the best-looking leaves (center-right) for tea, which I find looks & tastes different depending on what time of year you harvest.
A couple of days later I got round to buying some cider vinegar, into which went the berries (after a good wash under the tap). The recipe suggests 500ml for 1kg of haws, but I put all of my fruit in. After an hour’s simmering (covered, occasionally stirring/squishing with a wooden spoon, with 1tsp salt), which got the whole house smelling of vinegar, the mixture was pretty thick and starting to attach to the bottom of the pan, so I added a few more glugs of vinegar from another bottle. I didn’t have much success mashing the pulp through a specially purchased metal sieve or even a colander, but had more luck when I dug out the trusty Moulinex†:
Perhaps it’d be easier to do separate the seeds by hand, ‘aboriginally’ as Mears does, only adding cider vinegar (how easy is this to make from Mesolithic Crabapples?) instead of water at the early stages to help the juices run, then proceeding with the jelly for the rest of the recipe.‡ For the next step, I measured out 300g of demerara sugar, plus an extra 125g of raisins + dried fruit, and added 1tsp each ground ginger and ground nutmeg and ¼tsp each ground allspice and ground cloves (though I put slightly too much of the latter as I had to grind them myself). Then I milled black pepper over the top for about 30 seconds.
This then went in with the fruit/vinegar pulp and got cooked & well mixed for a further 20 minutes after I brought it to the boil. The spice mix smelled incredible. Here it is, steaming away:
And for the final stage ladle into warm jars and label:
It is good with all cold meats and poultry and makes a lovely ploughman’s lunch with bread and cheese. The little berries are so plentiful that it is worth making several batches of chutney to store through the winter. You can vary the recipe by omitting the dried fruit and cooking the mixture or only 10 minutes, which results in a spicy-sweet sauce which can be bottled and stored.
As I find myself doing fairly often these days, I’m wondering if it’s necessary to put all (or any) of that sugar in. It’s only been in the British diet since the Jamaican slave trade, after all. How did people preserve without it during all the previous centuries and millennia?
Okay, let’s finish with some Hawthorn folklore. This from Margaret Baker’s Folklore of Plants:
Interference with thorns, fairy or holy, was reckless. At Redmarley Farm, Acton Beauchamp, Worcestershire, the farmer, annoyed by sightseers, chopped his tree down. Retribution came swiftly. He broke first his leg, then his arm and finally his farm burned down to the ground. At Clehonger, another axe-wielding gambler saw blood flow from the tree’s trunk and stopped work in terror.
If felling were unavoidable, a prayer must be offered first. In 1877 a County Meath man felled a whitethorn without precautions, pierced his hand with a thorn and died of septicaemia. Felling must be for ritual or healing purposes only, never merely to tidy the farm. To fell a hawthorn in preparing a house site means misfortune or even death for those who will live in the house.
When firewood ran short one winter at Berwick St John, Dorset, Walter Grove, son of the manor house, is said to have cut down an old thorn standing on an earthwork. The horrified village soon found that no chickens would lay, no cow calved and no babies were conceived. When the tree was replaced everything quickly returned to normal. (p.70)
* – PFAF write:
Western herbalists consider it a ‘food for the heart’, it increases the blood flow to the heart muscles and restores normal heart beat […] Both the fruits and flowers of hawthorns are well-known in herbal folk medicine as a heart tonic and modern research has borne out this use. The fruits and flowers have a hypotensive effect as well as acting as a direct and mild heart tonic. They are especially indicated in the treatment of weak heart combined with high blood pressure, they are also used to treat a heart muscle weakened by age, for inflammation of the heart muscle, arteriosclerosis and for nervous heart problems.
† – Hand-crank grating machine present in every French household from around 1950.
‡ – I found out too late that you can use the discarded seeds, roasted and ground, as a coffee substitute (ibid.)