From Rowan Berry Syrup, Jelly, Fudge, Ketchup, Chutney, Soup and Rowan Berry Caramels, one of my favourite magical foods are the bright red berries of the Witches Tree. Once revered as the Queen of High Places and Enchantress of The Woods, few of us remember that from the British Isles to the Norse Countries, Rowan was once “the tree of power, causing life and magic to flower.”
Her crimson autumnal berries are said to have inspired the Tartan plaids and were long used in jams, pies, tarts, wines, ales – and enchantments. According to witchy folklore, rowan is potent with magical energies (as the natural pentagram at the berries base attests) and works to enhance inspiration, second sight, abundance, prosperity and protection, not to mention bestow beauty and renew youth.
The word rowan is believed to be derived from the word rune, “what is spoken softly and solemnly”, “ a mystery or secret counsel.” Early medieval scribes of Old German and Old English give variants of the word —helliruna, helrun, helrune, helrynegu, and hellraun, for a “sorceress or witch” with oracular powers, in touch with the earth and spirits of the dead. (see more here)
In Ireland and parts of Scotland, it was customary during harvest festivals for women to visit burial mounds, called cairns, to honour dead ancestors, especially the female ones. According to some folklore variants, all human souls were reabsorbed into the wombs which bore them, and therefore, only women inhabited the Land of the Dead!
As Samhain is a harvest festival, associated with honouring the ancestors I’m going to share two of my favourite Rowan Berry recipes. The first is for a warming savoury Rowan Berry & Crab Apple & Pumpkin Soup that is so creamy and hearty, it’s almost a meal.
Pumpkin, of course, is a highly magical food! The large, round gourds are symbols of fertility and prosperity, as well as the full Harvest Moon. I’ve used apples because of their long association with harvest festivals, feeding the dead and that other important feminine activity – divination. (see more here).
I’ve flavoured the soup with Samhain herbs rosemary (for remembrance of our ancestors) and mugwort (to aid in divination), Both herbs were renowned for warding off negative spirits. I’ve used coastal mugwort for its smoky, sagey flavour which can be easily substituted with sage (also a powerful protective herb).
Rowan Berry Chutney also includes crabapples, rosemary along with hazelnuts (to awaken second sight) and chestnuts (to nourish the dead). I also tossed in a few Japanese barberries because they are so plentiful where I live and their sourish crunchy berry is like a miniature cranberry. And because they’re also known as Witches Treats! Easily served with a platter cheese and crackers, this chutney is perfect for any Samhain celebration.
But before we get cooking – let’s be clear Rowan is far from a sweet dessert berry. Tart, slightly bitter and astringent, it needs cooking to be rendered palatable. And for good reason, eaten raw their toxic acids can cause severe indigestion. Luckily cooking the berries, heat-drying and even freezing (to some extent), renders these acids harmless. Rowan berries are supposed to be sweetened by the first frost, but I never wait as here in the wet climes of the PNW they get waterlogged and rot long before. You can easily preserve and sweeten your berries by popping them into the freezer. That said, once you acquire a taste for these enchanted berries, you will grow to love them as so many of us do.
Plus they’re super good for you. High in vitamins A and C, as well as other healthy goodies like pectin, malic acid, polyphenolic compounds, flavonols, anthocyanins, including rutin and quercetin. Which probably explains why rowan berries have been praised for their antioxidant anti-inflammatory powers and credited with everything from helping to boost the immune system, strengthen the respiratory system, improve digestion, reduce the risk of cancer and various bacterial infections. Explains their reputed healing abilities!
Last year I discovered rowan berry flour was a common staple in Russian baking. Which makes sense considering it’s such a nutritious berry! I started drying and grinding the berries and adding them to cookies and bread – where they add gorgeous colour and lovely tang. I love this and am planning some holiday baking with rowan berry flour.
Rowan berries are actually small fruits and the most widely consumed species is Sorbus aucuparia, which grows across the British Isles, Northern Europe and North America. Berries range in colour from deep orange to crimson red and feature a perfect five-pointed star or pentagram at their base. The leaves are 6 to 10 inches long with lance-shaped leaflets that are 2 to 3 inches long; with fine and sharp-toothed margins. And if the tree is barren, look to the ground, you’ll find her fallen leaves there.
Rowan is beloved by birds and is an important food source, so please when you harvest, please make sure you leave them plenty. Plus you only need a little – the rowan berry is slightly bitter and can easily overwhelm a dish.
And remember, this berry is potent with magical energies that may awaken psychic abilities and witchy powers! So if you’re up to a little kitchen witch cuisine, I offer you these two recipes for some Samhain magic of your own. Happy Halloween and Samhain Blessings!
Rowan Berry, Apple and Pumpkin Soup Seasoned with Rosemary & Coastal Mugwort
- ½ cup of Rowan berries
- 4 crab apples (or two tart large apples) cored and roughly diced
- 1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin
- 2 tablespoons butter (or olive oil)
- 1 small onion, diced
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2-4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (depending on how thick you like your soup)
- 2/3 cups applesauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon diced rosemary
- 1 tablespoon dried or fresh coastal mugwort (or sage)
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Add butter (or olive oil) diced onion, rowan berries, apples and salt and saute about 10 minutes. Onions should be translucent.
- Add the stock, applesauce, white pepper, sage and nutmeg. Bring to a boil and cook until berries and apples are very tender.
- Add the pumpkin and brown sugar and cook for 10 – 15 minutes over medium heat. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Use a food processor to blend soup until it’s smooth.
- Return to pot and add cream to the soup. Stir over low heat, until the cream is well mixed and the soup is warm. Remove from heat and serve.
Rowan Berry and Crabapple Chutney w/Chestnuts, Rosemary & Mugwort
- 1 cup of fresh crabapples, cored and chopped
- 3/4 cup of fresh rowan berries
- 1/2 cup of chopped fresh or roasted hazelnuts or chestnuts
- 1/4 cup of barberries (or blackberries or cranberries)
- 1/4 cup diced dried apricots
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
- Juice of one orange
- 2 shallots or one large onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 & 1/2 cup of brown sugar
- 3/4 cup water ( I used half elderberry syrup & half water )
- 3/4 cup apple cider, white wine or herbal vinegar
- 1 tablespoon coastal mugwort minced or crumbled (or you can substitute sage)
- 2 tablespoons of minced rosemary
- 2 teaspoons of sea salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds
- 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper (optional, but I like a little heat!)
- Put the rowan berries, chopped apples, apricots, hazelnuts, chopped shallots, herbs, spices and butter into a pan, gently saute and simmer until mixture is well-cooked and soft.
- Add the orange juice, orange zest, water, vinegar and sugar and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved.
- Stir and cook on low for an hour. Add more water if your chutney’s liquid evaporates before your fruits are completely cooked.
- Cool completely and refrigerate for up to three weeks. You can freeze the chutney for up to six months.
P.S. Find more recipes for Rowan Berries (like Crabapple & Rowan Berry Sweet Pickles, Rowan Berry Caramels and Rowan Berry Jelly) in the Gather Victoria Cookbook for Patreon subscribers.
Remember – do not eat berries raw – they will give you a nasty case of indigestion!