For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been experimenting with some kitchen witch cuisine for our upcoming Hallowe’en Night of Herbal Magick with herbalist Betty Norton. We’re going to be concocting some magical cookery with the sacred plants and herbs of Samhain, but most especially the scarlet bright berries of Rowan or Mountain Ash – long known as The Witches Tree.
Once revered as the Queen of High Places and Enchantress of The Woods, today Rowan grows more mundanely along our city streets and in our rural green spaces. And few of us remember that from the British Isles to the Norse Countries, she was once “the tree of power, causing life and magic to flower.”
Her tart, slightly bitter autumnal berries are rarely harvested today – except by birds who love them – but they were a cherished food for hundreds of years, long utilized in jams, pies, tarts, wines, ales – and enchantments.
Her name 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.
And on Samhain, according to witchy folklore, her bright berries can enhance inspiration, second sight and help us cast spells of abundance, prosperity and protection. (You can learn more about Rowan’s magical folklore in this little video here and at the bottom of the post.)
So far, in preparation for our Rowan Berry Halloween Homage, I’ve concocted Rowan Berry Fudge, Rowan Berry Ketchup, Rowan Berry & Crab Apple Chutney, Rowan Berry Pumpkin Soup and Rowan Berry Caramels. Which turned out quite nice!
But sadly, I can only demonstrate just one recipe on our night of food magick. I’m going with the Rowan Berry & Crabapple Chutney not just because it’s the easiest to make and demonstrate, but because it’s the most spellbinding. Plus it’s delicious and can be easily served up with cheese and crackers to give everyone a taste at the end of the night!
Here in this chutney, rowan berries bring their tart, bitterish flavour, as well as gifts of inspiration, healing, good luck and protection. And like the Goddesses sacred apples, they are said to bestow beauty and renew youth.
Hazelnuts awaken second sight, chestnuts nourish the dead, and Samhain herbs rosemary (for remembrance of our ancestors) and mugwort (to aid in divination) both ward 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).
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 I also added a few chopped dried apricots for sweetness.
But you’ll find the recipe below for my personal favourite. A warming savoury Rowan Berry & Apple & Pumpkin soup that I’ve made for dinner quite a few times now. Creamy and hearty, it’s almost a meal.
Rowan berries are sweetened by the first frost, but don’t worry you can recreate this at home by freezing the berries before you cook with them. But they must never be eaten raw, because the toxic acids in them can cause severe indigestion. Luckily cooking the berries, heat-drying and even freezing (to some extent), renders these acids harmless.
So if you’d like to try one (or both of these recipes) you’ll need to begin with identifying the berries and distinguishing them for the many orangey red berries that grow in the fall – some of which are quite toxic! Rowan berries range in colour from deep orange to crimson red, and are believed to have inspired the colours of the Tartan plaids. The 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 a need a little – the rowan berry is slightly bitter and can easily overwhelm a dish.
And remember, this berry is potent with magical energies (as the natural pentagram at it’s base attests) so be aware that she may awaken psychic abilities and witchy powers!
So if you’re up to a little kitchen witch cuisine, I offer you 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 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 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.