I bet you didn’t know that today is the birthday of the Rowan Tree or Mountain Ash. In Russia, Ryabinnik, September 23rd was the day the rowan berries were considered sweet enough for harvest, and harvest they did. Baskets of rowan berries were cooked into jam, jelly, confiture, kissel, wine, kvass, bread, pies, and candy and infused into medicinal syrups for combatting colds, flu, rheumatism, and gout. So in honor of Rowan’s birthday, and harvest festival, I’m sharing a rowan berry jelly recipe from Gather Victoria Patreon (and a little rowan berry culinary wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years).
The recipe is hardly original as Rowan Berry Jelly, hands down, from the British Isles, across Europe to Sweden to Russia, is one of the most popular uses for berries. Rowan Berry is not a typical sweet berry, it has a distinctive bittersweet flavor which is the signature taste of this beloved jelly. An ideal balance between sweetness and bitterness, its slight astringency makes it the exact right complement to rich buttery cheeses and fatty sausages. And I promise you, once you try it, you’ll never be able to serve a cheese plate without it! And considering it’s iconic status it seemed a good recipe for sharing today!
During Ryabinnik berries were harvested in the morning once the frost melted off the berries. Here on Vancouver Island, the first frost is still a few weeks away, and rowan berry is best harvested after the frost, which lessens their bitterness. So if you want to harvest now, it’s best to freeze them before using them as this mimics the sweetening action of the first frost.
Debittering is also accomplished by cooking, or drying. DO NOT eat Rowan berries raw however tempting, they contain parasorbic acid a highly astringent compound that will give you a nasty tummy ache – believe me, I know.
That said, rowan berries are nutritional powerhouses containing significant amounts of vitamins C and A carotenoids, and phenolic acids as well as minerals, iron, potassium, and magnesium. They contain three times the amount of Vitamin C than oranges and contain a sweet-tasting sugar alcohol sorbitol, which is used as a sweetener for people suffering from diabetes. Their anti-inflammatory properties are particularly helpful for digestive disorders – if you don’t eat them raw that is!
Berries should be bright red or a very deep orange when harvested and you can find them practically everywhere. Sorbus aucuparia is a species of deciduous tree in the rose family and is native to most of Europe and parts of Asia, as well as northern Africa, their range extends from the British Isles and Iceland to Russia and northern China. Sorbus aucuparia L. is the species referred to in this Russian ethnobotanical source and it has gone “invasive” across North America. That said, native species were also consumed by a variety of Indigenous people. Today in many parts of the world, they are popular ornamentals, planted in parks and along city streets. Their leaves are arranged alternately, are pinnate, and turn bright yellow and orange in the fall.
All berries feature a perfect five-pointed star or pentagram at their base one reason they are also known as the Witch’s Tree or the Enchantress of the Forest in the British Isles. In Slavic countries and Russia, they represented femininity, beauty, and protection from negative forces. It was taboo to cut the rowan and break its branches without a proper ceremony. Such as Ryabinnik, a special day of harvest marked with feminine gatherings, cooking, and magic. Bunches of scarlet berries were attached under the roofs of houses and on window frames. Special Rowan charms or necklaces made from strung dried berries were made by girls and great-grandmothers who wore this”jewelry” all year long until new berries appeared.
This custom was also popular in the British Isles where garlands of dried berries were strung on red string guarded from evil and illness. I’ve made these charms every year since I discovered the practice and one important tip – use fresh berries and a big needle, they can be tough and hard to pierce, so effort is necessary. And forget using dried berries, practically impossible as I have also learned. Dry AFTER making not before.
I’ve made many a mistake in working with rowan berry – take my experiments with rowan berry flour. After discovering it in a Russian ethnographic collection as an ingredient in breads and cakes I decided to make some of my own. Alas, I could find no instructions on how this was done or how much flour was used in the recipes. So I winged it. Let’s just say my experiments with rowan berry flour in bread, buns, and cookies demonstrated that very, very little is needed before it turns very sharp and very bitter.
Eventually, I figured it out, and in just the right amount, it adds a slightly tangy spicy flavor – plus a lovely warm golden color to baking. I document this process in the Gather Autumn 2020 Ecookbook and share recipes for Rowan Berry & Crabapple Pickles, Rosemary & Rowan Berry Seed & Nut Bread, Roasted Red Pepper & Rowan Berry Dip, Rowan Berry Chutney w/Apples, Chestnuts, Orange Peel & Rosemary, and Rowan Berry Salted Caramels.
You can also find a recipe for Rowan Berry & Crabapple Chutney and the Rowan Berry Pumpkin Soup) right here on the website.
For the following Rowan Berry Jelly recipe, I also added crabapples and barberries. Both were often used in jellies and relishes and you can learn more about barberries here. But if you can’t find either don’t worry the jelly will still be delicious. Just substitute with regular apples.
I think it sad rowan berries are rarely harvested today (except by birds who love them) considering their many culinary, medicinal, and magical uses. For over 4,000 years, from the British Isles to Russia, the Vikings, Greeks, and Druids revered Rowan as the “Tree of Life,” and regular consumption of the berries was said to bestow beauty, renew youth, and increase life span “beyond belief”. In the British Isles, she was the Queen of High Places and Enchantress of The Woods, “the tree of power, causing life and magic to flower.” So I hope you get a chance to celebrate the Rowan Berry this season!
Rowan Berry Jelly
- 2 pounds rowan berries (washed and stems removed)
- 1 pound of crab apples or tart green apples (cored and quartered)
- 1 cup of barberries (if using
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or cinnamon)
- 3.5 – 4 cups sugar (to taste)
- 1 generous sprig of rosemary
Remove the stalks and wash and drain the berries. Add them with apples into a large pan or stockpot, along with spices and rosemary. Cover with just enough water to cover the tops of the fruit. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 30 – 40 minutes or until the fruit is very soft.
Once slightly cooled place everything in a large belly bag and allow to drip through overnight. You can also use a fine muslin cloth or a tightly textured cheesecloth.
DO NOT squeeze the jelly bag to extract more juice – you’ll get cloudy jelly. This is no big deal as it still tastes yummy but just won’t have the lovely jewel-like clarity.
Pour the resulting liquid into a large pot and add your sugar and lemon juice. (It’s wise to measure the juice first, you want the same amount of sugar by bulk – i.e. cup of sugar, cup of juice). At this point you can taste and see if you’d like to add more sugar.
Heat until the sugar has dissolved, then boil briskly to the setting point, you can use a candy thermometer to check when the jelly’s temperature reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove any scum from the top and pour into warm, sterilized jars and seal. You can eat this straight away, but it will keep unopened for up to a year. Once opened, though, keep it in the refrigerator.
Makes about 6 small jars.