A berry, a berry, a red rowan berry,
A red rowan berry brought me beauty and love.
Samhain is right around the corner so it’s time to post the recipe I promised for Rowan Berry Caramels. These lucky charms will not only dispel evil spirits and satiate hungry ghosts, but they will greatly please the “Good Folk” renowned for their love of cream, butter, honey – and rowan berries. Which is a good thing. According to folklore, woe befalls those who do not leave the fairy (or the dead) their just desserts during Samhain.
I’ve written plenty about how to find, identify & cook with the crimson berries of the rowan tree, their culinary history, and their potent magical energies (as the five-pointed pentagram on the bottom of the berry attests) so I won’t repeat myself here. Let’s just say these Rowan Berry Caramels make the perfect treat for the night(s) when the veil between the worlds thins and the dead and the fairy folk “come a calling.”
Folklorist Ruth Kelly, in her Book Of Hallowe’en, tells us this was the time the gates of the Fairy Palaces (burial mounds and Neolithic passage tombs) opened and throngs of spirits emerged to roam the country. Kelly writes“…milk was poured on graves feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk. Hungry ghosts being hangry were especially feared, and so to prevent that from happening, visiting dead were properly satiated with plenty of milk, honey, apples, berries, and nuts, not to mention cakes or sweet treats baked or toasted over a fire of rowan.
It was traditional to offer a portion of the feast to the dead before the living tucked in and today these food practices have been absorbed into the Christian holidays All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In Ireland, that means feasting on apple cakes and Barmbrack ( a kind of fruit cake), and in Brittany, the “Gouel an Anaon,” the Feast of Souls, included milk, pancakes, and apple cider. In Spain, it was customary to bake pannelets (small cakes covered in nuts or filled with fruits) and gather around a fire and roast chestnuts to welcome back the deceased members of the family.
In Ireland, similar offerings of milk, cream, honey, and cakes were also left at burial grounds and passage tombs known as Sidhe mounds or Fairy knolls. These fairy places were the home of the Tuatha Dé Danann (people of the Goddess Dana) who presided over Samhain and the Feast of the Dead. In Irish mythology, these supernatural beings held dominion over the seasons, fertility, and agriculture, yet strangely depended on humans for their milk and bread. During Samhain, the final harvest of the year, they emerged from the Sidhe mounds to collect their tithe (portion of the harvest. Those too miserly to give them their due would be cursed with misfortune and bad luck!
The practice continued well into the 20th century as W. Y. Evans-Wentz in his classic book The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911 AD) documented the ongoing custom of offering cakes, milk, cream, honey, and sweets at fairy mounds, knolls, and fairy trees to the people of the Goddess Dana to ensure that humans and their livestock survived the winter.
The European rowan Sorbus aucuparia was considered the most important Faerie tree. According to folklore, the Tuatha Dé Danann held their Samhain celebrations and dances amongst Fairy Palaces (stone circles, cairns, and earthworks) surrounded by Rowan and other faerie trees. According to legend, they brought the rowan tree to Ireland as they believed it to be the Tree of Life and consumed the berry for its gifts of immortality and healing.
Rowan was sacred to goddesses associated with Tuatha Dé Danann such as Áine, Goddess of fertility who ruled the summer, and Morrigan, Goddess of Winter and Death. Morrigan is often considered an aspect of the Great Goddess of the Tuatha dé Danann, Danu “mother of all living things” – as life and death are eternally intertwined. Some scholars claim Danu was a bantúathach (witch or sorceress) or bandrúi (female druid) who possessed the cauldron of regeneration, and the cauldron is a symbol often associated with the Morrigan’s role as a goddess of transformation, prophecy, and rebirth. In Welsh mythology, Cerdiwen was the goddess of poetic inspiration, a sorceress whose magic cauldron conferred the gift of second sight and beauty.
Celtic scholar Ellen Ettlinger traces references found in Irish literature and folklore to megalithic passage tombs, cairns, and chambers in Ireland in which feasts were held, three days before Samhain, the Summer-End, and for three days after that day, and upon Samhain itself. I find it fascinating sites such as Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo and the Mound of the Hostages found on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, feature alignments preceding and after the cross-quarter days of Samhain and Imbolc.
They are associated with the Cailleach or Witch, a crone-like ‘old woman’ who rules the winter months. She is the builder or creator of the cairns and he is believed to be the oldest deity of Scotland and Ireland, predating the arrival of the Celts. When spring arrives the Callieach transforms into the Goddess Brigid (believed to be a descendent of the Tuatha Dé Danann) who was often depicted carrying a rowan branch or staff. She was also offered milk, and cakes made with cream, butter, and honey. Rowan was a sacred tree in Brigid’s groves, where rituals and ceremonies dedicated to her were held.
Irish Folklore is filled with the legendary powers of Rowan Berry. Worn in charms they protected from harm and consuming the berries healed all illness and enhanced second sight (so important to scrying and divination associated with Samhain). In the tale of the Rowan Fairy Tree, we learn that “ the maid who eats a berry gets all the beauty that should be hers of right” and a “woman who is old and eats a berry from the Fairy Tree becomes young again.”
This is as good a reason as any for hauling out your cauldron (or a large pot) to concoct these Rowan Berry Caramels! Not to mention that rowan berries granted protection from ghouls and any hangry ghosts that might wander unfed.
These are really adult treats as they have a unique, slightly tart bittersweet taste (which I think is the perfect counterpart to the counterpart to the caramel). It’s best to harvest the berries after the frost when the the berries are bright red or a very deep (instead of a light) orange. They feature a perfect five-pointed star or pentagram at their base – and their pinnate leaves are arranged alternately, and turn bright yellow and orange in the fall before falling.
Hard and bitter unripe, they will soften slightly, plump up, and redden, when they are ready for harvest. Do NOT eat Rowan berries raw however tempting, they contain parasorbic acid – which can at best cause indigestion and at worst kidney damage. Once cooked or frozen, the parasorbic acid is converted into harmless sorbic acid, which is digestible and safe to eat.
Sorbus aucuparia or the European Rowan has a long history of being made into jellies, pies, wines, and liquors but berries of different species can vary in terms of sweetness and “juiciness” which can affect the final consistency and flavor of your caramels. So if berries are a bit dry and mealy you will need to add more water in cooking. And you will need to cook them long enough to soften the flesh completely. If berries are too dry you will be left with little skin husks and not enough “meat” so to speak”. Some tend to be more bitter and may require more sugar so you may need to give your rowanberry concoction a taste before you put the caramel on for the final “boil”.
And in a final kitchen witchery note remember that Samhain (Summers End) was the end of the old year and the beginning of new. This period of betwixt and between was a powerful time of enchantment and magic. So whether one wishes to honor the dearly departed or give the fairy folk their tithe with these treats, conduct a little scrying over the cauldron or cast a spell to bring you beauty, love, or healing – the best time to do so is on the days just preceding and following the cross-quarter day November 7th – the traditional time for Samhain.
Rowan Berry Caramels
(Recipe excerpted from The Season Of Harvest Ecookbook at Gather Victoria Patreon)
- 1 cup of rowan berries
- ½ cup salted butter, cut into slices
- 1 cup honey
- 1 cup whipping cream
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- coarse sea salt, for sprinkling
In a saucepan, bring the rowan berries to a low simmer to soften them and release their juices. Pour into a sieve over a bowl and press the berries through to extract as much of the juice as possible. Discard the seeds. You should end up with just under a ¼ cup of puree. Set aside.
Place parchment paper into an 8×8-inch baking dish and grease with butter or oil.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add in the honey, heavy cream, and brown sugar and whisk to combine. Remove from the heat and attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, making sure the tip of the thermometer isn’t touching the bottom of the pan. Slowly pour the rowan berry mixture into the mixture and gently combine.
Return the pot to medium-high heat. Once the mixture is bubbling, reduce the heat just a tad and let simmer for 20-30 minutes, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 250 degrees F (121 degrees C). Remove it from the heat and quickly whisk in the vanilla extract.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and allow it to set at room temperature for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight.
When the caramels have set, lift them out of the pan by the parchment paper. Place them on a cutting board and cut them into rectangles with a sharp knife. Sprinkle the caramels with the sea salt and wrap them in wax paper). Place the caramels in containers between layers of parchment paper to store. You can also freeze these caramels.