The next in the series of Autumn Foraging posts from Scrubland Scavenger. This time we are out Foraging For Rowan Berries.
In the previous post we were Foraging for Sloes and prior to that we were Foraging for Brambles. Now we are going Foraging for Rowan Berries with Scrubland Scavenger, the third of four autumn berries (Brambles, Sloes, Rowans, Haws) in this ‘Jewels of Autumn’ blog series.
As we get closer to Halloween it seems quite topical to be writing about a tree which is probably best known for protecting against malevolent beings. The Rowan, also referred to as the Mountain Ash, is a tree native to the UK and in more supercilious times was planted next to houses to ward off witches. Despite a downturn in the fear of witches, Rowan trees remain abundant in both the countryside and in towns and I love foraging for Rowan Berries!
A fan of moist, acidic soils and not adverse to growing in an elevated position, Rowan trees thrive in the valley in the south of the Scottish Borders where I live. As the summer draws to an end the clusters of bright red berries can’t help but draw the eye…. time for a wee bit of Rowan Berry foraging!
Underappreciated Rowan Berries
Unlike Brambles and Sloes, Rowan Berries don’t seem to get fair recognition as an awesome autumn foraging find. With winter on the horizon, Rowan Berries are an excellent addition to the preserved autumnal flavours you can store for the less bountiful months ahead. Variety, especially when it’s dreich and cold outside, is the spice of life as they say.
When we were first planning and discussing this blog series Adam said to me “Have you found a way to make Rowan berries taste good?” I referred to Rowan and Apple Jelly (one of the most common uses), and although he said his wife likes it, Adam himself sounded unconvinced.
It would appear that Adam is not alone. When taste-testing the jellies & ketchup for this blog series on my family & friends, the Rowan and Apple Jelly has been less well received than others. Having said that, I have one friend who just loved it (she’s been busy making her own batch this week).
An acquired taste
My personal opinion? I think that Rowan Berries don’t taste like anything else I have ever eaten, they are bitter without a doubt, but the more I eat the more I enjoy the unique flavour. I would equate it with my experience of coffee, when I first tasted coffee I was like ‘Yuk’, now I drink it black with no sugar and can’t start my day without at least one cup.
I’m not suggesting that I am going to get to the point where I have to eat Rowan and Apple Jelly before I can function in the morning, but the taste of Rowan Berries has definitely grown on me. Yes, I am confident in saying, now I really like their unusual taste!
Broaden your palate
I have found that eating an ever increasing range of wild, foraged foods has expanded my palate and that it is best to approach new flavours with an open mind. So many of the foods we buy in the supermarkets are well known tastes we have experienced for years. There must be things that you tried initially and weren’t convinced about but now they form part of your regular diet?
I would urge you to give Rowan Berries a go (or a few goes to let the flavour grow on you if not initially convinced), but I’m afraid you can’t just pluck one from the tree & pop it in your mouth. Rowan Berries contain parasorbic acid which ain’t so good for us humans, so you shouldn’t eat them raw. However, if you cook them then the parasorbic acid turns into sorbic acid and you can munch away.
I would recommend Rowan & Apple Jelly as a good way to try the taste of Rowan Berries. Being a jelly it contains a good amount of sugar to temper the bitterness of the berries. If I’ve intrigued you enough that you would like to try some Rowan & Apple Jelly, first you better find & gather some Rowan Berries!
Identifying Rowan trees
Rowan trees don’t get massive like some other trees, they grow up to about 20 metres high. The bark is generally pretty smooth, it’s grey when the tree is young, but as the tree matures the bark becomes a bit more browny-grey.
In late spring, early summer clusters white five petalled flowers appear on the tree, attracting the insects needed to pollinate them so they can then mature into berries come the end of the summer. The berries form clusters, like the flowers, and can be bright red through to vivid orange.
As deciduous trees, Rowan’s lose their leaves in the winter. However, with quite a number of red & orange berries around at the same time of year, I think the leaves of the Rowan play a vital role in making sure you are picking the right thing. Fortunately the leaves should still be on the tree when the berries are ready to be gathered.
The leaves of the Rowan tree are similar to that of the Ash tree, hence ‘Mountain Ash’ (the species aren’t related). They are made up of multiple leaflets that form pairs along a central mid-rib. Normally you will find 5-10 pairs of leaflets per main leaf. This paired formation is quite distinctive in comparison to the leaves of other plants with red & orange berries on them right now, so I find the leaves the best way of making sure I’ve got the correct tree.
Recipe for Rowan Berries & Apple Jelly
- 450g of Rowan Berries
- 225g of foraged Apples (chopped, no need to peel or core them)
- 500ml water
You’ll also need exactly the same equipment as needed for My Bramble Jelly Recipe.
How to make it
First off, rinse the berries, dry them off & bung them in the freezer overnight.
No, I haven’t got this recipe confused with a Sloe Gin recipe. Rowan Berries are said to be at their best after the first frost, apparently the frost causes them to lose a bit of their bitterness & to become a bit sweeter. I find that if I wait until the first frost, the berries have already started to shrivel, so by popping them in the freezer overnight I am just making the first frost come a little sooner.
Having tried freezing and not freezing before making this jelly I would say that it does improve the taste, maybe even helping the smokiness coming through. However, it by no means removes the bitterness, so don’t expect that.
Rescue your now frozen berries from the freezer and then add to a pan with the apples and water.
Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the temperature and allow to simmer for about 15-20 minutes (l leave the lid of the pan on).
Carefully use a tattie masher to break down any remaining whole berries or bits of Apple.
Allow to cool for a bit then ladle into a jelly bag & leave overnight (this mixture actually tends to drip through very quickly, so you normally get what juice you are going to end up with after about 4 hours if you can’t wait).
Once the juice has dripped through, put the liquid into a heavy based pan with 75 grams of sugar for every 100ml of juice. I got 450ml of juice, so 0.75 x 450 = 337.5g, so 340g of sugar went into my pan with my liquid.
Heat gently until the sugar dissolves, then turn up the heat & bring the mixture to the boil. Once at jam setting point carefully transfer into sterilised jars. When cooled & set your Rowan Berry tasting can begin!
Rowan and Apple Jelly is not the sort of jelly I would spread on your toast like the Bramble or Sloe & Apple jellies of the previous posts in this series, although who am I to say how you should eat it?! It is generally an accompaniment to Lamb or Game. Personally I think it goes well with Cheese and Oatcakes.
Apparently Wensleydale Cheese pairs well with Rowan and Apple Jelly, but I find it tastes good with whatever cheese you have in the fridge.
If you normally make Rowan & Apple Jelly and fancy mixing it up a bit, why not try adding a few sprigs of fresh Rosemary in with your berries & chopped apples before you bring them to the boil. I tried it this year & I really liked the addition of the Rosemary for a bit of a change.
I’ve done a bit more experimenting and have also made Pickled Rowan Berries. I used Natasha Lloyd’s recipe. Based in the Cairngorm National Park, no doubt she has an abundance of Rowan trees where she lives too. The recipe was quick & easy to follow, and if you have some space Rowan Berries it is well worth giving it a go.
Pickled Rowan Berries are served in the famous Scandinavian Michelin-star restaurants Noma and Fäviken, so they can’t be bad. I don’t think I’ll come up with a recipe such as the Pea flour tart with sea urchin, sea urchin cream and pickled Rowan berries served at Fäviken (sounds yum eh!?), but I’m sure I’ll find some tasty way to utilise them this winter.
Now, I think I have saved the best for last when it comes to the 4 easily identifiable berries to forage in autumn I am covering in this series…. next time it’s the Hawthorn. With a recipe for Haw Ketchup which is far easier than any jelly recipe and very tasty, I am hoping that it will soon become one of your favourite autumn berries to forage & eat. Guess I better go get some Haws!
What about you?
Have you got any Rowan Berry recipes you would recommend to me & other readers? Any interesting anecdotes of your own when Foraging for Rowan Berries? If so, please leave your comments… I’d love to hear from you!
Scrubland Scavenger is based in the south of the Scottish Borders. With a real commitment to becoming fully self-sufficient, Scrubland Scavenger started foraging locally when still a child and, although never claiming to be an expert, has built up a good knowledge of many of the wild edible delights. Scrubland Scavenger promotes sustainable foraging, not only to collect culinary delights but also as a great way of discovering more about your local environment & as an exciting way to reconnect with the abundance of nature all around us.