© Kat Morgenstern, September 2007
It's nut and berry time again! The leaves are turning and I hear the nuts plop on the road outside my window, where they'll soon get crushed by the tires of passing cars, much to the delight of countless birds that have gathered for the feast. In fact, I am sure the crows have become smart enough to actually position nut clusters on the road so they only have to wait for a passing vehicle to get at the scrumptious kernel inside.
But I wasn't going to talk about nuts, I wanted to talk about berries. I love berries! Unfortunately most of my favourite ones are already past their season. Raspberries, blueberries, wild strawberries and even elder berries have come and gone. At this time of the year some other, more obscure berries vie for attention - most of them are red and many belong to the rose family. One such candidate is Rowan, also known as Mountain. As the name suggests, Mountain Ash likes the higher altitudes and can be found on altitudes of up to 6000 feet. It seems to like inhospitable places, like rocky outcrops and crevices on windswept hillsides,- which has given it a reputation of defiance and resilience, quite au contraire to its dainty appearance. It is often found along forest margins, as it does not compete well with other, taller trees due to its rather low height. But on the edge of the forest it keeps invasive shrubs at bay and provides ample food and nesting space for birds, who love the red berries. It is also a common sight in city parks and lining urban roads, where it has been planted for its ability to survive car fumes.
Rowan trees have the most conspicuous berries. From about August on the coral red bunches glow far and wide and simply cannot be missed. The whole tree looks gorgeous, especially once its feathery leaves are turning yellow-red. Unfortunately, the tempting berries don't quite fulfill all that they promise - at least not from the flavour point of view. Although edible, they are very bitter. Most humans shun them, but numerous species of birds delight in them - which in the past has been much to their own demise. In the days when songbirds were regarded a delicacy on our dinner plates the berries served as a fateful lure to entrap the poor critters. Thankfully, today such barbaric feasts have been banned in most countries and the songbird population has much recovered since its earlier decline.
So, why do I bother talking about such a questionable foraging delight? Because despite of its bitter taste it does have a history of culinary use and there are a few things one should know about it. Firstly - there are several different species of Rowan. The European wild Rowan berry (Sorbus aucuparia), a refined European species from Czechoslovakia, which lacks some of the bitterness, but otherwise looks much the same, known as Sorbus aucuparia var. moravica syn. 'edulis' and several American species such as Sorbus Americana, which is common in the Northeast and Sorbus scopulina, which is found in the Western States. The best flavour is provided by the Czechoslovakian species, and the berries can even be enjoyed straight off the tree. However, most of the time we will have to process them in order to make them palatable. The berries generally taste better after the first frost has bitten them. Just boiling does not really diminish the bitterness, but soaking them in vinegar over night and washing them the next day can make some difference. The fruits are very rich in vitamin C - providing more of that vitamin than lemons. In the days before such exotic fruit were commonly available in every season and at every supermarket Rowan berries were used as an anti-scorbutic remedy.
Some people simply press the fresh juice, but I would not really recommend it. To my taste buds the berries are best enjoyed in the form of jam, preferably mixed with other fruit, such as quince, apple or blackberry (or all of them together). A rather tart jelly can be made from the clarified juice. This goes well with strong flavoured meats. In some rural regions of Europe the berries enjoyed the greatest popularity when made into a flavoured Schnapps, liqueur or even brewed into an herbal beer. Some people prefer drying the berries to make a thirst quenching tea or to add them to muesli, but this would also not be something I would include under gourmet foraging suggestions.
However - a little known secret it the fact that the berries are an excellent tonic for the vocal chords - something that speakers and singers should keep in mind. Gargling with the juice can keep the chords smooth and supple, counteracting dryness and irritation. It is rumored that they have saved many a public performance. Other than that it is rarely used for medicinal purposes. The fresh berries are slightly laxative, while the dried berries work to the opposite effect, but other, better tasting remedies are usually preferred.
There is in fact much more to this wondrous tree and its bright red berries - especially with regards to its lore and mythology as a magical tree of life, protector against evil influences and conductor of spiritual energies, but this is not the place for it. Perhaps it warrants a full plant profile, in another newsletter some other time...
Place the berries in a pan, add the water and cover. Heat to simmering, then cover and let it sit overnight. Strain through a cheesecloth. Follow the instructions on the gelling agent package to make the jelly with the resultant juice. Should yield about 1 liter of juice.
Sauteé the chopped onions, add the rest of the cut up fruit and vegetables and pour the liquid and spices on top. Simmer for 30 min. Combine the gelling agent with the sugar and stir into the vegetable mix. Continue to simmer for another 4 minutes. while still hot pour the mass into sterilized jars and seal. After opening keep in the fridge and use up quickly.
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.