A modern heritage foodstead
I’m a girl who likes to explore the other side. For example, do you think that irritating neighbor or coworker is that way for a reason? Walk in their shoes a mile and you’ll find compassion, I say. Well, let me tell you, I have given these mean-spirited trees my best. Am I beaten? Time will tell.
Our new pastures have many, many things that make me really happy. Sadly, Hawthorne trees aren’t one of them. What makes it a problem is that we have so, so many. And, like all true plagues, they reproduce like bunnies.
So today, I decided to make peace with the Hawthornes. I’ll learn more about them, find the value, surely there must be a reason these berries are so well protected. They must be a culinary treasure or something, right?
It was a chilly, drizzly fall morning, and as good a day as any to spend foraging some of the treasures I’ve had my eye on all summer. I started with the easy one; a bucket of black walnuts. Then, I moved on to an especially tasty apple tree and finished with the haw berries. Unlike all those blackberries and raspberries I was never able to beat the deer and birds to, there is no competition for these berries. Why not and should I be worried??
A type of pome, haw berries share the little 5 pointed star on the fruit’s bottom you’ll find also on related apples, pears, quince, rowan, rosehips and crabapple. Haws have a peppery, lemon tartness and are dry and mealy in texture. That’s got possibility, don’t you think? I am determined; these miserable trees will convert me with their secret, special, and as yet uncelebrated culinary greatness. Or at least keep me from getting scurvy on a long, vitamin C deprived sea voyage.
Oh, I know Hawthornes have a few more merits than I’m giving them credit for. They are a source of hardwood useful for tool handles in particular, they do provide a nice shelter for birds and wildlife, and it seems they also have some pharmaceutical promise, potentially acting as a digestive aid and/or strengthening cardiovascular function. In the spring, they are at their prettiest, full of blossoms good for making mead. In salads, the flowers and young leaves are edible and nutritious.
In the day, they were also trained to act as living fences for livestock. Living fences are charming to look at and effective. When I first learned about such fences, I was revving my engines to start planting my own. They’re the ultimate green solution, right? But as with all too-obvious solutions, soon enough the down side was apparent. Woe to the farmer who neglects his living Hawthorne fences! These foul tempered hedges pack a sharp bite; equally vicious to tender skin and tractor tires. And in no time at all, they spread like wildfire through your pastures.
Maybe it was just a reflection of the day: dreary, miserable, rainy, bone-chillingly damp. But that’s not it – my foraging expedition was enjoyable and invigorating. Aside from my chilled fingers, I had managed to dress perfectly – not too hot, not too cold and toasty dry in my rain gear. Plus, my little bovine spies made it a pretty amusing morning.
Or, maybe it’s just that these little berries are truly cursed and not going to give their secrets up so easily. What I’m trying to say is that once these berries hit my kitchen, my whole day took a turn for the worse.
First I struggled with my usually well-behaved food mill – these berries are so dry and hard they jammed it up. I had to adjust and re-anchor the mill again and again; then I had to fuss with the different screens to find one that was big enough for the dry mess to work through but small enough to keep the pernicious seeds out of the sauce. Finally I settled on a two screen system. Big holes first, then a second run through medium-small. Fuss, fuss, fuss. But I persisted.
Hindsight, my milling problem was likely due to the fact that my recipe called for boiling the berries with water and vinegar first – my recipe had no pictures or guidance for texture. I’m pretty sure now I cooked too much of my liquid away; a more liquid mixture would have helped. Still I persisted.
Then, as if I wasn’t frustrated enough, I added the sugar to my berry mix and returned the pot to the stove for a short boil. We already know my berries were too dry; next I overcooked the sugar a tad and it started to cross over into candy territory. So, my sauce is really, really, REALLY thick & sticky.
GRRR! Frustrating day – one small jar of brown guck took almost an entire afternoon and most of my composure. Not willing to invest any longer, I passed on the water bath and popped it straight into the fridge.
Now, what do I really think of haw berries? Actually, believe it or not, I’m gearing up for another go. The flavor is intriguing and I know now how to correct the texture. I’ve since read that a frost or two improves the berries, so I’ll wait for that since it doesn’t look like there’s any need to rush to beat the fur and feather crowd.
Check out the printable recipe for Haw ketchup here.
I know you all must think I’m on the River Cottage payroll since I’m always mentioning Pam Corbin’s Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2 this and Pam Corbin’s Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No.2 that, but it takes a true Brit to include a hedgerow berry like Hawthorne in their cookbook.
Maybe I’m just a little too American to appreciate my Hawthornes’ dry British humor at first meeting, but I couldn’t resist tweaking this recipe a bit here and there to make it more savory. The end result has a subtle, intriguing peppery sort of flavor with a soft lemony undertone. Perfect for pork, venison, and promises to mix well with rich cheeses – promises, promises.
Hopefully I haven’t talked you out of trying haw berries yourself. At the very least it will give you a good tale that lets your co-workers know you ARE the loon they always thought you were. Or, you could just try the other, easier haw option – Vodka Infusion. You’d have to be pretty hawful to screw that up, hardy haw haw.