A recipe for Rowan Jelly by Alys Fowler
Summer is letting go. Her final sigh is long; it bleaches out colour and fades past glories. There is a longing around now that always catches me unaware. Next time we meet, we will both be different.
But as you bid one lover farewell, another forgotten friend appears around the corner. Autumn gets to work where summer left off. The moulds and rots, the sweet dank earth rich with fruit sugars. I can smell the apples ripening at the end of the garden as acutely as I can smell the compost.
I am made for autumn. Summer and I have a fickle relationship, but everything about autumn is perfect to me. Wooly jumpers, Wellington boot, scarves, thin first, then thick, socks. The low slanting light, the crisp mornings, the chill in my fingers, those last warm sunny days before the rain and the wind. Her moody hues and subdued palate punctuated every now and again by a brilliant orange, scarlet or copper goodbye. She is my true love.
Nothing captures all of this in a jar better than rowan jelly made from orange-red berries of the rowan or mountain ash, Sorbus aucuparia. This beautiful orange glow of a preserve is our native version of cranberry sauce. Perfect for cutting through rich game and lamb, spooned onto roasting vegetables to cover them in sweet, tart glaze or into a reduced red wine sauce. If supper is not your thing then use it to bind together oats, nuts and roast low and slow for homemade granola and I’ve even been known to slather it on peanut butter jelly sandwiches.
The rowan is easy to spot. It has ash-like, airy, foliage and a graceful shape; it is crowned from late summer onwards with heavy orange-red berries in thick clusters. It has a distinct grey bark and the leaves are up to 30cm long, pinnate with up to 12 pairs of opposite, lance-shaped leaflets, each sharply toothed.
We have long loved this native tree, planting it by our houses to ward off witches. Its wood is said to have protective powers and the boughs of the tree were hung over stables and lintels. There is a lingering taboo in parts of the country about cutting down a rowan tree particularly if it is close to a house. This long association with witchery and magical powers has left many believing these bright, brilliant berries are poisonous. I have eaten my body weight in them and I am not (yet) a witch.
As the berries persist for sometime on the tree, rarely falling, it takes practice to gage when they are perfectly ripe for picking. Too early in the season and the jelly will taste too much of tannins, too late and it will taste fermented. It’s best to watch the blackbirds and thrushes, they know exactly when to start. I never leave home with out copious plastic bags at this time of year, for the minute the first berries start to go you have to claim your share. The birds will strip a tree in a matter of days.
The berries, although sharp, do not contain enough pectin to set the jelly. For that to happen you need a few crabapples. Where a rowan grows happy it is never very far before you find a crab.
It is tempting to squeeze and press the cooked berries through a sieve, but this results in cloudy jelly and a good jar should look like stained glass and be clear enough to read a love letter through.
Rowanberries, no stalks
A handful of crab apples, halved
Put the berries and apples into a pan with barely enough water to cover them, simmer gently until tender and allow to cool. Then with a potato masher or blender pulp the fruit.
Strain the juice overnight. This is best done with a jelly bag or an old pillowcase, iron on the hottest setting to sterilise it.
Do not squeeze the bag, however tempting.
The following morning for every 600ml of liquid add 450g of sugar (pound to pint rule) and return to heat to gently dissolve the sugar. Bring to a rapid boil until setting point (usually 10 minutes or so). Bottle in clean jars.
Recipe taken from Alys’s book The Thrifty Forager. Purchase a copy here. Alys is one of twelve people who we photographed for our Nourishment catalogue this Autumn/Winter.