The berries or haws on the Hawthorn trees were a cherry red in March. I kept a close eye on the trees while waiting for the first frost before harvesting, but this year I began to think we would never get a frost in the south. I love Hawthorn jelly but not enough to wish an end to our frost free run.
So on a cold and wet weekend in May when our friends Wal and Jan from came to stay and the hawthorn trees had lost their leaves, I thought we could make a batch of frost free Hawthorn jelly. Not only was this a good inside task on a wet weekend but would be most fitting as Jan and Wal were present when I first discovered this delicious jelly. One Easter visit long ago in the 1980’s, when our children were just toddlers, Wal and Peter tackled a giant overgrown Hawthorn tree in our garden.
I’ve always been interested in foraging and had read that Hawthorn berries with apples make a great jelly. So Jan and I harvested the berries carefully from the thorny branches and I made my first delicious ruby red Hawthorn and Apple jelly.
Three decades later, here we are again harvesting haws. On our land we have many Hawthorns to choose from but I had my eye on a young tree on the exposed hilltop overlooking our house (as pictured above). Wal volunteered to do the harvesting braving the mean southerly.
The most time consuming part is removing the stalks but with three of us doing the work in a short time we had enough haws to fill two large bowls to make two batches of jelly. In April when the leaves were still on the tree, I did a small test batch of jelly but it didn’t have the intensity of flavour or colour. It’s best to pick the haws once they turn a dark red but are still glossy. A good test of ripeness is when they are easily separated from the tree. Haws are high in pectin when just ripe but once they get older the level of pectin reduces. So its always a toss up between colour and flavour and setting quality.
I discovered one of the best fruit partners for haws are Japonica apples. I was given these misshaped sour apples from a friend. They were a perfumed mix of two varieties, one smooth and the other deeply wrinkled fruits. Japonica is a scruffy shrub primarily grown for its decorative flowers rather than its fruit. The fruit isn’t edible raw but adds a wonderful citrusy flavour to a jelly. Japonica reminds me of quince with it’s tough flesh, a large cluster of seeds and the sweet perfume they emit. I filled my stock pot with a mix of rinsed haws and quartered japonicas adding just enough water to cover and cook until soft enough to be mashed with a potato masher.
The news is spreading that I am a keen jelly maker and our neighbour dropped off a bag of perfect crabapples for my next jelly experiment. I decided to use crabapples as the fruit partner to the haws. To add a citrus zing I cut up a couple of lemons to boil with the fruit.
For the next batch of crabapples and haws I added some spice with cardamon pods, kaffir lime leaves and cinnamon.
After the fruit has softened it’s time to strain the juice. The Hawthorn tree has edible flowers, young leaves and the fleshy part of the berries but the seeds are poisonous if digested in any quantity. The variety that is growing on our farm is Crataegus monogyna also known as common Hawthorn or single-seeded Hawthorn and belongs to the rose family. The haws have a similar mealy consistency of a rosehip. It’s perfectly safe to cook the seeds but they have to be sieved or strained to avoid digesting the seeds.
I use either a jelly bag or just a length of muslin like above – drape it into a large bowl and gently pour in the contents from the pot. Gather the edges of the cloth together and tie to a broomstick or stick between two chairs to slowly filter the juice into the bowl.
I have perfected this process by tying a loop in the material and using a meat hook to secure the draining bag of fruit to a broomstick. I’ve found this easier than tying the bag to the stick. You need to leave the bag to drain overnight but don’t be tempted to squeeze it or your jelly will be clouded.
This gorgeous coloured juice is the result. For every cup of juice I add 3/4 cup of sugar heating the liquid before adding the sugar and stirring until dissolved. Boil the syrup at a rapid boil until it has reached setting point.
The trickiest part is knowing when the jelly is going to be perfectly set and ready to be poured into glass jars. You can use a candy thermometer to take some of the guess work out it. Make sure you have heated the jars in the oven for at least half an hour to ensure they are sterile. Place the hot jars on a wooden board to avoid cracking. For more information on making jellies take a look at my previous August 2015 post “Foraging for Jelly” .
Not all of my batches set perfectly. One lot that was a little too sticky and stiff I put into a large jar that I use for cooking as you would quince paste. The Hawthorn works well with meat and Hawthorn is supposed to aid the digestion of meat so it’s a perfect addition. A teaspoon full adds a little sweetness and richness to a meat gravy or sauce.
The first frost arrived on May 25th, three days after Jan and Wals visit.
I did a number of batches of jelly using different combinations of fruit but my favourite definitely was the japonica hawthorn partnership. The addition of spices was good so will continue to experiment with spices as well as venture into other Hawthorn products like vinegar, sauce and teas.
Now that it’s past the shortest day, the gnarly branches of the Hawthorn hedgerow are bare so my next haw experimentation will have to wait until autumn 2017.
But what a wonderful tree the Hawthorn is! It’s thorny habit keeps stock inside the paddock, provides shelter and medicine for the animals (horses especially will self-medicate). Its heavy coverage of blossom in spring makes it a good insectary plant and its long held berries or haws give birds much needed food in early winter.
But it does appear on the invasive weed list in New Zealand. Where it has gone astray we have decided in true permaculture style to utilise it for firewood – it is an amazing burning wood.
For centuries Hawthorn has been considered a safe tonic for strengthening an ageing heart, aiding digestion and sleep, as well as mending an emotional heart. When I first saw this very old Hawthorn hedgerow my heart was glad as I knew it would be a useful and decorative asset to our property.