The hardy rowan tree (Sorbus aucuparia) is found all over the northern hemisphere. It can grow at elevations of up to 1,000 feet, hence its other name, the mountain ash. Found throughout the UK, it is most common in Scotland. Its berries are very popular with birds and it’s quite common to see rowan saplings growing in inaccessible, rocky crevices where bird droppings have fallen.
Besides being tough, it is also one of the most colourful of the trees. You can see a description of it in the Woodlands.co.uk tree id guide. The berries begin to turn a bright red from August onwards, followed by the leaves which turn orange-red. Perhaps it’s this welcome splash of colour that makes it the centre of a so much mythology. It is very common in Scotland to find a rowan tree planted near the front door – it keeps the witches away. Cutting down a rowan tree is considered bad luck – probably an hangover from superstitions about cutting or damaging a tree with ritual use. It is one of the trees associated with the Druids.
If you can get to them before the birds, rowanberries make a very good jelly to eat with cold meat. It’s a traditional Scottish delicacy. The berries are tart – very tart, don’t even try eating them raw! They have a very high vitamin C content. My mother used this recipe:
De-stalk your nice ripe red rowanberries. Simmer them in a pan with a little water to stop them sticking until they are very soft (this could take up to 45 mins if you have several pounds) and pulpy. The berries will turn a slightly disappointing but still vibrant orange.
My Mum had a special jelly bag for this next bit. I’m not sure where you would get one these days however, so instead use a double thickness of muslin securely drawing-pinned at each corner to the legs of an up-turned chair (or whatever you can rig up). Put a big bowl underneath and tip your pulp into the muslin. Let it drip through by itself; don’t force it. This will take a good few hours or overnight. The idea is to keep as much of the fibrous pulp behind as possible and just keep the juice to get a clearer jelly.
Once you have your juice, measure it. Allow 1 1b preserving sugar (with pectin) to 1 pint of juice. Heat up the juice, stirring in the sugar. Boil until it reaches setting point. This is 113C if you have a sugar thermometer, or you could do it the traditional way. Put a saucer in the fridge to chill, drop a teaspoonful onto the saucer. Let it cool. If you can push a jellied trail through it with you fingernail, it’s ready.
While everything is still hot, bottle the jelly in hot, sterilised jars. Delicious with some Scottish venison.