I never used to be overly keen on the hawthorn, as far as trees went. As a child I found it wasn’t really one to climb due to its thorny branches, in bush form they made impenetrable boundaries across the countryside that often thwarted my journeys everywhere I went, oh the obstacles! Why have thorns? It’s not as if it had anything worth stealing…or so I thought.
As I have grown older so has my appreciation for the humble hawthorn. When thinking about it, three uses spring to mind: year round it has excellent firewood, when it burns it gives off enough heat to melt raw (pig) iron. In spring it’s leaves (often the first of all leaves to appear) are a useful addition to any meal. The third is its berries which form in bright red clusters come autumn and have some rather strange properties.
So other than being employed as a primitive barbed wire fence, what makes the hawthorn useful as part of the wild larder?
In my youth hawthorn leaves were well known for curing that annoying empty- stomach feeling, something I often experienced on my way home for tea. No trouble, just reach carefully into the hedgerow and pick a few to chomp on. The leaves capability to dish out such wonderful nourishment and fulfillment of the belly over the centuries earn’t them the name “bread and cheese”. Apparently this means it has the equivalent sustenance levels…not too sure about that. So anyhow, leaves are good and probably at their best in spring.
The buds although a bit fiddly can be quite tasty, but will take some time to collect. I like to use the leaves as part of a classic hedgerow spring salad. As with many Chinese leaf varieties you get in salad bags or seed packs these days, our native plants can be used in the same way, they have an abundance of different flavours that need to be matched with a bit of help from the five points of taste; sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami. In this case umami doesn’t really come into play unless you add Maggi or another savory/protein based ingredient to the dressing, which does work very well. Obviously, you will have to wait till next spring to enjoy this salad at its best.
Hedgerow spring salad:
- · Hawthorn leaves- nutty/apple flavour, wholesome.
- · Sorrel-lemony tang. Nice bite.
- · Dandelion- young leaves less bitter like chicory.
- · Beech leaves- slightly bitter, just taste sort of…fresh
- · Wild garlic/ jack-by-the-hedge- Garlic flavour, jack tends to be a little less potent.
- · Hawthorn buds- aesthetically pleasing (white).
Collect a handful or more if you fancy sharing and give them a good wash. Arrange in bowls and use a simple dressing of olive oil, a sprinkle of sugar, salt and pepper. This way you get to really taste the diversity of the British Hedgerow and I think you will be quite impressed.
I tried them once at an early age and didn’t like them at all, too dry, fruit to stone ratio was rubbish and there was ’t much flavour either. This changed when I was given an interesting book last Christmas: Ray Mears’ Wild Food. In his book was a sequence of photos showing Ray-ray (as we like to call him) busting some moves on a hawthorn bush and collecting obscene amounts of berries, meanwhile there was me being all smug thinking; “Why the hell is he bothering? What’s he hoping to achieve with them!” I was then thoroughly put in my place. Ray began to mash all the berries in a glass bowl, add a little water and skim off most of the seeds and stalks. The result was a hard-set hawthorn jelly in a bowl that can be sliced and dried in the sun for future consumption. Ray had some he had ‘made earlier’ and commenting saying it tasted like apple liquorice. Right…got to give this one ago.
With the appearance of hawthorn berries covering every hedgerow in Sussex, it didn’t take to long to get a decent haul to experiment with. When I got it into the kitchen, I began to mush them up in a bowl and found I had to add a fair bit of water to get their juices going. The resulting brown/red goo looked rather unpleasant and bloody messy! I was concerned that due to the amount of mess I had made during the sieving process, my girlfriend might come home and thought I had had a bowel accident. Once I had sieved the berries till I was left with a ball of stones, the goo that was now a small glass bowl had already begun to set to the same level as butter straight from the fridge.
I soon found out that the jelly forms fast because of the ridiculously high levels of pectin in hawthorn berries. Hips and haws have always been paired as they hang around at the same time. Rosehips are usually made into a vitamin C rich syrup, although when combined with Haws, I have heard they make quite the interesting preserve, and the natural pectin-packed haws will be rather useful for this no doubt.
After leaving it for an hour, I realized I had no sun to dry out the jelly, one of the predicaments of living in Britain. I did have a Biltong machine…air dried, brilliant. I happened to have a nice mesh tray for drying tomatoes that would hold the slices fine. The jelly was sliced and laid out on the tray ready to feel 24 hours of 60 watt bulb.
The following day it looked as if I had made some very small bits of biltong. Now was the acid test; as I slipped one into my mouth and began to chew it certainly did taste like a slightly gritty version of apple liquorice. It did taste quite sweet, you can certainly tell it’s made from a fruit with zero additives and I felt it was quite pleasant, but probably wouldn’t eat it every day.
I must say I was rather content, it was a good experiment on the whole, with the desired results. Medicinally I will probably try to have one-a-day; hawthorn is renowned in treating high blood pressure and is used to treat cardiac problems. I have heard that if I wish to, I can even dry out the leaves and smoke them as a tobacco substitute. Hmmm…perhaps not? From a culinary perspective, I am trying desperately to rack my brains about what to do with it, but maybe the answer is nothing, some things are just fine the way they are.