When I was a kid, I sampled these bright orange berries every fall (not recommended.) My logic was that oranges are good, but mini oranges are better so these orange berries should taste delicious! Unfortunately, every fall I faced the bitter truth, literally. For a long time I thought these berries were inedible, but this fall I was so tempted by their luscious bright berry clusters that I did some more research. It turns out that when processed correctly, these berries are indeed edible*...
And I wasn't the first person to be enticed by these berries, either. Here are some excerpts taken from this page about the mythology of Rowan:
"In Scotland ... the rowan seems to have been the Tree of Life or Cosmic Axis tree. Such trees stood at the sacred centre [often also the geographical centre] of a place, connecting it to the realms of above and below, as well as the four directions. Kings were crowned there, and all important decisions made under the auspices of the tree, giving them the authority of the Otherworld as well as this one.
"...Women sometimes wore necklaces of rowan berries, and in Wales rings were made of it for protection. Elsewhere in Britain people wore sprigs of rowan to prevent enchantment. A cross carved from Rowan was sometimes placed above a child's cradle to protect it from bewitchment or from being stolen by faeries. Rowan boughs were fixed over doorways to protect the inhabitants of a dwelling. On Good Friday, thought of as a tricky time where evil spirits and witches were concerned, branches of rowan wood were brought into the house."
It's pretty cool to be able to harvest and process a wild plant that has entranced humans so much through the ages. From Harry Potter to the ancient Celts, Rowan is indeed magical. I was excited to try my hand at foraging and processing these historical and mystic berries, so I set out to do some research.
*Though Rowan berries have been eaten by humans for ages, you should never eat them raw. They contain parasorbic acid which causes indigestion and can lead to kidney damage. The good news is that it isn't hard to remove the parasorbic acid through processing (cooking, canning, freezing, drying, etc.), rendering them safe to eat. If you want to learn more about the edibility of these berries, I recommend this blog post.
But how do they taste? I found this blog post to be particularly helpful in explaining many of the different uses of Rowan Berries. They are quite bitter to work with so require some delicate handling to make very palatable. One suggestion is to harvest them after the first heavy frost as that concentrates the sugars and makes them a little sweeter. Other than that, you just have to embrace the bitterness and focus on recipes that highlight it. When planning a dish with them, think of how you might handle cranberries as they have a similar bitterness.
I started by preparing some small sample batches of canned Rowan berries: simply prepared in sugar syrup, canned using the same Amaretto ambrosia as I use for my cocktail cherries, and pickled in a vinegar brine with no extra flavoring. You can read about my process for canning in this blog post.
Then I started thinking about culinary applications. One of my most memorable Thanksgiving dishes was a pie my mom made when I was a teenager- apple cranberry rum. We had some old family friends over to dinner and the sons (also teenagers at the time) still talk about that pie to this day. I can almost taste the tart bitterness of the cranberries against sweet spiced apples with an aroma of delicious dark rum. I decided to try to re-create this delicious pie but used my sweet-preserved Rowan berries in place of cranberries. I also decided that this was more of a Halloween pie than a Thanksgiving pie, considering the historical uses of this magical plant to ward off bewitchment and fairies.
I followed my mom's recipe almost exactly, though I left the cranberries out of the filling entirely and instead sprinkled just a few Amaretto-cured Rowan berries on top. The pie was beautiful:
It was really fun to take it out into the woods and celebrate Halloween in style by honoring this magical plant. Plus it matched my costume really well. ;)
But how did it taste? Well, there's where I have to disappoint you, folks. It did not taste good. The pie itself was delicious, but the Rowan berries were still far too bitter to be palatable, at least in this setting. I wanted so badly to like them, but I just couldn't. Neither could my boyfriend. Damn. But I haven't given up on these magical berries yet! I am going to leave the rest of my cans of sugared and pickled Rowan berries to cure for longer, maybe even a year. I'll revisit these ideas down the road and see if they get any better with time. Let's hope!
In the meantime, I can appreciate these berries for their beauty and history. It's been really fun to learn more about them and what important symbolism they carry for many cultures.