I love ingredients with a story. This past year, rowan berries gave me that, I mean it’s not every ingredient you read up on people say you can cast magic spells with, right?.
If you dig around a little online, you’ll see glimpses of their history, especially in the old Celtic and Anglo Saxon traditions of Europe. See a fun page with archeological finds used to plan viking period themed menus including rowan berries here.
I’d never heard of the berries, or the mountain-ash trees they grow from until my foraging friend Dan mentioned them to me, and said that people made them into jams, jellies, and pickles. He knew where some grew close by, and that we could go check them out sometime, so we met up one day and drove out to the tree he knew of.
When we pulled off of the road, it stuck out like a sore thumb: a medium sized tree, about 40 ft or so, filled with so many berries that the branches were bowing under their weight. I tell you what, if the Garden of Eden were a place, it would have plants that produce fruit like the mountain ash tree.
After your first taste though, the word “fruit” might not seem as correct to describe them as you’d think, since rowan berries eaten fresh are super astringent/bitter. I’ll be honest, they didn’t seem like something I would want to eat, at first. The challenge to create with them was a lot of fun though, and after a little kitchen work to coax out their possibilities, I was excited.
What got me even more excited was as I read through one of my favorite books, Faviken, I noticed the chef uses rowan berries in plenty of things.
Faviken is one of the most cutting edge restaurants in the world, and the terroir around their restaurant (located in Sweden) is similar to Minnesota, where I live in that it is a cold weather climate. Needless to say, you don’t have to be on a 6 month waiting list for a table in Europe (or pay for a plane ticket) to enjoy these fun little berries.
I tried a number of different preparations: Pickled, dried, frozen to concentrate their sweetness and then cooked, cooked from raw, preserved in syrup, made into jam, and a funky technique of fermenting them in a water filled mason jar in the fridge like the Scandinavians do with lingon berries.
I also made sure to save berries picked before and after the frost to taste side by side, since plenty of people say they should be picked after the frost, since it makes them sweeter. Here’s my thoughts on that: the berries are always going to be a bit bitter, it’s part of what makes them special. Picking them after the frost seems to tames it a little, but not enough to put off picking them for a month or two, since humans aren’t the only creatures that eat berries. Birds will raze a tree quickly-so get’em while the gettin’s good.
I’ve read about them being compared to cranberries, and if you have a little patience you’ll definitely agree, they just take a little finesse to get there. Pairing their flavor with things is easy though, just imagine cranberry, which means they go well with, but shouldn’t be limited to partners like:
- Herbs like thyme, tarragon, bay, chervil, spearmint, basil, peppermint
- Apples, pears, orange juice and zest,
- Warm spices like clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice, in moderation
Flavorwise, rowan berries, like I mentioned, are bitter at first, but also have a bright berry-ness to them that’s nice, albeit obscured by the bitterness. However you treat them, they’ll retain a bit of the bitter edge, but don’t think of it as something you need to cover up with sugar in order to make them edible.
I found the bitterness useful, since it helped counteract the cloying taste of unnecessary sugar most jam and preserve recipes contain. The bitterness tames slightly after cooking too, and mellows even more after a jam or preserve has tempered for a few weeks, months, or more.
Here’s a few basic ways to preserve them I like and links to other recipes I’ve created for them.
- Rowanberry-Apple Jam
- Grilled Ramps With Rowanberries and Wild Peppermint
- Wild Rice With Rowanberries and Crabapples and Bacon
Rowan Berries in Syrup
A simple sugar solution will tame the most bitterness, especially after a couple weeks or more. After a while I found myself feeding these to people straight out of the jar, they’re that good. You could add whatever flavorings to the syrup you want, but less is more.
Make sure you don’t try to make things too sweet and up the amount of sugar, it has a tendency to make skins tough when there is too much.
If you don’t want to can these, you can also just store them in the fridge.
- 1 part Sugar
- 1 part Water
- Rowanberries, removed from their stems
Heat a water bath canner, next, heat the sugar and water in a pot until simmering briskly. Turn off the heat on the sugar water, then add the rowan berries and stir. Using a slotted spoon, pack the rowan berries into pint mason jars and cover with the remaining syrup, leaving a 1/2 in room of headspace at the top. Process the berries for 10 minutes in a water bath canner, then cool. Leave the berries to age for a few at least a few weeks in a cool dark place.
Dried Rowan Berries
Drying doesn’t remove much bitterness, but the loss of water weight from drying will help them hold up in a sweet jam or chutney with other ingredients.
- Fresh rowan berries, removed from their stems
Look over the berries and remove any that look old, dark, or fizzy (fermented). Wash the rowan berries to remove any debris. Dry the berries, then place in a dehydrator and dry at 135 degrees for 24 hours. Place the berries in an airtight container, preferably with little excess air (like a plastic freezer bag) and refrigerate. As long as they’re refrigerated, they will keep a month or two, freeze them for long term storage.
Pickled Rowan Berries
These have a pretty even level of sweet to bitter and are great added to a sauce at the last minute, or mixed in with other things. They were part of the first special at the Salt Cellar-a salad with roasted beets, pumpkinseed butter, boucheron cheese and greens. Add any flavoring agents you like to the pickling liquid.
As with above recipe for rowan berries in syrup, If you don’t want to water-bath can these, you can keep them in the fridge.
Yield: About 4 pint jars of pickled berries
- 2.5 cups water
- 1.5 cups sugar
- 1.5 cups champagne vinegar
- 9 cups fresh rowanberries, removed from their stems
- 1 whole star anise lightly crushed
- 1 in piece of fresh ginger, in one piece
- 5 allspice berries
- 5 black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon, yellow mustard seed
Toast the dried spices. Look over the berries and remove any that look old, dark, or fizzy (fermented). Wash the rowan berries to remove any debris. Combine the wet ingredients and heat until the sugar is melted and near boiling. Add the berries, stir, then turn off the heat. Using a slotted spoon, fill cleaned and sanitized canning jars with the berries up to the top of the jar, leaving 1/2 in headspace to prevent explosions. Screw on the lids of the jars tightly, then transfer them to the boiling water bath and process for 10 minutes. Allow the jars to cool, check for any that didn’t form a seal, then label, date, and reserve until needed, preferably a couple weeks, better yet a month or two.