Rowan and crab apple jelly

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Finished rowan and crab apple jelly

It is autumn in northeast Scotland and the fruit on Rowan trees in the hedgerows around Aberdeen have been particularly abundant this year, the red berries being particularly noticeable as the leaves gradually turn yellow and fall as the weather becomes colder. This brought to mind what probably my favourite although rarely seen preserve, rowan jelly. This slightly bitter and sour red jelly is a traditional British accompaniment to game meats such as venison and appropriately enough the only place I have been able to find it is at the Fletcher’s of Auchtermuchty stall at the Edinburgh Farmers Market where it is sold to accompany their farmed venison. However, due to the necessity of collecting the berries from the wild, and as I have come to realise you do not get a lot of jelly from a large quantity of berries, it is expensive eating for anyone with more than a very modest appetite for jelly. This has prompted me to endeavour to produce some of my own rowan jelly this year.

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Rowan tree adorned with rowan berries 

The rowan tree (Sorbus aucupariais a small deciduous tree commonly found in hedgerows around my part of northeast Scotland and often planted as an attractive ornamental tree in urban areas. It is also one of the hardiest of European trees found growing in high mountainous areas from which is gains is other common name the mountain ash, the leaves of this tree being very similar to the ash tree although they are unrelated. The tree blossoms from May to June in dense clusters of white flowers followed by bunches of small red fruits that ripen from August to October. 

Initial investigation of my own books turned up a recipe in second-hand copy of the River Cottage Cookbook and as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall often seem to have found the best recipes for these kind of projects I decided to give it a go. Incidentally, his recipe can also be found online on the Guardian website. His recipe calls for equal quantities of rowanberries and crab apples for which the later are an excellent source of pectin necessary for the jelly to set well. I have read that crab apples alone make a tasty jelly and apparently combine well with rowan berries judging from the frequency with which they appear together in recipes. After picking a kilogram of rowan berries and removing them from their stalks I realised quite how much effort was involved the idea of doubling the quantity with crab apples seemed a more attractive idea. The rowan berries remain well attached to their stalks as they can stay on the tree for much of the winter until the birds have eaten them all. This lead to the issue of finding some crab apples, which if I was back in my home county of Shropshire would be of little problem as the trees can easily be found laden with fruit at this time of year.

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Crab apples

The crab apple tree, for which the latin name is Malus sylvestris meaning forest apple, is a wild apple tree native to Britain. It is a common hedgerow tree in much of Britain and are often laden with small round apples in the autumn but though they may look tempting the fruit is far to sour to eat raw. They have long been used in preserves due to their high pectin content and full flavour when the sourness is softened by the sugar.

The hedgerows of Aberdeen turned out to be less obliging than those of Shrewsbury and has be wondering if I am beyond the northerly range of the tree in the UK. A trip to the farmers market while visiting Edinburgh provided me with the crab apples I required from the Laprig Fruit apple juice stall who were selling them at a very reasonable £2 a kilo.

For my first attempt at jelly making, I used 1kg of rowanberries and 1kg of crab apples. The rowanberries I removed from their stalks picking out any soft or mouldy berries and then washed them well in cold water. The crab apples were also well washed and any bad apples picked out. Both lots of fruit were then frozen as I did not have time to make the jelly immediately. When it came to making the jelly the fruit was defrosted. The crab apples were roughly chopped added to a large pan with the rowanberries and about 1 litre of water, as I lacked a pan large enough for such a large amount of fruit I cooked it in two batches. This was brought to the boil and simmered until cooked down to a mushy pulp occasionally stirring and crushing the fruit with a spatula.

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Cleaned rowan berries with stalks removed

The next step required a jelly bag, something I was previously unfamiliar with, to enable all the juice to drip out of the fruit. While I could have made one myself out of cheesecloth, I lacked anywhere I could trust to hang just a large weight of fruit from and so invested in a readymade jelly bag from Lakeland complete with its own stand. The fruit was placed in the bag and left to drip for a few hours. In retrospect I should have left this dripping overnight but instead lacked patience and performed possibly a cardinal sin of squeezing the remaining liquid out of the fruit, which apparently results in cloudy jelly.

The resulting 600 millilitres of juice was put into my heavy enamelled cast iron pan along with 450 grams of white caster sugar. This I gradually brought to the boil stirring to dissolve the sugar. I enlisted the aid of a jam thermometer to help me achieve the setting point of 106 degrees Celsius and to come close to this temperature took around ten minutes of boiling while gradually increasing the heat. My jelly was to be put into used honey jars, which were washed out and then microwaved until hot to sterilise them. The lids were briefly boiled in water along with the ladle to be used for filling the jars. Ladling the hot jelly would have been easier with a funnel but eventually all three jars were filled with minimal spillage. The lids were tightly screwed on and the jars left to set.

After an initial taste I am very happy with this jelly. The set is quite firm and the crab apples add a sharp taste to the rowan berry flavour. I shall now look forward to its accompaniment to my dinners this winter.

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