This past weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving, and I went to my parents’ house in PEI for feasting and some domestic tasks like making various jellies. My late grandmother used to make rowan jelly, a condiment that I have never heard of anyone else ever making and which I’ve never seen in a store (probably because most people think the berries are poisonous, although they are only moderately so, causing indigestion when raw — plus being rather bitter and astringent). I have my grandmother’s recipe, which is from a Reader’s Digest compendium of traditional British cooking called Farmhouse Cookery, which says that rowan jelly is Scottish in origin. Now, my grandmother herself was from Derbyshire, and I never found out whether she’d had it growing up or only came across it later. Since the jelly is delicious with lamb, goose, duck, turkey, pork, and, reportedly, game (and indeed on toast, and very likely also on scones), I thought I’d explain how to make it. This is part of the mythopoeic tradition; all those English fantasy novelists (C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton) have such beautiful descriptions of food. So here’s mine; a dish of Tyrian red, suitable for any king or vagabond.
One begins, of course, with the rowan berries. In the first picture, they’re in a hedgerow (definitely a good aspect of my English-fantasist and -family heritage) in rural Prince Edward Island. There are numerous species in the genus Sorbus, of which the European rowan is technically Sorbus aucuparia and the North American mountain ash Sorbus americana, as well as various others from the northern hemisphere, including the whitebeam. The rowan has orange-red berries and the mountain ash rather more scarlet; the ones I collected in PEI are probably mountain ash, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much for this recipe. I made another lot of jelly earlier this autumn out of only just-ripe orange berries, and it seemed to work very well.
Here’s a close-up of the berries. The recipe itself calls for 2 lbs of berries; we ended up picking 4 1/2, once we’d picked off the misshapen ones and bits of leaves. You then add an equal amount of crab-apples; last time we made this the crab apples weren’t yet ripe, so we used wild apples from another hedgerow. This time we used a mixture of wild apples, regular apples (I believe they were Macintoshes), and crab apples from the ornamental crab apple tree in our front yard. I also added in a handful of cranberries in the hopes they would help the jelly set better; it tends to be rather runny.
Put all the fruit (whole) in a large pot together with 1 1/2 pints (2 1/4 cups) of water for every pound of fruit. Bring to the boil, and simmer for about 20-25 minutes, until tender. If you happen to forget about them and come back to find the berries gone orange and the apples burst, don’t worry; it doesn’t seem to affect the flavour or colour any. At this point, strain the fruit through a jelly bag (preferably scalded sterile!) for about four hours. We only had capabilities to hang up two jelly bags, so we couldn’t get all the fruit in, but we still collected a fair amount of juice. For those of you who do not have a jelly bag stand but are interested in such things, we used a pair of skewers tied up with string round the cupboard doors in the laundry room for the purpose:
Once you have your juice, measure it out, and for every pint (2 cups), measure out 1 lb of sugar. For this batch, we had 4 1/2 pints (9 cups) of juice, so used 4 1/2 lbs sugar. Warm the sugar in an ovenproof dish at around 225 F; at the same time, warm the juice in a large pot. (We used the same one, washed out.) Once both are warm, mix together, and stir well until the sugar has dissolved. Then bring it to the boil, and boil fiercely until the setting point is reached. You will likely need to skim off the surface:
The recipe suggests this is about 10 minutes; I found it took rather longer (possibly because of our larger quantity of liquid). We didn’t have a candy thermometer, so just used a wooden spoon: dip it in, spin it in the air several times (over a plate, away from the steam) to let it cool a little, and when the jelly drips very slowly and thickly off the end, it’s more or less ready. Next, put it into sterile jars (heat the glass jars in the over at 350 F for 10 minutes; boil the lids), put the lids on, and let them cool. As the jelly cools the lids will pop and be properly sealed. If any don’t seal properly, keep in the fridge and use up first. This amount made 11 1/2 250ml jars.
Then, of course, enjoy!