Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hermitcraft: Hawthorn

(Some of this information originally appeared in my book, The Neighborhood Forager, Chelsea Green, 2000)

The neck of the woods where I've been staying has the most fabulous hawthorns (Crataegus) I've ever seen. In this harvest season they're as red as they are green, their branches clustered with fat crimson haws the size of small grapes. One is sorely tempted to put up a batch of jelly. (The fact that the same district is full of beautiful crabapples – the other ingredient, along with sugar, for perfect preserves – only makes it worse.)

Overlooked today, haws have a long history of culinary use. Most are fairly insipid when eaten raw, but their vibrant colour – red usually; sometimes yellow, orange, or purple – makes for visually stunning jams, jellies, and wines. Traditionally you run them with something else, such as crabapples, blackberries, sorbs (rowan berries), or sumac, that has better flavour. In a pinch you can simply to add a teaspoon of lemon juice.

In times past, haws were pitched into a run of cider to give it body and a crimson sheen. Their association with apples, to which they are closely related, and with which they come ripe each year, also extends to use in apple pies and pastries, again largely for colour. (I suspect the reason the haws here-around are so big and beautiful is because they've cross-pollinated with the many apple trees in the area.)

Hawthorn itself is hard and strong, sands and oils well, and makes a fine walking stick, if a bit heavy. When I lived in Québec, where I did a lot of snowshoeing, I carried a long hawthorn walking stick that I could easily drive through snow and ice to probe for ground level, and which handily bore my entire weight when necessary, as it frequently was when climbing over obstacles or getting out of a tight spot. A hawthorn stick also tends to writhe and twist right and left, which gives it a poetical look and affords multiple varied handholds. (Again, I'm thinking of the hard winter service mine did.)

The same wood is useful for tool handles and mallet heads, and in fact any application requiring durable, inflexible service.

I've also pruned off the thorns of long-spined varieties, dried them steel-hard, and used them in cork and cardboard for thumbtacks and map pins. Dimensions vary tremendously from strain to strain, from short and fairly blunt through long and hypodermic. This is something to be aware of when scouting a hawthorn, both for the potential practicality and self-preservation.

If you've got hawthorns around (and thanks to the birds, you almost certainly have hawthorns around), and the fruit looks serviceable, try putting up a few jars of haw jelly. Its appearance alone is worth the effort.

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