Rowan, Blackthorn & Sea Buckthorn: Autumn Superfoods
default, Fieldare on a rowan tree, photo: Wojciech Pacewicz / PAP, center, #000000, jarzebina-fot-wojciech-pacewicz-pap_20171026_0ex.jpg
Beads in shades of red, black and gold – autumn treasures growing naturally, abundantly, wild, without a plan: rowan, blackthorn, sea buckthorn. These edible plants, typical for the Polish autumn landscape, can be found both in towns and in the countryside.
Wild fruits are perfect for making sauces, preserves, juices, mousses and tinctures. They are full of vitamins and nutrients, and are rich in their unique taste, which comes from the plants’ properties, and their specific terroir – the environment where they grow.
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The Latin name for rowan aucuparia means ‘bird catcher’. Its origin comes from the past, when hunters used to lure their prey with red rowan beads. The variety of rowan liked the most by humans is called S.edulis. Its fruits are quite large and sweet – unlike many other bitter or tart varieties. Rowan is a tree or a shrub that grows wild, but is also often planted in parks, avenues and near roads. The best time to pick up rowan fruits is in November, when the temperature drops below 0 degrees, in clean areas, away from pollution. Heat treatment is necessary as the sorbic acid contained in the fruits gives them a bitter and tart taste. Parasorbic acid is toxic and can cause food poisoning, with symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting. After processing, rowan becomes an excellent source of vitamin C (35–45 mg in 100 g, comparable to citrus) and beta-carotene. It also contains B, PP and K vitamins, potassium, sodium, magnesium and copper as well as organic acids, anthocyanins and flavonoids.
Lucyna Ćwierczakiewiczowa, the first lady of Polish cuisine in the second half of the 19th century, advised to harvest rowan in November or December, as it becomes sweeter at that time:
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Placed on a sieve, rowan should be scalded with boiling water a few times; for bigger quantities it is advised to use a large bowl and leave the fruit in the water until it cools down a little – so that the water covers them fully. Then strain the fruits through the sieve, and when they are well soaked, dry them on a sieve for 24 hours. Pour them into a jug and cover them with spirits. Leave them in the shade at room temperature for 4 weeks. Then take a pound of sugar and half a quart of water for each quart of rowan spirit, make a syrup, boil it once, pour the rowan essence into the hot water, mix it and leave it in the jug without filtering, and in two weeks it will settle down perfectly. Whoever prefers it to be less sweet can take a pound of sugar and a quart of water for half a gallon of spirit. It will be a beautifully shaded, very hygienic vodka.
'Kuchnia Polska w Przepisach Lucyny Ćwierczakiewiczowej', Nowy Świat, Warszawa 2007
Blackthorn P. Spinosa is a wild-growing spiny shrub with an almost black bark. Its deep blue fruits, called sloes, are the smallest wild plums. Their pulp is too sour to be eaten in a raw form. Blackthorn, just like rowan, requires processing. Sloes are suitable for the production of distillates, juices, syrups, jam and jellies. After harvesting, they should be sorted and frozen for a few weeks.
Blackthorn usually ripens in October, and because it is a frost-resistant plant, its fruits can be picked up until January – it's best to choose a dry, clear day for the harvest. Sloes can be shaken off the bush and onto a fabric – the shrub has no leaves in winter, only fruits, so there is not much trouble with it. Blackthorn grows all over Poland, on slopes, in sparse forests and near houses.
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Among the Celts, blackthorn was considered a sacred shrub of fairies, and therefore it was exceptionally protected. In Christian times, it was used to make thorn crowns prepared for the Holy Week rituals. Whoever wanders through Bieszczady Mountains was probably entangled in blackthorns more than once. Then a quote from the Old Testament comes to mind – ‘that is why I will block her way with thorns so she will not find her path’. The plant appears also in ancient poetry - for example in Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’: ‘Fruit from trees, strawberries from mountains were collected by villagers’. Blackthorn and hawthorn growing on thorn shrubs… Blackthorn appears also in the medieval stanzas in the context of suffering, for example in ‘Master Polikarp’s Dialog with Death’ – one of the most important examples of medieval Polish poetry. Nowadays, blackthorn is considered a symbol of suffering, sometimes related to passing away. Also in Barbara Bandurka's poem ‘Bieszczady’, the following phrase can be found: ‘extinct fireplaces, hearts of bellflowers, and a mournful blackthorn bead’.
'Tajemnice Bieszczadzkich Roślin' by Adam Szary, Carpathia, Rzeszów 2013
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A branched shrub of sea buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides L.) is a valuable medicinal plant. Its harvest season usually falls in late August, September and October. After harvesting, the berries can be stored in a cool place until December. The branches of the shrub are ‘caked’ with berries, which are very difficult to peel, hence the Polish name for sea buckthorn: oblepicha. In Russia, it is sometimes called ‘Siberian pineapple’ as its taste is reminiscent of the exotic fruit. Sea buckthorn has small, yellow-orange, round fruits with a characteristic slightly bitter, sour-tart taste. When frozen, they become sweeter. Since sea buckthorn branches are spiky, the whole branches are frozen and then ‘tapped’ to so they can fall off.
Traditionally, the plant is used for tinctures, preserves, syrup and, because of the abundance of pectin, in jellies. Sea buckthorn fruits contain water-soluble vitamins (C, B, including folic acid). It seeds, however, are rich in oil containing vitamins that are only soluble in fats: E, F, K, P, provitamin A and D, as well as anthocyanins, flavonoids, phospholipids, tannins, unsaturated fatty acids, macro and microelements, including manganese, iron, boron.
In Poland, sea buckthorn grows naturally mainly on the Baltic coast, by the mouth of the Vistula River in the east (it is under partial species protection). It can also be found, for example, in the Pieniny Mountains. The plant is grown mainly in the Northeast of our country. Sea buckthorn is sold in the form of juice, seed oil, and pulp. It can surely be considered one of Polish superfoods – a natural vitamin bomb.
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