I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while but a near constant stream of things seems to have got in the way including a minor run in with a large bus (funnily enough, the car came off worse) and a couple of days spent down on various farms chatting with pig breeders and turkey farmers, amongst others (full reports to follow shortly, I promise).
As a means of preservation, fruit leathers are an ancient art and were traditionally used as a means of transforming a summer glut into something that could be eaten throughout the year. It is a method that almost certainly goes back to the Palaeolithic and is still used by hunter-gatherer societies today.
Throughout September and into October, the fruit of the Hawthorn tree (haws – no sniggering at the back please) is in wanton abundance throughout the English countryside. I was inspired to have a crack at making a ‘haw leather’ (tee hee) by a wonderful post by Nick Weston on his equally wonderful blog Hunter-Gatherer Cook.
I’d seen the small red fruits burst from the branches of the Hawthorn trees that scatter the open land around our house but was wary of the berries themselves. I knew they were edible but having cautiously nibbled on a few raw ones, I wasn’t overly impressed by their rather dull taste and disproportionately large stone. They were far too much hassle to be of any use, surely?
Turns out, unsurprisingly, that I was wrong.
So, armed with my trusty Thai tote bag and an iPod for company, I went foraging in the chill warmth of an early autumn afternoon. Half an hour’s picking yielded at least a kilo of berries, more than enough for a first attempt at making a haw jelly, or leather.
The first step is to transform these little berries into a gloopy mush. I used a large bowl and pestle (or mortar, I never know which is which) and then proceeded to break the bowl thanks to overly vigorous pounding. Thankfully by that point it was time adopt a more hands on approach and so after transferring the mixture, rolling up my sleeves and adding a little water to the now brown sludge, I squeezed and mashed the thick gloop with my fingers. A little more water and a little more mixing and the required consistency was reached without too much effort or any more broken bowls.
Instead of merely forcing the mashed fruit through a sieve – to separate out the stones and bits of twig et cetera – and leaving it to set, I decided to freestyle a little by adding a little apple juice, sugar and cinnamon and heating it gently in the hope that a softer and sweeter taste would emerge.
Being staggeringly high in pectin, haw ‘jelly’ will set without the addition of any sugar or any form of boiling. Within minutes you will notice the mixture thickening and taking on a far more solid feel. After an hour or so you should be able to slice the resultant cake.
After warming the jelly over a gentle heat and adding the extra ingredients, the colour and texture became increasingly fudge-like and the slight bitterness softened thanks to the addition of sweet apple juice and a little sugar.
Once cool, the jelly was sliced thinly and dried out in a low oven overnight to remove the water and give the leathers a near endless lifespan. Traditionally fruit like this would have been dried out in the sun and then offered essential nutrition throughout the winter months when fresh fruits were in stark supply. Things aren’t quite that bad for us, but small pieces of the haw leather stirred into warm porridge should be a tasty treat come the colder months.