At last, Ireland is bathed in glorious sunshine and I’ve been able to get out and make some beautiful, fresh herbal treats. The result of the prolonged cold weather that we’ve had here in Ireland means that the plants are out about three weeks later than usual. So last weekend I made a beautiful syrup from the flowers of the Hawthorn, also known as Whitethorn or May Flower. So, for the first time ever, I’ve made May Flower syrup in June!
The Hawthorn (Crategus monogyna) is a common plant in the hedgerow. The fresh green leaves come out in spring and these are edible (a common local name in County Clare for these is ‘wild cheese’). In May the glorious, conffetti-like blossoms appear but only last for about three weeks. They are so special and have such a heavenly scent. Get out there and inhale some hawthorn and feel your spirits lift! In Ireland usually the hawthorn flowers are white but in other countries the flowers are a rich, deep pink colour. In September the hawthorn produces lots of bright red berries. These are edible too. Squirrels love them raw but for us mere humans, it’s best to make them into chutney or wine.
The leaves, flowers and berries have a long tradition of medicinal use as a tonic for the heart and the circulation. Herbalists use extracts of hawthorn to try to help to ease various heart problems, as well as to help to alleviate more common conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. [Important safety note: hawthorn is safe to drink and include in the diet generally but, if you have a serious medical condition and especially if you are on pharmaceutical drugs then please don’t try to treat this condition yourself. If you would like to try herbal treatment then please see a qualified herbalist]. In fact, hawthorn was at one time even known and used by medical doctors as this local anecdote shows: “Dr D. Greene, Ennis, County Clare, Eire, attained an international reputation for treatment of heart disease keeping the remedy a secret. Upon his death his daughter revealed it as tincture of red-ripe hawthorn berries.” (Ref.: BARTRAM, THOMAS (1998). Bartram’s Encylcopedia of Herbal Medicine. Pub.: Robinson, pg. 215)
I am ashamed to say that despite having lived in Clare for ten years and meaning to research this, I still haven’t been to the library to try to find out anything about Dr D. Greene. So I’m going to take the lazy option and ask that if anyone from Clare is reading this and has any information about Dr D. Greene then please do get in touch with me because I’d love to hear more about him.
And now, on with the recipe…….
May Flower Syrup (for the wild food gourmet)
In the field…..
Find a flowering Hawthorn bush (and as always make sure that you have identified the correct plant: the first rule of foraging is don’t guess, you could poison yourself!). There is only a brief window for picking the flowers. Pick them when they are fully open and have a pleasant scent but, before they start to wither and the smell becomes unpleasant. Ask the hawthorn tree if you can take some of its beautiful blossoms (always ask before taking: it’s polite).
Pick the flowers on a dry, sunny day. Excess water (i.e. lots of rain) often ruins extracts made from plants.
Pick enough flowers to fill a 1 litre jug.
Back in the kitchen….
Snip off the stalks. Remove the leaves. Put the flowers into a clean glass jar. Cover each layer of flowers with sugar. Continue this way until the jar is full.
Now make the syrup: Add 800g granulated sugar to a pan. Add 1.25 litres water and 90ml/6 tbsp of strained lemon juice. Gently bring to the boil, stirring the mixture continuously to dissolve the sugar and prevent burning. Carefully boil for 3 mins, then remove from heat and allow to cool (if you’re in a hurry then pour the syrup into another cold, wide pan and this will help it to cool down more quickly). When it’s cool add 90ml/6tbsp rose water (note to herbalists: if you’re using Avicenna’s extremely gorgeous rose aromatic water then 50ml should suffice, otherwise it will over-power the more subtle hawthorn).
Pour the cooled syrup into the glass jar of hawthorn flowers and put on the lid loosely.
Now get a large pan and line this with newspaper. Place the jar of hawthorn flowers into the pan. Pour cold water into the pan so that it comes up as high as is possible in the pan (but not so high that it covers the top of the glass jar). Slowly and carefully bring the water to boil, then immediately turn it down to a low heat and continue to heat gently for an hour.
After an hour tighten the lid on the jar and carefully remove the jar from the pan of water. Leave it to totally cool down (I made this in the late afternoon and left it to cool over-night).
When the syrup is totally cold strain it through muslin into clean, sterilised bottles.
Put on the lids. Label with name and date made.
How to use the syrup: This syrup is delicious. Dilute it with sparkling water for a refreshing summer drink (if you really want to impress then, serve with a couple of hawthorn ice-cubes).
Try the syrup poured over ice-cream. Or if you’re really clever then you could use the syrup to make delicately-flavoured ice-cream or puddings.
How to store the syrup: In the fridge. It’s supposed to keep for months but mine gets guzzled right away! If you do manage to keep some then you know it’s finally gone off if it grows mould: throw it on the compost and endeavour to drink it more quickly next year.