The rowan tree is sometimes referred to as the Mountain Ash. It can often be found growing at high levels but it is not related to the ash, although the leaves do look quite similar. In fact it is a member of the Rose (Rosaceae) family and its clusters of creamy white flowers are superseded by the bright red berries in the autumn months. These are very much loved by birds and were used in the past to lure songbirds onto the dinner plate, a custom now thankfully no longer practiced.
Many people avoid the berries as they believe them to be poisonous. This is not true and a lovely rowan berry marmalade can be made from the fruit, as well as the more traditional jelly. The bitterness and astringency of the berries makes them unpalatable to eat raw and furthermore they contain parasorbic acid which can cause stomach upsets or even kidney damage if consumed in quantity. However cooking breaks down this acid into harmless sorbic acid and removes some of the berries bitterness as well. They do, however, retain some of their bitter properties which makes them a great digestive remedy and gallbladder stimulant.
Ideally the berries should be bletted, this is a process whereby the fruit is allowed to ripen beyond its current ripened state, leading to an increase in fruit sugars and beginning the process of breaking down the parasorbic acid and tannins which are responsible for the astringency and bitterness. The berries are best harvested after a sharp frost which starts off the bletting process and begins to break down the cell walls. Failing this they can be popped in the freezer for a few days.
Rowan berries are reputed to boost the immune system and reduce bacterial infections and they contain high amounts of vitamin C and beta carotene. The syrup is a great remedy for sore throats and particularly recommended for singers and public speakers who use their vocal cords a lot.
To make the syrup chop 2 kg berries roughly and place in a saucepan. Add 2 litres of water, bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and mash the berries to release the juice and when cooled strain through a muslin bag. Return to the saucepan and add another litre water. Bring to the boil again and simmer a further 15 minutes, then strain again. For each litre of juice add 300 g of sugar. Heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and then boil for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilised bottles and leave to cool. The syrup can be stored in the fridge for several months.