Bent over the moist earth, we gathered up the crimson and golden fruit into our hungry bags, chatting about life as old friends will, with meandering topics and understood nuances. Picking through the fallen leaves and occasional thorn, our bags grew plump with the fallen medicinal jewels. A curious passerby interrupted our chatter, inquiring about the fruit we were harvesting. My dear friend, more patient than I, spun the whole tale, from the identity of the trees we crouched under, to the future of our cache, which was to involve honey, brandy, and spirits.
Our guest revealed that she had wondered what kind of trees grew in this grove for almost a decade; she had danced naked under their pendulous branches in the springtime when the hawthorns were adorned with creamy buzzing blossoms. Perhaps one might be surprised upon hearing such a story, but we were near Asheville, so we soaked in this tidbit with cheer and took it in stride. Personally, I am happy to hear about anyone dancing under trees, and what better place to strip, than under a sacred grove of hawthorns on high in the craggies.
Earlier that morning I had visited the farmers market and bought some pears from a local fruit and humor expert, Bill Whipple. When I returned home, I just knew the craggy hawthorns needed to meet his bronze pears — in some brandy, of course. Then the persimmons chimed in: we want in on this action, too. Hence the inspiration for the recipe, representing this year’s incarnation of fall in the mountains.
Hawthorns are small thorny trees in the rose family, which bear fruits resembling wee apples. It is estimated that there are anywhere between 150 to 1,000 species in the hawthorn genus (Crataegus). The reason for such a wide discrepancy in the species count is due to hawthorns’ proclivity for interspecies relations, resulting in confusing hybrids and murky species delineation. Most botanists do not bother keying out, or identifying hawthorn to species, due to rampant hybridization. Thankfully, proper species identification is not necessary, as all hawthorn berries are edible and medicinal, with a long history of use in Europe, North America, and Asia. The berries have been eaten everywhere it grows, and it has been a staple famine food, seeing many peoples over lean winters.
The Chinese have used their local hawthorn species as a heart remedy, with recorded uses dating to the seventh century. Western herbalists use hawthorn as a remedy for hypertension, atherosclerosis, congestive heart failure, and angina pectoris. Ample literature exists on hawthorn’s use as a cardiotonic, with its wide variety of flavonoids present in the fruit, flowers and leaves. The flowers and berries are also used for more energetic heart maladies – grief and loss. I prefer to use the flowers in these situations, as they carry lightness and hope. Hawthorn is a food herb, and thus can be ingested in a wider variety of mediums than most herbs. Tea and tincture are classics, but people also make honey, jam, syrup, cordials, elixirs, and vinegar from the fruit. Hawthorn-infused honey is a beautiful rose color and quite fruity and pleasant.
Most of the traditionally recorded use of hawthorn by Native Americans centers on its use as a digestive tonic for various gastrointestinal maladies, such as diarrhea, dysentery, and bloating. The bark and branchlets are more astringent (puckery) than the flowers and fruit, and thus have been used to slow diarrhea and excessive menstrual bleeding. The thorns were used as a lancing tool for boils and the Okanagan would place a thorn into an arthritic area, and ignite the distal end, letting the thorn burn down to the embedded point. This painful remedy would apparently cause a scab to form, but clear the afflicted area from arthritic achiness.
The folklore around hawthorn’s magic is especially rich in Europe, with admonishments to not cut the tree, except during the springtime—the trunk is used for a maypole in Beltane dances and the flowering branches are an adornment for home and maiden alike. The trees are associated with fairies and seen as a portal to the otherworld. Hawthorn branches have been placed over the threshold as protection from malevolent energies in Europe. The Iroquois used a decoction as a protection against the personal physical manifestations of witchcraft.
Hawthorn trees can often be found in young woods, hedges, and cow fields. Look for the thorns and little red fruits. The leaves are variable, but are often wedge-shaped, with teeth and straight veins. Some hawthorns have slightly lobed leaves. The small trees are often planted as ornamentals for their showy flowers and fruit. In addition, they possess a suitable stature for small urban spaces. It goes without saying (so why I am writing this?!) that you should be 100% positive of your identification before you harvest the fruit. Ask your local botanist, herbalist, extension agent, arborist, or pagan for some identification tips.
Coarsely chop the pear and persimmon and place them in a food processor. You may need to remove the peel of the persimmon if it’s especially astringent. If you are working with fresh hawthorns throw them into the food processor whole with the other fruit. Coarsely blend the fruit in the food processor and add to a gallon glass jar (or several smaller mason jars). If you are working with dried hawthorn place them in the jar directly now. Add all of the other herbs and brandy and let sit for 2 to 4 days. If you are in a pinch, place all of the ingredients (except the honey) in a double boiler or crockpot, with the lid on, and simmer at the lowest heat for 5 hours. When perfect synergy has been achieved, strain through a cloth and wring out all the brandy with your hands. A clean older cotton tee shirt with a loose weave works well. Another option is the tighter-weave cheesecloth sold for cheese making (regular cheesecloth is too porous). You will probably need to strain out several batches to be able to effectively wring out the brandy from the pulp. Slightly heat the strained brandy to dissolve the honey, mix, label and bottle. You can compost the remaining slurry of herbs and fruit, or add it to apple cider and heat slightly. The slurry will have absconded with some of the brandy, so the cider infusion will have a kick, and be for adult palettes only.
I enjoy this brandy sipped on its own, or added to warmed apple cider and served with a cinnamon stick and thin slices of pear. I highly recommend accompanying the brandy with a nibbling plate of pomegranate seeds and cacao nibs.