The greens of summer fade toward the golds and rusts of autumn. This morning is a dim one, with thin mist curling across the meadows. The sun breaks the horizon. The mist takes on colours, hazing pink and orange as its fingers reach across the land. More rain is promised. Grey clouds hang fat and low like giant flying cetaceans. The air feels like steamed glass pressed to my cheek. The ground hums beneath my feet as I walk the lanes, filling a bag with autumn fruits. It is at this time of year that the hedgerows offer up a bounty of treats; haws, sloes, blackberries, rose hips, all are abundant. As the leaves thin and the colours fade, the bright red of the rose hips punctuates the long tale told by the hedgerows with promises of sweetness and warmth in thorny parentheses.
Rose hips are the fruit of the rose, and grow wild most commonly as dog rose (Rosa canina) and field rose (Rosa arvensis). Both are large plants, trailing or arching their spiny, long branches from hedges and bushes. Both have oval, pointed leaves with serrated edges. The dog rose has flowers of pink and the field rose has white blossoms. The hips come after the flowers have wilted away. They are red-to-pink in colour and range from large and oval/pointed to small and round. They can be found from August onwards, often still hanging on in little red flashes deep into the winter when all else is bare. When harvesting, beware the thorns which can be seriously sharp. And as ever, don’t use anything you haven’t identified with 100% certainty.
The hips are very high in vitamin C – indeed are one of the richest sources – and were collected by children and the Women’s Institute during the dark days of WW2 to supplement a diet limited by rationing. The only reason, I think, that they have not remained as popular as blackberries is the process needed to create something palatable from them. (They are also not quite as abundant these days.)
The rose is a member of the same family as apples, and the flavour of the hips is somewhat akin to their larger cousins. They can be used in syrup, jams, fruit leathers, liqueurs, tea, wine, bread, even soups. It is necessary to remove the hairs that are contained within the fruit, as they are an irritant (as any child who has dropped a handful down the t-shirt of a pal, or indeed been said pal, can attest).
Roses are found throughout religion, myth, and folklore. The Greek poet Anacreon tells of sea foam that drips from the body of Aphrodite as she is born, which turns into white roses. Later, when she is trying to help the wounded Adonis, Aphrodite sheds blood onto a white rose, which changes it to red. The Hindu god Vishnu is said to have formed his bride, Lakshmi, from 108 large and 1,008 small rose petals. There is a story in Islam in which the rose sprang from the perspiration of the Prophet Mohammed. It goes on; the tale of the rose is intertwined with the tales of humans throughout history, its complexity, its fragrance and beauty, its ability to draw blood, all aiding our quest to understand the world around us, and ourselves.
Rose Hip Syrup
This syrup has many uses. As a cordial it makes a refreshing soft drink. Use it in cocktails for a sweet apple flavour. Pour on ice cream. Add to sparkling wine for a wild aperitif. Make a walnut sponge cake, and when it’s taken from the oven you can prick it all over and pour on some of the syrup to soak into the cake, making it moist and fruity. Or simply take a teaspoon, straight, each morning to ward off winter sniffles.
1kg rose hips
1kg Demerara sugar
A few teaspoons of vodka
Rinse the rose hips, and chop roughly, either by hand or in a food processor. Place them in a pan along with 2 litres of water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or so, giving the hips a squash with the back of a wooden spoon every now and then. Remove from the heat and let infuse for a couple of hours. Pop a double layer of muslin (boiled first to sterilise) in a colander, sit this over a bowl, and tip the rose hip water and pulp onto the muslin. Leave, covered, overnight to drip and filter through.
The next day, set aside the filtered juice, and put the pulp back into a clean pan. Top with 1 litre of water and bring to the boil. Repeat the boiling, infusing, and straining steps as above. All this straining is necessary to remove the hairs.
When strained, pour all the juice into a pan, discarding the pulp. Bring to the boil and reduce by about a third. Add the sugar. Stir and simmer the mixture until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from the heat, and pour through a funnel, again lined with boiled muslin, into sterilised swing-top bottles. (Add a teaspoon of vodka to each bottle first – this will help the syrup to keep for longer.) Allow to cool with the tops undone. When cool, close the bottles and store somewhere dry for up to a year. Opened, it’ll last for a few weeks in the fridge.
If you have a cold, add a teaspoon of syrup, half a thumb of ginger (grated), and a bay leaf to freshly boiled water, and infuse for a few minutes before straining into a mug. A sip will bring the warmth and spice of late summer into the darkest winter morning.
Rose Hip Tea
I’ve been making a lot of wild teas and infusions this year, inspired by the French love of tisanes after a big lunch. By far the best is rose hip. It is fruity and refreshing. Sweeten it with a teaspoon of local honey to really bring out the flavours.
Wash the rose hips (however many you have collected) and trim away any remaining leaves. You can top and tail them, though I find this to be fiddly and unnecessary.
Spread the rose hips on a baking tray and dry in a low oven with the door slightly ajar for anywhere up to ten hours – it really depends on the size of the hips and their water content. Alternatively use a dehydrator. They need to be completely dry, and hard to the touch. Discard any that are still pliable as they will invite spoilage over time.
Blitz the dried hips in a food processor into small pieces, though not so small as they’ll fall through a sieve.
Pour the blitzed hips into a sieve and shake over a bowl or some newspaper – the fruit’s internal hairs will fall out, leaving the dried flesh of the hips, and the seeds, behind. Do this a couple of times to remove as many hairs as possible (and do bear in mind that there might be a few remaining, so strain your tea well when making a cup). Once sieved, the tea will store in a clean airtight jar indefinitely.
To brew a cup, infuse 2 heaped teaspoons of the rose hip tea in a cup of freshly boiled water for 5 minutes. Strain well, sweeten to taste, and enjoy. A cup of this, outside on an autumn morning, is a splendid start to any day.
Parts of this article first appeared on Locavore Magazine’s website.