Maybe it was a familiar sight for our ancestors, standing around a small tripod tied with nettle cordage, a few slats of hazel holding a red cake of hawthorns and blackberries drying as the weather cools signalling the beginning of the end of summer. As the bounty of summer is in full swing I always wonder how much time was spent in days gone by preserving different food and preparing for the long cold winter. I can only assume that plenty of energy was given in preparation for winter, and maybe this technique was one employed as a way of keeping some of the vitamins that berries so vitally provide.
Hawthorn contains a naturally occurring chemical called pectin, which basically means that if allowed to it will set, into a kind of dry jelly which can then be completely dried out into a leather. I must confess I don’t know how long the preserve keeps, probably not indefinitely but maybe a few months in cool weather and with some protection from moisture.
Either way in our modern day bushcrafters and survivalists always seem to be interested in long term scenarios, such as that of the TV show alone, I though there might be a bit of interest in this possible way of preserving fruit, so here’s how you do it.
The first and obvious step is to pick some berries, I chose to mix some blackberries into my hawthorns to improve the taste. If you do decide to include other fruit ensure that the majority, more than ¾ is haws, so as not to dilute the pectin content too much which could impact the setting of the mixture.
Once that is done I made a simple drying rack. I did this by cutting 3 waist high hazel saplings and lashing them at one end. I then tied 3 sticks around the outside and then made a small frame to lay the paste on. It helps to have sticks that are very straight and of even diameter to lay the paste onto, this is something that I would have spent more time on if I were to do it again.
Once you have your rack made, you need to make your paste. I suggest you cut a fist size log to help you mash, otherwise your hands will get quite sore. Take your pot of berries and begin pulverising them, mashing them up a smooth as you can. You are trying to break down the flesh and release the juice, as this contains the pectin.
The pulverised berries must then be strained, I used a fine mesh bag to do this, scooping my puree into the bag and then squeezing it tightly. This will release a thick liquid which is what you want to catch in another dish or bowl.
Squeeze out all the liquid from the berries, and then spread the liquid evenly around the bowl. This must then be allowed to set, until its like a jelly. This may take a while and its important to let the mixture set well. Once its set you will be able to remove it like in small slabs, these chunks can then be placed on your rack above a low fire to dry.
Allow a little bit of smoke to be present to deter insects but avoid stoking the fire too much as you don’t want to cook the fruit, just begin to draw the moisture out. The drying process will take a long time, so if you prefer it can be done in an oven on a low temperature or in a dehydrator.
So maybe, however many hundreds of years ago, our ancestors would be sat in their lodges in the cold of winter, snacking on venison and hawthorn fruit leather waiting for the warmth of spring to arrive, and maybe this winter you will be sat in your house tentatively trying a piece of homemade fruit leather and you will have a glimpse into what life was like all those years ago.
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