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Home Cooking

Pyracantha (firethorn) jelly

jlafler | Dec 17, 200810:12 PM     15

In the SF area there are pyracantha shrubs everywhere. They bear little red berries in the fall and winter. The birds gorge themselves on them, but as a kid I was always told they were poisonous to humans. It turns out that a) they are not poisonous, although b) they are not very good raw. It also turns out that c) they are of several related species that are d) all members of the apple subfamily of the gigantic rose family. This means that e) the "berries" are in fact pomes (think of them as blueberry-sized crabapples). When I nerved myself to taste one, it did indeed taste like a little, mushy apple. And when I gave my mother a taste of my first experimental jelly without telling her what it was, she said "Mmmm....is it....pear?" But I am getting ahead of myself.

A few weeks ago I came across a recipe for pyracantha (aka "firethorn") jelly and decided I wanted to try making it. First, I wrote to a botanist friend to find out whether there are any local lookalike species; it turns out there are two: cotoneaster (pronounced "co-to-nee-ASS-ter," not "cotton easter") and toyon (aka "California holly"). Toyon is a New World native and the others are Old World transplants. (Another related group of plants are the hawthorns, which include both Old and New World species, but we don't see them around here. All I can say is that it must be a very adaptable basic plant design. I have attached pictures of various plants here, so you can see how much alike they look.) Anyway, with my friend's help I figured out how to tell them apart. I couldn't find any suggestion that cotoneaster is good for cooking, and Toyon is mildly toxic raw, though edible if cooked or dried, so I wanted to be sure I was getting pyracantha. I found a couple of likely bushes near the parking lot of a local community college and harvested the berries, all the while prepared to educate anybody who asked "what are you doing -- don't you know those are poisonous?" Nobody asked. Pyracantha pomes grow in giant clusters, so it took me about 10 minutes to gather half a gallon.

First, I made a small sample of jelly to see if it was worth making more. The taste is subtle, but pleasant, so I decided to proceed. One of the two recipes I used was originally for hawthorn berry jelly. It contains just the pomes, water, and sugar -- no added pectin:

Pyracantha pomes
Water
Sugar
1/4 tsp butter, optional (to reduce foaming)

Wash and pick over pomes, then combine with water in a saucepan. (Ratio: 4 cups pomes to 3 cups water.) Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Be warned: it smells rather nasty while cooking, not sure why. Cool slightly, then strain, reserving the juice. I used a fine-mesh sieve, then strained again using a coffee filter; you could also use a jelly bag. Discard the pomes. Combine juice with sugar (Ratio: 4 cups juice to 3 cups sugar) and stir to dissolve. Add butter, if using. Bring to a boil, then continue to boil until it reaches a temperature of 221 degrees fahrenheit and/or it reaches a jelling point according to your favorite method of testing. Skim foam, pour into sterilized jars, and process in water bath canner.

The second recipe is based on one I found that was specifically for pyracantha berries:

3 cups of pyracantha juice (made using same method as in previous recipe)
juice of one pink-fleshed grapefruit
juice of one lemon
1 package (1.75 oz) powdered pectin
1/4 tsp salt
4.5 cups sugar

Combine juices; this should equal about 3.5 cups. Take one cup of combined juices and mix with pectin until dissolved. Add to remaining juices in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Add salt and sugar and boil, while stirring, for 3 minutes. Skim foam, pour into sterilized jars, and process in water bath canner.

IMO, the second recipe, though a gorgeous coral color, isn't very interesting; the citrus overwhelms the delicate pyracantha flavor. I'm not sure if I'll make them again -- they seem more notable as a novelty than anything else.

Images, in order:

Pyracantha
Cotoneaster
Toyon
Hawthorn

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