Monday, December 31, 2018

Rosehip liqueur for Epiphany

On the road up to the old monastery in Norcia, February 2, 2015.

Well, I've finally figured out what to do with rosehips. I've just made a big batch of rosehip liqueur.

The problem with them is that they're difficult to process and incredibly acidic. You can't make them into jelly or jam since the pectin just won't work with that level of acidity. You can use them to flavour crabapple jelly, but you have to be pretty sparing with the juice. All my efforts have only ever produced rosehip syrup, but of course, there's nothing whatever wrong with that. I tried rosehip wine - the ancient Romans loved it! - but just couldn't get the yeast to not die. And the end result was too acidic to drink without adding a dollop of honey. But they remain one of my favourite fruits - I think I just can't resist their beautiful colour. So, this evening I tried again, and I think I've got it figured.

They're delicious, and amazingly good for you. Dog roses, that is, wild roses, have a fruit with the highest concentration of Vitamin C of any fruit we know about in the western world. But they're a pain to process. The scrapes and scratches you can't help getting picking them is only the beginning. The fruit encloses a little pill of hard seeds that are each covered in extremely fine, but very unpalatable hairs, like extremely fine cactus hairs. They are very unpleasant to get in your skin, and even worse to get in your mouth. The leathery case of the hip is the fruit part that you want, but they're difficult to separate from their seeds. So you have to boil them and then strain out the bits you don't want.

The best time is late December, last week before January 1. They've had all summer and autumn to ripen - and this was a particularly good year with a good balance of heat and rain - and then the first frosts have softened them. By the last week of December (in Norcia, which means only a couple of weeks of steady hard frosts) most of the fruits are still red, though by the beginning of the first week of January they will all have turned black, and there won't be any more until next year.

By that time, they're wonderful straight off the bush. You choose the ones with the best colour, brilliant scarlet, and nice smooth skin with no sign of wrinkling or discolouring.

Pick it carefully off the stem which should come away from the fruit leaving a little hole in the skin. You squeeze them gently between thumb and forefinger and this red pasty stuff comes out the hole like toothpaste out of a tube. This is the fruit and it's absolutely delicious at this point just to eat straight. Three or four is vitamin C for a week.

If you're picking them for cooking, bring along a long-handled umbrella with a hook on the end to pull the higher canes down, since the plants on the hedgerows often get ten feet in height. They're usually most abundant on the upper parts of the plant, and the parts that get the most sun in the day (though in a hot country like Italy this can mean smaller and harder fruits, since the sun can be hot enough in the summers to blight the fruit.)

The soft late season fruits can be pretty squishy, so make sure you bring a big zip lock freezer bag, something sturdy. Not a shopping back, since they tear too easily. Collect them most easily with a pair of kitchen scissors, and a plastic bag that has a handle you can slip over one wrist. The fruits grow in little clusters of two or three or sometimes four; take these gently in your left hand and use the scissors to cut the stems all at once, and drop them into the bag.

Don't try to pull the thorny canes or move them aside; just use the scissors to cut away any pointy bits that are between your hand and the fruit. Don't reach into a big bunch of thorny canes or twigs to get the fruit. Just cut away and clear a path for your hand, and use the scissors to toss away the cut canes and twigs; don't grab them with your fingers. Don't worry about the plant; the rose family loves to be pruned and the more you cut in December the more fruit there will be next year.

I picked about 1.5 kg and just tossed them in the freezer when I got home. Tonight I took it out and put the whole thing frozen into the 9L pressure cooker with about 4 L of water. Cooked them for 2 hours, which was enough to liquefy the fruit and separate the skins, seeds and bits of stem. Mashing with a potato masher helps too. Then you do the first strain through a colander for the big stuff. Next is with cheese cloth over a strainer. This takes some patience because this is when you are straining out the hairs that form a thick paste. So you have to pour carefully and stir gently and slowly to get as much juice out of the paste as possible.

When this was done, I rinsed the cheese cloth and ran it through again, but probably didn't need to. I did up a good thick sugar syrup and poured it in, let it blend, and then added two bottles of vodka. Sugar is a personal taste thing, but you really do have to have it. Rosehips' claim to fame is the incredible content of Vitamin C - and that's also called Ascorbic acid. The liquor is more acidic by a long way than straight lemon juice, so yeah. Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar.

Give it a little stir and jar or bottle it. With that much acid, sugar and alcohol that stuff is NEVEr going to go off.


The finished product. About 6 L. A kilo or so of rosehips boiled for 2 hours in a pressure cooker with 3 L of water, a full kilo of sugar and 1.5 L vodka + as little water as possible added to the sugar just to make a syrup.