Haw berries (shanzha; 山楂), or hawthorn berries, are near and dear to the heart of every Beijinger. So delectably red, they ripen just in time for winter, adding the perfect dash of color to busy streets and gray, sunless skies. Come November, vendors everywhere start carrying tempting, bristling bushels of candied hawthorn berries.
I wasn’t allowed to eat them (bingtang hulu; 冰糖葫芦) as a child. So I never got to try the tart, luscious berries, glazed in melted sugar and speared on a stick, until I moved back to the city more than 17 years later. Then I made up for lost time, eating bingtang hulu and all its cousins – hawthorn berries stuffed with walnuts, haw berries cooked and mashed into a paste with sesame seeds, Japanese yam (shanyao; 山药), even strawberries – as fast as I could. They’re best if you can find someone who is making them fresh, when the melted sugar has hardened but the berries are still warm. For about RMB 2-3 a skewer, this is one of the simplest ways to brighten up a long winter day.
Fresh haw berries are generally sold from November through January, and sometimes even into February, at their cheapest about RMB 1.5 for a half kilo. During the rest of the year, hawthorn berries can be only found in somewhat less exciting forms. Most common are the little discs of haw flakes, dry wafers with just a little fruit flavor, and haw fruit rolls, which are kind of like fruit leather. I used to eat these religiously, but now the food safety police tells me that the haw fruit roll (guodanpi; 果丹皮) factories attain the snack’s gelatinous, sticky texture by using … old rubber shoes. Eww.
So it was up to me to preserve these bright, mouth-puckering gems, just the way I like them – no old shoes please. And what better than a thick haw berry jam, with a few kumquats for color and contrast?
After hours of soaking, de-seeding, slicing, and stirring, the haw berry-kumquat jam was the wealth of flavors it promised to be. Ruby red, sweet and tangy, it is shot through with the sunny notes of citrus and generous chunks of fruit. It goes beautifully well with bread, preferably some homemade ciabatta integrale (pictured above) that you’ve made yourself, or sourdough english muffins, or in a linzer tart.
1kg of kilograms, less a handful of berries gone bad
2/3 cup sugar
Cleaning: Unless your berries are organic (available sometimes at Lohao City shops), you’ll want to wash them carefully and soak them in several changes of water, preferably overnight, to remove pesticides.
De-seeding: Slice each berry along its “equator” so that its five seeds are exposed in a star pattern. Remove with a sharp, small paring knife, and remove also the stem and the black, thready “under-stem” on its bottom (what is that called?). Make sure to get all five seeds, as sometimes they can be hidden or especially tiny. Slice the ends off each kumquat, then slice thinly, removing seeds along the way. This can take quite a while; it’s a lot faster if there were a second pair of hands to help you in some kind of assembly line – one to de-seed, one to de-stem?
Cooking: Place berries in pot, add sugar, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the fruit breaks down, and the inner white flesh melts and turns ruby red. This will take about 30 minutes, and you’ll have to give it a good stir every now and then, more frequently as the water cooks away. Let it simmer a little longer to reach a thicker consistency, then spoon into clean jars.
Storing: I boil my jars and lids in boiling water for 10 minutes, but I don’t bother with proper sealing/canning procedures, as I plan to keep my jams in the fridge and finish them within a few months. Anyways, they won’t last that long.