Ark of Taste
Mayhaw Jelly and Syrup
Crataegus aestivalis, C. opaca, C . rufula
The mayhaw is an indigenous fruit native to the lower Southern states of the United States.
Little interest was taken in the mayhaw fruit by either early American botanist or indigenous American peoples, as the fruit was considered too small and tasteless. Furthemore, the mayhaw’s natural growing location in swamps and marginal edges discouraged individuals from foraging the wild plant. Still, the fruit was recorded as being used in jellies and syrups since Antebellum times (1600 -1775). All the while, mayhaw trees were admired for their ornamental beauty and their value as a food source for wildlife.
Once the jelly did come into favor, it was typically served with game dishes, such as venison, wild duck, and wild turkey. It was praised for its flavor and considered better than other jellies of the time (for example: apple, plum, grape or orange). Around the late 1800s the fruit’s popularity gave rise to the cultivation of mayhaw trees.
Mayhaw berries were foraged once they had dropped ripe from their branches and bobbed in the bogs around their growing locations. Foragers would use boats and nets to collect the berries. Mayhaw picking was considered an annual family outing.
The mayhaw fruit grows to be about half to three quarters of an inch in diameter in a cylindrical shape and is covered with a thin skin. There are two native genera of mayhaw, one with berries which ripen to a yellow and the other with berries which ripen to red, though the red variety has been more widely cultivated. Inside, the fruit has a white pulp with a few seeds. When eaten raw the flavor of the berry is typically described as bitter and sour, has a high acid content, and sometimes is described as mildly sweet. The berries are not commonly eaten raw. Most of the bitterness comes from the skin of the fruit, which is why syrups and jellies are made with the strained juice of the fruit. The finished product is described as tasting “wild-fruity”.
There are currently three native varieties of Mayhaw tree cultivated : Heavy, Big Red, and Super Spur. Super Spur is praised for the flavor of it’s fruit, considered to produce the excellent berries for jellies and syrups.
The jelly and syrup can range in hues from yellow to pink to red, like the fruit itself. To create the jelly, the mayhaw fruit is cooked in a ratio of one gallon of fruit to three gallons of water. The fruit is boiled and cooked for thirty minutes. Once the fruit has cooked, the juice can be pressed from the berry, typically through cheesecloths to prevent the seeds and skin from joining the juice. Recipes for the jelly itself will vary as to the ratios of sugar and other ingredients depending on the area of the country and the cook making the recipe. Once the sugar has been dissolved and the solution has boiled for one minute more, the jelly or syrup is ready to be stored in sterilized jars.
Mayhaw jelly and syrup is typically served alongside ice cream, coffeecake, or on biscuits or toast for breakfast. It is also used to flavor foods and desserts such as the sauces for meats, poultry, or BBQ sauce, to create pie fillings and dessert sauces.
In the past, there was sufficient wild fruit to satisfy local need. Recently, due to deforestation, clear cutting, use of the land for other purposes, and disease attacking the trees, the native landscape of the mayhaws is being destroyed.
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