An ancient berry from north-west Greece
In the hot, mountainous region of Epirus, in a far-flung corner of north-west Greece, acres of wild, untouched land, rife with plants and wildlife, bask in the sunshine. Left to grow freely without chemicals, before being plucked by the careful hands of the producer and dried naturally in a traditional drying shed, this is the land from whence all of Oliveology’s natural, wild herbs come—among them, on a leafy green tree, the small red buds of the hawthorn berry.
“While hawthorns, or ‘crateagus’ are cultivated, they also grow wild all over, including in the UK, but particularly well in Greece,” says stall owner Marianna. “I was very happy when I found this supplier, as we like our products to be organic, but sometimes wild is better. I have tried organically grown, cultivated herbs, and the difference is immense—in terms of potency and flavour, it’s just incomparable, so this producer is the best of both. And by drying hawthorns in this way, they keep their properties; that flavour and intensity.”
In Greece, the hawthorn berry is known as the ‘herb of the heart’, Marianna explains over the comforting sound of a kettle boiling in the background, as she prepares us a hawthorn berry tea. “They are revered for their medicinal properties.”
Guarded by fairies
It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, cited as early as the first century by Greek herbalist and physician Dioscorides. The druids called the hawthorn berry ‘sacred tree medicine’, and there’s a long history of the hawthorn in Chinese medicine. In Ireland, isolated hawthorn bushes are said to be guarded by fairies who, if the tree is cut down, will unleash their fatal wrath. Herbalist Matthew Becker, meanwhile, is said to have claimed that the hawthorn is “specifically helpful for women with broken hearts”. Well, to that we can’t attest—though, as Marianna advises, it is delicious when made into a tincture…
If you happen to come across hawthorn berries in the wild—and aren’t deterred by vengeful fairies—the raw berries are very tart, but delicious when made into jams or infused with brandy; when dried, as you’ll find at Oliveology, they take on a much milder, more peppery flavour—a warming addition to tea, when brewed in the manner of the cup that’s now appeared, steaming, before us.
“Just use a teaspoon of berries per cup and steep for 10 minutes in hot water—not boiling water. If you use too high a temperature, you could lose its delicate properties and some of the vitamins,” she advises. “If you want something stronger in taste, it’s got a pleasant flavour that works well with other herbs. I particularly like it with either our mountain tea, buckthorn, or with lavender or chamomile—very relaxing before bed.”