The Hawthorn tree – Crataegus monogyna
As a boy, I was walking with my Grandfather and he pulled a leaf from a hawthorn tree. “Chew it” he said. And I did. “Bread, Butter and Cheese” he said.
And thus it was, like many before me and many others, I ate – and tasted nothing.
So about forty years later, I wanted to apply myself to this apparent – to me at any rate – mystery.
Does Hawthorn taste of bread, butter and cheese?
Looking over the internet, there are some references to this tree and its supposed taste. It is pretty clear though that Hawthorn (or May, to give it it’s other name – as in “Cast ne’er a clout till May’s out” – meaning that the May tree in bloom is a good sign that you can do away with your woollies!) does not really taste of Bread, Butter and Cheese. Or for that matter, Bread and Butter. Nobody seems to really have an answer – except that one person admits that they chewed it in the hope of staving off hunger.
Other people have put Hawthorn leaves on sandwiches and pronounced them edible; others made pretend sandwiches of Hawthorn leaves with a haw (the haw berry) in between. Some made it into a salad.
Hawthorn and Haws in Literature
Haws have not featured much in any of the literature that I have read either. The closest I came to it is a reference in the works of Ivor Novello, in his own lyric to the song “A Lady Went to Market Fair” from “Perchance to Dream”, thus ‘…She bought a hip and she bought a haw…’. Novello as a lyric writer is here telling us that the lady had enough money to enjoy some fun of buying one thing from every stall.
So what is this Hawthorn thing and how has it come about?
Well, two and two make four if you can find the two twos. So, I think that I may have stumbled upon something that might help everybody who has ever faced this mystery.
Enter the Welsh Botanist and Folk Song Collector, John Lloyd Williams (10 July 1854 – 15 November 1945).
In his autobiography (Atgofion Tri Chwarter Canrif or Three Quarters of a Century of Memories, Vol 1, Pennod II, Page 19) he tells about his Grandmother and her near neighbour, Cadi.
It seems that John’s grandmother had a very high regard and respect for her neighbour and John Lloyd Williams has this to say of Cadi: “I remember her frowning face and her harsh voice. But Grandmother was wary of her, because she believed that Cadi could ‘do witchcraft'”.
Later, John reads the works of Walter Scott and gives Meg Merrilees the voice of Cadi – every time!
He goes on to say: “Sometimes Cadi would come to Grandmother’s to ask for a drop of milk, and Grandmother did not always have any to give her. Cadi would go away, muttering under her breath. However, one day, Grandmother was trying to churn the milk to make butter. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get the milk to churn.
A Clue from the Blackthorn – Prunus spinosa
“Who should come along but Cadi, who says: ‘Methu corddi ‘rydach chi, ‘ddyliwn. Wel, berwch friga drain duon; golchwch y fudda hefo’r dwr; wedyn ei dywallt tua’r de, heb neb un gweld, a deud rhyw eiria.’ (Translation: ‘Not getting it to churn are you? I thought as much. Well, boil a sprig of black thorn and then wash your churn with the boiled water; then tip the water out to the south and don’t let anybody see you doing it, and say a few words.’) So she did this, and the milk churned immediately! After that, Grandmother always kept some milk for the witch.
Folk Knowledge as Science
Now, if we analyse what may have happened here, I suspect that the Blackthorn (or Sloe) that John’s Grandmother used (as directed by Cadi) was not witchcraft, but some folk-science – that may produce a vegetable rennet; knowledge which even in the 1860s was almost lost, and which would live on as half-remembered stories in the 19th and 20th centuries, passed on to children from older generations and then from children to other children who never really knew the possible reasons.
Any Food Scientists Out There?
It needs a Food Scientist to sort it out, but I believe that both Hawthorn and Blackthorn might carry a chemical, or a hormone or bacterium that causes cow’s milk and the stomach fluids of people to coagulate or solidify to some extent.
Thus, if you were hungry, the chemical, hormone or bacterium in chewed Hawthorn leaves might act as an appetite suppressant by acting on the fluids in your stomach. In the same way, they might have helped to make butter if you added them to milk. Is it too far-fetched to think that they might even have helped in creating a sourdough to make bread?
But how to do it – that is the thing!
Somebody needs to experiment – under supervision and observation. That would be something!
If you do it, write in and let me know what happened please!