Its getting towards that time of year when everything begins to feel autumnal. My thoughts are already turning towards knitwear, cosy nests made of blankets, and curling up in a windowseat with a cup of tea and a good book. It’s also nice to imagine cold, crisp mornings walking along paths scattered with crunchy russet-coloured leaves, seeing your breath spiralling into the air. It also happens to be the best season for a bit of foraging.
Head out into the countryside and you’ll likely find miles of hedgerows weighed down by delicious – and free – fruit. This year the recent rain after a mild winter and a warm summer has caused nature’s bounty to arrive slightly earlier than usual, and already my countryside rambles are taking twice as long as usual because I keep stopping to snaffle handfuls of blackberries. But this post is about another of my favourite hedgerow offerings: Sloes.
These come from the Blackthorn bush (Prunus spinosa). This species of shrub has beautiful blossom in early spring, with delicate white flowers blooming against the dark black branches. At this time of year the bush has bright green oval leaves, and the sloes are small round berries (about 1cm in diameter) and blueish-black. These should traditionally be picked after the first frost as it softens the skins and makes the pricking easier, but this year (2014) the above-mentioned weather has resulted in a glut about 4 weeks early. If, like me you find a bush of ripe sloes that haven’t been frosted I would pick them anyway – before either the birds or other foragers get in there first! (That said it’s only polite to leave some for other people/wildlife).
There are two things that are worth noting when picking sloes: 1) they taste horribly bitter straight from the hedgerow, so stick to the blackberries for snacking, and 2) watch out for the thorns. The Blackthorn bush is called ‘spinosa’ for a reason, and the cuts can get infected easily. Perhaps for this reason, in folklore the Blackthorn bush has traditionally had negative connotations: such as a certain association with witches (the Harry Potter aficionados among you will know that it is a popular choice for wand wood).
My bag of sloes is currently waiting in the freezer until I buy some gin to put them in, but there are plenty of other things you can do with them, like this Sloe and Apple Jelly or a Steamed Sloe Pudding. However, if you want to go straight for the gin, you will need:
- 1 litre of gin.
- Sloes – about a lb per litre of gin, but the more the merrier.
- Caster sugar- anywhere between 170g (6oz) and 340g (12oz), depending on whether you prefer a dry or sweet tipple. Remember you can always add more, but you can’t take it out.
- A (clean) needle
- A large, airtight, wide-necked jar – sterilised by washing in hot water and then put in a hot oven (190C) for a bit (20 mins), but let it cool before adding the sloe mixture.
- Wash the sloes, and prick them all over with the needle to break the skin. (If you have frozen them you can skip this step as the skins will have broken open).
- Chuck the Sloes into the large jar, pour the sugar in, and top up with the gin.
- Shut the jar tightly and give it a swoosh to start dissolving the sugar. It might not all disappear straight away but it will eventually go with subsequent swirlings.
- Leave the jar in a cool dark place and visit it once a week to give it another shake and check that it isn’t fermenting (it shouldn’t be).
- Leave it alone (aside from swirlings) for as long as possible – a minimum of two months if you want it for this Christmas, but preferably six.
- After this time you can taste it, and if you want it sweeter you can create a sugar syrup by heating equal parts sugar and water in pan. Leave it to cool, and then add to taste.
- You can then strain the gin into nice (again sterilised) bottles via a muslin-lined funnel, or a sieve. You should end up with a beautiful amber-coloured liquid, perfect for keeping out the winter chill.
- Enjoy! (Or leave for next year, if you can!)
The left-over strained sloes still won’t taste great, but if there are enough intact I will probably use them to make ‘slider’ (sloe cider) as well.
While I was collecting my sloes I was reminded of one of the many reasons I love foraging: the fact that people will stop and chat to find out what I’m doing, and even join in. I made friends with some German hikers this week – once they’d recovered from the sight of me falling out of a hedgerow with my mouth stained red by blackberry juice.
Disclaimer: Don’t eat anything that you can’t identify! If you’re interested in foraging, John Wright’s book Hedgerow (part of the River Cottage Handbook series) is an excellent guide to all sorts of delicious wild foodstuffs, as well as those that are best avoided. He has also written about Mushrooms and the Edible Seashore.