Richard Mabey, in his Flora Britannica, has a great extract from William Cobbett on the blackthorn, or sloe, including Cobbett’s mouth-puckering claim that he used to eat the berries when he was a boy ‘until my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth and my lips were pretty near glued together’ and he indicates that the berries were used to make “fine old Port”, the mock port I mentioned in our earlier post about ratafias. Now I’m not sure I fancy subjecting my taste buds to that level of astringency, but I can’t resist a glass of sloe gin, or a sloe gin cocktail.
Today started off foggy but, with the promise of the fog lifting, we headed out to one of our three favoured sloe-gathering places – Westport Lake. The lake came into existence in the nineteenth century as a result of subsidence, caused by mining for clay to make bricks. The area around the lake was planted with a mixture of trees in the early 1970s, including willow, alder, hornbeam, aspen and birch. Now the trees are well established and it’s a local nature reserve, especially for waterbirds. There are also several thickets of blackthorn, the perilous nesting ground of sloe berries.
We managed to glean half a kilo of them today as we strolled round the lake with the boys:
Jane Grigson describes sloes in Good Things as nestling ‘into a fakir’s bed of thorns’ and you do have to be careful not to get pricked as the thin, telescopic thorns can get nastily embedded in your hands. Farmers hate blackthorn for this reason and also the possibly apocryphal stories of thorns big enough to puncture tractor tyres (which I’ve heard and which Mabey also includes in his book). Go slowly is the best advice and keep your eyes open for thorns.
Sloes are quite easy to identify. Here’s the foliage:
And usually at first you think there aren’t any berries, but once you spot one nestling close to the branches:
you see loads:
The berries are about as big as the tip of your little finger (anything else is probably a kind of wild plum, damson, or a cross between any number of members of this family of fruit), and you’re looking for dark blue-black (not brown) ripe berries which have a slight whitish and bluish ‘bloom’ to them. You can make this out in the second of the pictures of the berries above.
- 500g sloes
- 225-250g sugar
- 70cl bottle of gin
- Prick each sloe with a skewer or fork and put in a non-reactive container – a large Kilner jar or equivalent is idea. For these quantities, a storage container of 1.5 litres to 2 litres is ideal.
- Pour in the gin, add the sugar and stir well. Stir daily for the next week or so until the sugar has dissolved, then leave for 6-7 weeks, stirring occasionally.
- Use a sieve to remove the sloes and then filter (we do this through a couple of layers of muslin) and bottle in sterilized bottles. It’s usually ready for drinking in February – around New Year at a push.
Some notes on the recipe:
For gin, we’ve been using the Sainsbury’s own label ‘Taste the Difference’ variety, which is a 43% straight down the line dry London gin – it’s very good, no-nonsense stuff. You don’t want anything too posh, and I’d steer clear of Gordon’s (and other sub-40% varieties) because it’s weak and a bit flowery. It hardly needs saying but avoid commercial sloe gin brands, especially Gordon’s, which is sickly, chemically and made with eastern European sloes.
Some people use much more sugar than we do – up to the weight of sloes. This gives something a little too sweet for us, so we start with relatively small amount of sugar and taste it after a month (before filtering) – if it’s not sweet enough, we bung in some more sugar then. You can also experiment with the sugar – we use granulated, but Lindy Wildsmith, in Artisan Drinks, uses Demerara sugar.
One thing we haven’t done this time, but which sounds a delicious addition is to follow Jane Grigson’s advice and include 12-20 blanched, bruised almonds per 500g of sloes. I feel another batch coming on…
There’s the work in progress, on the left. In addition to possibly experimenting with the almonds, we have vaguely scientific plans this year. Instead of pricking the sloes, you can put them in the freezer to burst the skins, so we’re going to do that with a batch too. And conventional wisdom says you should wait until after the first frosts to pick the fruit, as it concentrates the flavour – so we’re going to see if we can do one of those too. Three batches of sloe gin sounds ok to us – and a very, er, sober scientific test at some point in the New Year, of course…