Everyone loves a freebie, don’t they? Couple that with a claim of said freebie as provider of joy and you’d be shooting that person a kind yet concerned look. Have a sit down and have some sugary tea, you’d gently suggest.
And yet it’s true, alright, kind of true. For the cost of a few basic ingredients which you may well have anyway, and a few minutes outdoors this Autumn, you can morph into Artisan Producer.
Which is just the excuse we need to get in some girding lungsful of all of these seasonal mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Now, I realise this is meant to be a #gardeningblog.
Sometimes though it’s good to look beyond our own patch of lovingly tended earth and refocus the eye on the wider garden of the borrowed landscape. Those green and public spaces we all use and rely on.
Maybe you’re lucky enough to have the British countryside on your doorstep, or maybe you’re not. Chances are there will be some pocket of public greenery half tucked away, but still available to those out looking. In my case, the footpath running behind where we live has been thoughtfully, or rather cost-minimisingly, planted up by the local council with a job lot of blackthorn trees. Fast growing, spiny and a haven for wildlife, they provide useful ground cover and can grow on even scrubby ground.
Happily, blackthorn also produces masses of pretty white flowers in Spring and, around about now, a plethora of plump blue-purple sloe berries. Very handy.
Country lore has it that witches’ wands and staffs were made using blackthorn wood. Interesting, yes, though let’s not explore that much further right now.
We have a far better proposition: Sloe gin of course, or if you want to add a few brambly extras, Hedgerow gin.
It hardly takes any time or effort for what you get out at the end.
What kit you’ll need:
- A pair of sturdy gloves and/or nimble fingers to dodge the thorns
- A container to hold your sloes in as you pick them
- 3 litre Kilner jar or similar wide-necked screw cap bottle
Ingredients: (to yield a litre or so, although that’s clearly a guess)
- Your sloes. I had 1.7 kg – adapt ingredient quantities depending on your haul.
- About one and a half 70 cl bottles of any gin you like
- 400g granulated sugar
- For hedgerow gin: blackberries, raspberries etc.
- Herbs and spices. I used two cracked cardamom pods and a some juniper berries. Maybe try rosemary or basil, star anise even?
- To help pick the sloes, a garden cane with a hook at one end to pull down those tantalising-looking branches which are always just out of reach somehow (yes, my other half did custom make one for this actual job, although I realise this is atypical behaviour and not really warranted)
- A barely repressed desire to be the watered-down, more creature comforts version of Ray Mears crossed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Method (what passes as one)
I’m no Delia Smith. The somewhat laissez-faire approach to an ingredients list is your clue. Just use whatever fruits and ingredients you think will work and go with it.
You may already know that it’s a big waste of your time to prick your sloes beforehand, and there’s no need to wait until the fabled first frosts before you go foraging (unless that’s your bag, in which case be my guest), just put your sloes in the freezer. This will cause them to rupture so the recipe works. And use as much or as little sugar as you like. Some people say you can always add more later, which makes sense.
I had a lot of sloes, too many probably, but there we are. I took the enormous Kilner jar, tipped in the frozen sloes, berries and spices and poured over enough gin until it reached the top and sealed it shut.
Immediately the sloes fell into a pleasing symmetry, the sugar cascading and flowing between the spaces like powder snow. It is possible at this point I was already mentally scoffing mince pies and bestowing seasons greetings to anyone happening to walk by. But if there’s any cheaper, more cheery gift to be had at Christmas, I need to know.
In just a matter of minutes the outside of the jar was covered attractively in condensation droplets and the spirit turning the faintest pink already.
All that’s left is to shake and turn daily for the first few weeks to dissolve the sugar and then keep turning occasionally for the next few months. Then, for a clear, garnet, jewel bright liquid, decant through a muslin cloth into smaller bottles. Pretty up with gift tags and bibelots of choice, if intended as gifts.
That’s it! Well, that’s almost it.
I know some of you are reading this and thinking all of that sloe foraging is a complete faff, and it’s not for me, thanks.
- It’s not, and it is
- I have seen sloes for sale on eBay. Repeat, eBay. There are no further excuses.
Bottoms up, as Ray Mears probably doesn’t say in the forest.
Why not tell everyone your top foraging and home grown gift tips and stories? Comment here, we’d love to hear them!