It’s that time of year when, as I mentioned in my piece on green risotto, I like to forage. So I can be found scrabbling in hedgerows near my home or screaming ‘Stop the car! – there’s some!’ on a French N road.
Why? Because it’s sloe season. Prunus spinosa - or the Blackthorn to you and me, bears a wonderful fruit called the sloe. A blueberry-like firm, round berry, a bit like a mini damson. Sloes are coming into perfect ripeness about now (late Spetember) – but I guess this will vary depending on where you live and your climate.
They’re not for eating, but who cares when you can make such a wonderful liqueur with them as sloe gin. My old neighbour Bob – hedgerow and foraging expert extraordinaire – introduced me to the delights of sloe gin and I haven’t looked back since. For me it marks the start of Autumn and heralds the first preparations for Christmas.
When to pick
Bob used to recommend not picking the sloes until after the first frost, but I have given up on that idea as one year I waited dutifully only to find others had beaten me to it and there were none left. The point of the frost I’m told, is that this helps to soften the fruit and split it, avoiding the need to ‘prick’ the sloes before starting the gin. Some put them in a freezer bag in the freezer for a few days but personally I have never found the pricking process tedious – it’s all part of the fun.
As to how to know when they’re ripe: they should look a deep blueberry colour and have a frosty opacity to them. When you give them a squeeze they should have a bit of softness – and not be like bullets.
So get gathering! - while out on a walk almost anywhere really, but preferably not near beside a motorway, as if one can avoid petrol fumes and chemicals getting to the sloes, they’ll be so much nicer.
How to make the sloe gin
Take a darning needle and prick each sloe a couple of times before popping them into a clean wine bottle. I have a friend who uses a sweetcorn skewer to do the pricking as you get two stabs for the price of one! When the bottom half of the bottle, or just under, is full of sloes, add about three or four ounces of sugar. Any sugar will do, but I use some from my jar of vanilla caster sugar. I can’t be too exact here, as different palates prefer a more or less sweet gin.
Then top up the bottle with gin. Any brand will do – don’t go spending a fortune – a supermarket own label 37.5% proof gin will do the job just fine. Make sure the screw cap or cork is in securely and give the bottle a good shake to disperse the sugar. You’ll need to do this several times over the next week as the sugar sinks to the bottom.
When the sugar’s finally dissolved, stick the bottle away in a dark cupboard and leave it alone.
When will it be ready?
Some reckon on just a few months, but for me it’s a year or at least six months. This is no problem when you get in to the routine of making some every year, as you’ll have a stack of different vintages that will gradually accrue! It tastes even better after a year or more. I have a little sip after several months to see if the sweetness is to my taste and if it’s too shrill, I just add some more sugar and do the shaking trick for a few days, then stick it back in the cupboard.
When you’re happy that it tastes about right, strain it through a bit of muslin or a tea-strainer and dispose of the sloes. (Although some people like to just leave them in until they drink it.) The sloes will by now have imparted the beautiful rose pink colour that characterises this delicious drink.
Make sure you label each bottle with the date and where you got the sloes. I like to have bottles made with sloes from different places – Beaulieu River Sloe Gin, Isle of Wight Sloe Gin, Anonymous French Country Road Sloe Gin and so on.
It’s a quite delicious, if lethal, digestivo or scroppin (an ‘unknotter’ in Venetian!), and whilst your head might not thank you the next day, you’ll surely get hooked on the ritual.
Getting the bottle for sloe gin
You’ll need to store your sloe gin and maybe even give some away as Christmas presents in bottles that show off the especially lucious colour that sloes give your gin.