October 2009 – Sloes are a frequent ‘by-catch’ on forays and the next season the resulting drink makes the perfect end to a chilly expedition…
The fruit of the blackthorn is justly famous as a gin flavouring and the perfect time to pick these is after their skins have been softened by the first frost. Thanks to its hard needle-sharp spikes (they can puncture tractor tyres) blackthorn is one of the best hedging materials and is therefore one of our commonest small trees, likely to be encountered anywhere across the country. In former days its chestnut-barked wood was in high demand for walking sticks and riding crops, but today we are more likely to be after its fruit.
At first glance the berries seem blue, but this is merely a natural yeast bloom and underneath they are jet black. Despite their succulent appearance, however, these tiny wild plums are incredibly astringent which explains why large numbers remain on the bushes long after the last leaves: few creatures will touch them until forced by hunger. Their bitter taste is transformed when steeped in gin for several months, however, producing an almond-flavoured liqueur, which gradually changes from purple to yellow with age – and like a good claret it continues to improve.
To make the perfect Christmas drink, put 50g (2 ozs) of sugar in a bottle and fill the remaining space with sloes after pricking them lightly with a fork. Pour in gin and shake to dissolve the sugar and dislodge any air bubbles. Continue to shake once a week until Christmas, topping up with more gin if necessary. It can be drunk this year, but will be even better next year (if you can wait that long).