It’s the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and there is no more misty fruit than the sloe. Each dark purple berry is touched with blue smoke, but don’t let their good looks fool you. Popping one in your mouth will draw your gums from your teeth, and your tongue will shrink away in fear – they’re tremendously astringent.
“Then why bother with them at all?” I hear you cry. Well, with a little preparation, and a lot of patience, they’ll transform a plain old bottle of gin into a deeply delicious liqueur.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn. A densely growing bush, packed with thorns, it’s often used in hedgerows to keep livestock in check. It’s a member of the prunus family, and like its more glamorous relatives, it’s dressed in white blossom throughout spring. This pretty display, combined with its overall hardiness, means that it features in many a suburban parkland.
The sloes themselves are spherical and cluster tightly along the branches. If the berries you have found are oval and dropping from stems, they are probably damsons. Pick the sloes that have ripened in the sunshine, as these will be sweeter than those in the shade. Always pick from waist height upwards – this will leave plenty on the bushes for the wildlife and means you will collect the cleanest berries.
There’s a bit of folklore about only collecting sloes after the first frost, which was used as a signpost in time. If the frosts had started, the sloes had probably been around long enough to be ripe.
However, there’s no need to wait this long. Early autumn is not only a more pleasant time to be out and about, but you can time your sloe harvest to the last of blackberries, meaning that you can have some instant gratification foraging along the way.
500g/1lb of sloes
70cl of gin
Pick over your sloes to remove any stems and put them in the freezer overnight.
Find a clean, airtight jar. You’ll need something that comfortably holds 1.5 litres.
Pop the frozen sloes into the jar.
Add the sugar.
Pour in your gin.
It’s as simple as that. Keep your jar in a dark place, but for the first week or so bring it out and turn the jar over a few times before replacing it.
Once all the sugar has dissolved, leave it in the dark for as long as you can bear, three months at the very least.
Then strain the mixture through some muslin and into a clean bottle, and it will ready to serve. It’s lovely on its own, as an element in cocktails or reduced and drizzled onto cakes.
So do not dismiss this acrid berry, after all, aren’t we all improved after time spent in the company of little sugar and alcohol?