As the train grumbles towards Waterloo each morning I often note the word Sloe graffitied at regular intervals along the trackside. One can only assume that the scribe is a keen forager, gathering wild fruit from hedgerows while tag rival Kure smokes salted fish in an old tin at the bottom of the garden. Choke really should chew his food more.
Cloudy blue sloe clusters emerge during late summer, but are best picked for sloe gin after the first frosts of autumn. The slow ferment into thick, scarlet liqueur is a far cry from the grim reality of chewing on a freshly picked berry - a perennial source of entertainment as my little sister grappled with plum/sloe differentiation in her formative years. Falling victim to the ‘sloe ruse’ was to volunteer removal of the mouth’s moisture in an instant; tongue like blotting paper with a dusty, bitter aftertaste. Astringency is dispelled and a bottle made now should be ready to drink by Christmas, although extra patience is rewarded.
Pour 150g sugar into a half filled 75cl bottle of gin before filling to the rim with sloes. Piercing the skin of each berry sends inky plumes darting through the gin – a thorn from the bush is used in many traditional recipes. Gently agitating the bottle daily for the first 7 days and weekly thereafter helps everything blend together; I’m adding chilli, star anise and a cinnamon stick this year for a bit of extra spice.
Blackthorn itself is often depicted in folklore as being a tree of ill omen. Many a witch or heretic made their exit on a blackthorn pyre, no doubt surrounded by irate villagers clutching pitchforks and sundry garden paraphernalia. The berries are said to purge the body of evil maladies – an expulsion probably aided by various medicinal benefits (including a high vitamin C content).
Whether it’s added to a stock reduction, lightly sweetening a tagine or simply drizzled over ice cream for a quick dessert, it’s good to have a bottle of sloe gin at hand in the kitchen. Top on the list has to be a small measure in a flute before topping up with champagne - amazing stuff. Not amazing enough to make me skulk around old railway lines with a spray can though.
Posted on bbcgoodfood.com 20th September 2009