This is the time of year when berries really come into their own. It wasn’t a good year for blackberries – too much rain and not enough sun – but they are well past it by now. (You should never, in any case, pick blackberries after Michaelmas (September 29 ) because, as I was told as a child, on Michaelmas eve the devil goes around busily spitting on them. ) The rowan berries are on the way out, but hawthorns are adorned with masses of jewel-like dark red berries, tiny snowballs are appearing on the snowberry, and the holly is already looking Christmassy.
The king of late autumn wild berries, though, is the sloe, the fruit of the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa ), which is a member of the same family as the wild cherry, wild damson and dog rose, and an ancestor of modern domestic plum and cherry trees. It grows abundantly in hedges, scrub and deciduous woodland, and its particularly hard, smooth, knarled and knotty wood made it the ideal material for making shillelaghs, once described as ‘an ancient Hibernian tranquilliser’. It makes a fine hedge, either on its own, which will make a barrier so dense as to be impenetrable, or with a variety of other native hedging plants. The blackthorn produces its pretty white flowers in early spring, before the new season’s leaves have appeared, and often, if not always, coinciding with a period of bitterly cold weather – the ‘blackthorn winter’.
Sloe and steady
Sloes are so mouth-puckeringly sour and bitter that the raw fruit is inedible, but they can be used to make cordial, jelly or – best of all – sloe gin. They’re best picked in late October, ideally after a frost, which softens and (to some degree ) sweetens the fruit. If we don’t have a frost, though, you can imitate its effects by putting your picked sloes in the freezer for a day or two and then letting them thaw completely. Be careful when picking sloes: blackthorn thorns are sharper and cause more damage to unprotected skin than those of the hawthorn. If you make sloe gin before Hallowe’en it should be ready to drink at Christmas, and what better way to wind up your Christmas lunch than with a glass of this delicious, magenta-coloured liqueur?
Sloe gin is extremely simple to make – like most fruit liqueurs it’s a combination of fruit, sugar and alcohol, which are mixed together and left for a time to allow the flavours to merge and develop. The quantities I use are 300g sloes, 150g sugar and 500ml gin, or multiples of these amounts: this makes a drink with an intense flavour but which is not too sweet; but if you prefer a sweeter version, just use a little more sugar. First, wash and dry the sloes, picking off any bits of leaf or other detritus, and prick them all over with a darning needle; a tedious job, but worth it because it helps the flavours from the fruit ooze into the gin. Put the sloes into a large glass jar or wide-necked bottle, add the sugar and the gin, put the top on the jar and give it a good shake. Leave the jar in a cool, dark place for two months, shaking it every day for the first few days, then once a week. After a couple of months (or longer, if you want to strengthen the flavour ) strain the liquid into bottles. If you abhor waste and want to use up the sloes when you have strained off the liquid, eat them on their own, with ice cream or dipped into melted chocolate: just beware of the small, hard stones, which can easily break a tooth.