Early October is time to start the annual hunt for sloe berries. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn trees which grow quite freely in British hedgerows and are one of the first to come into flower each spring, covering the hedges and roadsides with a haze of white blossom. Check out my sloe gin recipe below.
Since moving home last summer I have been keeping my eyes open for good foraging spots, and it didn’t take long to find some likely prospects. By early June there was every prospect of a bumper harvest, with masses of tiny green berries.
Come end September when they should have been ripening it was clear that something had gone badly wrong. Many bushes were totally empty of berries, others carried only a
few here and there – nothing like the dense crop I had been expecting. On closer examination you could see a lot of wrinkled and dried up berries. At first I thought these were leftovers from the previous year. Then I came across a few web site postings (sloes are only important to a small number of enthusiasts) and found out that because of the very wet weather in June across the UK, sloes were attacked by the pocket plum fungus and very few survived to ripen. Last year June and July were dry but August was a washout. The sloes escaped the fungus and were everywhere.
So this year the harvest has not been easy. Many hedgerows did not contain a single berry, and elsewhere the few sloes surviving were deep inside the foliage. This is more than a simple inconvenience because the blackthorn protects its fruit with some of the most vicious thorns of any plant found in the UK. Up to three inches long, the tips are as sharp and hard as a needle so if you are reaching into the middle of a bush you have to be really careful. To add spice to the hunt blackthorn always seems to grow close to stinging nettles and brambles, so if you manage to avoid the thorns around the sloes, you invariably get stung by the nettles and ripped by the brambles.
After some considerable searching I managed to find a few trees that had escaped the fungus, and were loaded with good quality berries. These were already ripening at the end of September, after the long hot summer which followed the downpours in June, and by early October I had all I needed. Of course the fruit are totally inedible. Sometimes people ask me what they are like to eat and the only way I can describe the sensation is by imagining the taste of the shriek you sometimes hear when you draw chalk across a board – it makes your teeth stand on end! But they make a brilliant drink when soaked for a couple of months to make sloe gin.
The recipe I now use is:
1 litre of gin
500 grams of sloes
150 grams of sugar.
The method I find works best for me is to remove any stalks or bits of leaves and wash the berries if you think necessary. (I try to pick sloes away from roads so they don’t really need washing). I put them in the freezer for about a week, by which time the cells in the pulp and skins will be broken down. I then prick the skin of each berry with an old hatpin to make sure that the flesh is exposed. This takes a bit of time, so make sure there is something worth listening to on the radio while you do it.
The next stage is to put all the ingredients together into wide necked 1.5 litre kilner jars and shake well to dissolve the sugar. I put a label on each lid with the date and weight of sugar in case I forget later. It takes around 10 weeks for the sloe gin to be ready for bottling so I put the jars away in a dark cupboard and shake them occasionally over the first week or two to make sure that all the sugar is properly dissolved. A lot of nonsense has been written about the amount of sugar and osmosis, but provided that the berries have been frozen and the skin torn there is no need to worry about that.
In early December I give the jars a final shake. Then after a few days when any sediment has settled I pour the liquor through a simple kitchen sieve into a wide necked jar to separate from the berries and berry pulp. After another day ot two I rack off the liquor into bottles for keeping. There is always some residue at the bottom of the jar, so I strain that separately through a coffee filter before bottling. This is the time for tasting to make sure the balance of acidity and sweetness is how you want it. Many of the recipes I come across include up to 50% more sugar, and I have found this makes the sloe gin too sweet.
A lot of the “experts” are simply following recipes they have come across from the past without trying them out properly. Tastes have changed and the very sweet liqueurs like Benedictine and Cointreau I remember from our parents’ cocktail cabinets have fallen out of favour. Nowadays people prefer something sharper and last year 150g of sugar to a litre of gin turned out to be spot on – for us anyway. In any case before final bottling there is every opportunity to adjust the sweetness/acidity balance and the sloe concentration. You can always add more sugar if you want to, you can’t take it out once it’s there.
If you need to make any adjustment pour 100 ml into a measuring jug, and carefully add a measured quantity of sugar to the sloe gin a little at a time. Make sure the sugar is properly dissolved before tasting again. When you are happy with the balance simply multiply the weight of sugar you have added by ten and add to each litre of sloe gin. You can also reduce the intensity of sloes by adding raw gin to the sloe gin. I then filter the sloe gin again and pour into 500ml bottles for keeping. I buy my bottles online from The Bottle Jar Store.
It should be ready to drink by mid December and makes a wonderful winter warmer. We drink it neat either before dinner, after dinner by the fire or as a nightcap. It should be ready by mid December and makes a wonderful winter warmer. Add a teaspoonful to a glass of Proseco for something really sensational!
I have read that sloe gin keeps well and there are rumours it improves with age. I still have a few sloes left over in the freezer so will be making a second batch in January for keeping. Hopefully there will be a bottle or two left for Christmas next year!