Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sloe Down

Another Autumnal one, but don't sweat - I'll be back to surfing and sunshine before you know it.  It just struck me that this might be one of the last opportunities to remind those of you based in the UK and above legal drinking age to get out and find some sloes.  
The fruit of the blackthorn tree (although you'll find it in hedgerows as it never really grows over twelve feet tall), sloes look like very small damsons, are inedibly bitter, and are found in British hedgerows throughout the Autumn unless somebody has beaten you to it and picked them all.  If you can pick enough to half-fill a bottle then you've got enough to make some sloe gin which should be ready in time for Christmas.  It's one of those perfect mid-winter hip flask fillers and, like most things, tastes so much better when foraged and home-made rather than bought ready-made from a store.
Harvest time is weather dependant, but you should be able to pick them anytime between September and early November.  Many people will tell you to wait until after the first frost (which they say ripens the fruit and reduces the bitterness), however I'd say to follow logic and pick them when they're ripe (not rock-hard).  If you wait until after the first frost you'll probably find that somebody else has beaten you to it and there are no fruit left on the branches.  

Once you have your sloes don't waste your time pricking each one individually.  If you put them in the freezer overnight then each one will rupture evenly, allowing the flavour to diffuse out whilst they are steeping and saving you precious time.  Next, buy yourself a bottle of good gin.  It'd be a shame to have spent all of that time picking sloes and then produce nasty sloe gin because you've bought nasty gin - sloe's won't magically make cheap gin taste nice, so consider forgoing a take-away coffee that day and spending the extra few coins on your winter warmer.  
Half fill your container (I'd suggest a large kilner-jar) with sloes.  Top up with gin.  Leave in a cupboard and shake every other day for a week.  Then shake the mixture once a week for the next few months, the longer the better really but try to last until at least Christmas.  Once your patience has run out you can strain your sloe gin through muslin into a sterilised bottle.  Then make yourself a sugar syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan over a low heat until it dissolves and allow to cool.  You can then add this to your slow gin to taste, which is far better than adding granulated sugar right at the start and then not having any control over the sweetness.  Pour some of the purple goodness out into a hip flask and put it into your back pocket, then set off in a thick jacket on a wild and wooly winter walk out in the cold, sipping sparingly and sharing and enjoying responsibly. 

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