Guns Lane is an ancient right of way linking Histon with Willingham and then Ely. It has survived the centuries without being turned into a road or the hedgerows being ripped out and ploughed over. Consequently it is lined for much of its length, at least stretches of the part between Histon and Westwick, with numerous species of trees and bushes.
One bush to be found in good numbers is the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) which at this time of year is festooned with sloe berries. Three weekends ago I interrupted my walk on Guns Lane to collect a box full of sloes and when I got home I made a bottle of sloe gin, which should be ready just in time for Christmas. To the uninitiated imbiber I can heartily recommend sloe gin. The fruit are free and readily available in a hedgerow near you, it’s very easy to make, and the end result is delicious.
Guns Lane Histon – the yellow leaved bush on the right is blackthorn
If anyone has tasted a sloe berry, inadvertently or otherwise, you’ll know that sloes are totally unfit for human consumption. They have an astringency in my experience unrivalled – apart from perhaps a quince. I don’t know if any other creatures can eat them but no one I’ve asked has heard of any animals feasting on them. Which may explain why there are so many in the hedgerows deep into winter.
Sloe berries in late summer…
… and in winter.
In some parts local wisdom suggests picking the sloes after the first frost. I think the reason for that is so the skins are split, or at least permeable, and the gin can soak in and dissolve the good stuff from the berries. It can be made with berries harvested before the first frost but then you simply need to prick them with a knife or put them in the freezer for a day or two prior to use.
Actually making the sloe gin is very straightforward. You need a 75cl bottle of gin (it doesn’t have to be good quality – any cheap and cheerful gin will suffice). Clean a teacup full of sloes and prick them or freeze them if required, empty the gin bottle and place the sloes and a teacup full of sugar into it. Top it up with gin, put the cap on, lay it down, leave it for 6 weeks remembering to turn it to give it a gentle mix once a day. And that’s it. Six weeks later you’ll have a deliciously fruity and splendidly alcoholic winter warmer, perfect for a frosty walk in the countryside or standing on the terraces watching a match.
This year I was going to experiment and flavour my gin with a little vanilla but I didn’t have a vanilla pod to hand when I made it so I stuck to tradition. After six weeks strain the gin through a clean muslin and it’s ready to drink as a digestif, just because it’s delicious. If you have a really cheap and nasty bottle of red wine of the kind someone who doesn’t like you very much may have left behind after a party, steep the used sloe berries in the wine for 1-2 days then enjoy with a slab of mature stilton.