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.
The finished product… what a gorgeous colour!
And it tastes lovely too.
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.
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Since I wrote this post I’ve seen fieldfares feeding on the sloes from these very bushes, so other creatures are able to benefit from them.
How interesting. I don’t know much about birds’ sense of taste but clearly each species tastes things differently. Otherwise, ruminants wouldn’t be able to chew their cud and blackbirds wouldn’t be able to slurp raw earthworms. And your beloved spiders wouldn’t enjoy sucking the juice from craneflies.
Indeed so, but I don’t think, with birds at least, that it’s much to do with taste, they just swallow them as fast as they can. And if you saw some of the putrid nastiness my dog eats when we’re out in the fields it absolutely can’t involve tasting it 😉
This is a great post! Thank you to linking to it from mine. I read today that the advice to pick sloes after a frost is to do with their sourness being a little bit softened. Perhaps rather as parsnips and brussels sprouts taste sweeter with a frost on them. What I don’t understand is the way sloe gin can be made fairly sweet with only one cup of sugar as in your recipe. There must be some chemical change in the fruit’s carbohydrate content when it’s steeping in the gin.
I think it’s possible the carbohydrate in the fruit may change after standing but I’ve found that one cup of sugar works pretty well and the end result is plenty sweet enough but stil tastes fruity from the sloes. Your snippet about the frost is interesting because I thought it was because the skins of the fruit split when they freeze so they don’t need pricking or scoring. I must admit though, I won’t be doing the pre- and post frost taste test! There’s a saying where I come from that when something is really sour it ‘makes your arse pout‘. I found out what that really meant when I chewed a sloe 🙂
Yes. Or maybe the molecules that taste sour are affected by low temperature. This conversation makes me realise that I don’t know what those molecules are – do you? Citric acid, perhaps? When I worked in the catering trade we used acidic foods to ‘cut’ fat – vinegar on chips, lemon juice on fried fish – and of course the way to overcome sourness is to add sugar. But I don’t know the biochemistry of that.
Anyway I must be a frump because when I sucked a sloe, I didn’t notice any effect on me nethers. Just incredible dryness in the mouth, far more than lemon.
I don’t know what confers the astringency either so I’m hand waving now, but I’ll be surpised it it’s citrate, or certainly citrtate alone. But I’m going to do a bit of research to try to find out and I’ll feed back anything interesting.