Chances are, you’ll have sipped sloe gin at Christmas, but sloes, or blackthorn berries, are actually a wild autumn fruit, and thanks to a mild spring followed by the downpours of rain this month, ‘Christmas’ is coming early with a bumper harvest of sloes appearing more than month earlier than usual. The rain has caused the fruit to think that frost is on the way and start producing fruit early – the same thing happens to other hedgerow fruits including blackberries, haws, rose hips… and even grapes, making 2014 a vintage harvest.
Foragers love sloes, which are part of the same family as plums, cherries and peaches, but look like a small damson and taste very tart indeed. Add enough sugar, though, and they become spicy, plummy and complex in flavour – which makes them taste extra delicious in desserts, drinks and even tarting up savoury dishes such as venison and duck.
Blackthorn bushes are often used to form a traditional “brambly hedge” because of their spiny, dense branches, and are a common site along country lanes and hedgerows, around fields and on scrubby land in towns. The fruits, just over a centimetre in size, are a dark, purply-black bruise colour and grow in clusters at the ends of the spiky branches.
Thanks to the early, and bumper, bounty, sloes have ripened already so instead of waiting until after the first frosts in October or November to pick them, they are ready now. You’ll know they are ripe if they are soft to touch. And the riper they are, the sweeter they become – though they’re still tongue-curlingly sour without any added sugar. “I’ve already picked some this season and they are great,” confirms forager and author of the River Cottage Hedgerow handbook John Wright. “Just make sure that they are purple and soft, and choose the fattest ones you can find.”
So, once picked, what can you do with them? Sloe gin is ludicrously simple to make. “It’s the classic country drink,” says Wright. “Round where I live in Dorset, everybody makes it.”
“The curious thing about sloe gin – aside from the rather marvellous flavour – is that there are only three ingredients and around 4,000 different recipes,” explains Wright. He works to a basic recipe of 250g of sugar and one litre of gin for every 500g of sloes. Combine them together in a bottle, then all you do is wait, with the occasional shake of the bottle now and then, for the flavour to develop and infuse so that you get a sweet, syrupy, festive liqueur. Eight weeks is about the minimum time required, but the longer you leave it the smoother it becomes.
“The secret,” says Wright, “is to make more than you need and leave it for as long as possible. After two or three months it will taste fruity; after six months it will take on an almond-y taste, almost like Amaretto; and after 20 years it will taste velvet-smooth like Madeira.”
And once you have the sloe gin, you can combine it with blackberries to make blackberry and sloe gin sorbet, add it to a fruit sponge pudding for an extra kick, or even braise meat with it.
But if you want to use those sloes now, just add sugar to create sloe and apple jelly, or combine it with blackberries, new season apples and cobnuts to create a foraged, autumnal crumble or cobbler.
More hedgerow bounty…
Grab a basket and hit the hedgerows for a free, fruity feast.
Wherever there is a patch of neglected land or a hedgerow, you’ll find brambles, laden with ripe and juicy berries – they look like big raspberries, but they’re black, sweeter and juicier and will be ready from September onwards.
You’ll find these orangey-red fruits, that are potent in vitamin C, from late summer onwards, both on roses in your garden and wild, rambling ones in hedgerows. Turn them into syrup, herbal tea, jam and jellies, or rosehip soup – which is a popular dish in Sweden.
A variety of the hazelnut, cobnuts are especially common in the South, where they grow wild in woods on hazel trees. Young, green cobnuts have a taste like coconut, while ripe, golden ones, are sweet like hazelnuts. You’ll probably also find cob- and hazelnuts in parks… if the squirrels don’t get there first.
Unless you know what you’re picking, or are with an expert (they don’t call John Wright “John Mushroom” for nothing!), you don’t want to go picking random mushrooms. But armed with a guidebook or a forager, you’ll find them popping up in woodland and grassland from about now and throughout autumn. John Wright has mushroom foraging courses at River Cottage in Dorset.