[Living Within: October 2017]
I have had a few foraging firsts this year; mulberries in July, courtesy of the eagle eyes of an Iranian aficionado - sadly the rest of this year’s crop from that particular source sacrificed to the locals once they discovered the bounty their tree had been harbouring in plain sight. They had wondered, and were curious enough to ask an interloper as they witnessed her atop a ladder, dressed in black, carrying tupperware and dramatically dripping scarlet rivers of mulberry juice down her elbows.
More recently, I found a rich seam of sloes growing above a ditch at the side of the road - tiny blue-black plums in a variety of states of maturity, checking out with thorns and leaves that assure they are the genuine article; the fruit of what is also known as a blackthorn bush or tree. With a disregard for health and safety norms, I allowed my companion to harvest enough for two bottles worth of sloe gin that I anticipate should be about ready for the holiday season.
A sloe gin virgin, I will admit I am taking a lot on trust. I did some research, of course, to find myself a method, and discovered that some folk prick the fruit all over before soaking them in gin, which sounds tedious and probably messy, although not as messy, I imagine, as the beating others give them with a rolling pin; some insist that the fruit is only ready to do its job once it has encountered a frost or two - or has become “bletted” (the correct term for what happens when the structure of the plum has been broken down by sub zero temperatures allowing the sugars to increase and the astringency and tannins to reduce). Often this is mimicked in a domestic freezer - purists insist on two or three frosts worth of freezing (freeze: defrost: repeat - once or twice); I didn’t get that memo until too late, so my sloes were frozen for 24 hours and decanted into (sterilised) bottles like blue-black ball bearings.
The norm is to layer them up with both sugar (to counter any bitter, tannic notes) and gin - good quality is recommended by those who care about their gin, “the second cheapest in the shop” by those who perhaps are a little less inclined to worry at all the nuances of flavour. I took my advice from one of the finest London-based hipster distillers and opted for good gin and no sugar at all (at this stage), to allow the fruit its best chance of breaking down uninhibited by the sugar and aided by the spirit. I weighed out my fruit and measured out the gin, but found in the end it was easier to fill the bottle not quite half full with sloes and use as much gin as necessary to fill the bottle to almost the top. The advice given is that the bottles need turning, for a while, and while you remember, until the liquor starts to take on a burgundy hue and to help the sugar (if you are using it at this stage) to dissolve and distribute evenly; I am going to wait until the three month period is up before I add sugar (as a syrup, and to taste) to make the resulting gin appropriately palatable as a warming sweet winter tipple.
There are, of course, other things that you can do with sloes - jams and jellies for example - and boozy chocolates you can make with the fruit after the liquor has been strained away. It is important to understand how stages of ripeness and external environment affect the fruit, witnessed most immediately via colour and feel - from early stage blue-tinged, firm and bitter/tannic, through black, shiny, softening, easier on the palate, to the dull, a bit wrinkled and more jam appropriate; each stage has its own characteristics that can bring an element to the party or for which adequate compensation needs be made. I might have made jam with the wrinkliest of my fruit, only I couldn’t quite face the thought of de-stoning the fruit first (or even second) and opted for the easy peasy boozy alternative instead. The bottles look interesting, beautiful in fact; the blue of the fruit magnified by the purity of the clear liquid in which it is steeping. I will keep posting pictures on the blog of developments; the liquor should begin to change colour as the gin matures, and I will keep my fingers crossed for a toast to and with a little of the result before the new year - 3 months maturing is a minimum, but it seems the longer you can leave it, the better it will be.