On glorious autumn days like this, when the last leaves cling to the horse chestnut branches and hawthorn berries paint a red scar across a blue sky, it’s been a joy to go sloe picking. As we watch the London bound train pass by on the other side of the river, we’re very glad that we aren’t one of the commuters packed into the carriages. Of course, when the water trickles down our sleeves or the fruit is frosted, making our fingers numb with cold, we’re rather envious of the passengers sitting warm and dry on the train.
This year, there’s been a gang of five picking sloes. We lean precariously over ditches, are raised skywards in the cherry picker to the topmost branches or sit on a box picking berries from branches that have been lopped off.
Sloes are a primitive plum that grow on blackthorn. As the fruit ripens, the skin turns a beautiful dusky blue then deepens to purple and then to shiny black. The sloes look sweet and juicy but pop one into your mouth and it’s so sharp and astringent that it dries out your mouth. With its unpalatable fruit and long sharp thorns, the blackthorn is far from welcoming, but in spring its pretty white flowers are the first to burst open, forming a white ribbon along the dark, leafless hedgerow.
The best (only?) thing to do with sloes is to steep them in gin to make Sloe Gin; a drink that’s perfect for a cold winter’s evening, when the day’s work is done and the fire is lit and the curtains drawn against the dark.
I also soak dried fruit in Sloe Gin for my Christmas cake. Based on the same idea as the Rum Soaked Fruit that I use in fruit cakes throughout the year, I add some hot sugar syrup to the dried fruit with some sloe gin and over the next week top up with Sloe Gin as the liquid is absorbed. I always forget to feed my Christmas cake once I’ve put it away in the tin, so this method ensures we don’t have a dry cake.
If you don’t want to pick your own sloes and get your hands scratched and torn or if you simply don’t have the patience to make your own, then luckily I know a place you can buy some very good Sloe Gin …
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