PETER FROST, feeling the autumnal chill, looks longingly at the slowly ripening sloe with a winter warming tipple firmly on his mind – he’s even prepared to share his recipe with you
CONTEMPORARY journals and diaries from St Petersburg in 1917 tell us that a favourite tipple among the Bolsheviks of the time was wild cherry vodka. Made from those tiny bitter cherries that cover the hedgerow trees at this time of year.
I love to think of Vladimir, Joseph and Leon arguing whose home-made liquor was the best. Making these wild harvest flavoured drinks always develops into something of a competition.
Meanwhile the British aristocracy would be warming up for their armed intervention against the spread of international Bolshevism by arming themselves with a drop of the English hunting gentleman’s favourite stirrup cup, sloe gin.
The peculiar weather this year means this might be the perfect time to emulate those historical drink makers. A particularly fecund wild harvest means that already wild blackberries hang heavy on the bramble bushes. The elderberry harvest too is remarkable and wild cherries colour up the trees at least until the birds strip them.
Best of all along the thousands of miles of hedgerow the matt black sloes are fattening up, promising we wild harvesters a particularly good harvest.
John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet and agricultural labourer, wrote in his Shepherd’s Calendar 190 years ago: “Winter comes in earnest to fulfil / His yearly task at bleak November’s close, / And stops the plough and hides the fields in snows; / When frost locks up the streams in chill delay.”
Clare hated the job he was doing — planting those very sloes — enclosing the huge open countryside with hated hedgerows for rich and greedy landowners.
The land-snatcher’s weapon was the blackthorn and poor Clare planted thousands of them. This work was one of the things that drove the poet to insanity.
He spent many years in the asylum in Northampton and, while there, was often seen sitting in the alcove next to the door of All Saint’s Church near the market square in the town. The alcove is still there, still a place frequented by local bards.
The blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is a small tree or large bush that today makes up so much of country hedgerows.
Clare’s hated inheritance actually brings two seasons of beauty to our countryside and a delicious bonus.
First are the clouds of early white blossom that herald the arrival of spring. Drifting petals can dust the country lanes with the nearest thing to snow.
At this time of year, however, after the first heavy frost in November you can search out the matt black berries as they begin to ripen with their promise of sloe gin.
In folklore the blackthorn is regarded as an unlucky tree — Christians will tell you that Christ’s crown of thorns was of it. More usefully its bark was boiled in water to make a drink to cure bronchitis.
Country folk would cut a strong blackthorn stick to help both with walking and with fights down the pub — it made a fine weapon particularly in Ireland, the famous shillelagh.
Dried blackthorn leaves were ground up to adulterate Chinese tea.
In Clare’s lifetime four million tons of leaves were being mixed in with Chinese leaves and sold as genuine tea.
Far from stopping this criminal activity a bill was passed which legalised the practice provided the blend was sold as English tea.
Clare and his fellow agricultural workers planted blackthorn because of its natural denseness and sharp thorns which make it a good stock proof fence.
As you will discover when you harvest the fruit, the thorns can cause a vicious wound. Wear heavy gloves and long sleeves.
In the past the fruit was also used to make juice, country wine and even a rough imitation port wine by mixing it with cider and brandy and it was coloured with elderberries.
Today most of the sloe harvest will go to make sloe gin. It is even made professionally with most of the commercial sloes being picked from wild sites in Yorkshire.
Frosty’s Sloe Gin recipe
Pick your sloes after the first frost or if you want to speed up the process and have your gin ready by this Christmas pick them now and pop them in the freezer for a week. Freezing also means you won’t need to prick the fruit, always a tiresome part of the process.
What you will need One pound (450g) wild sloes. Half a pound (225g) of caster sugar. One and three quarter pints (1 litre) good, but not too good, gin.
How Frosty does it Prick the skins of the sloes with a needle or pickle fork and place in a large, clean jar with a good tight lid. No need to prick if the sloes have been frozen. Add the sugar and the gin, seal tightly and shake thoroughly. It is good exercise. Store in a cool, dark place and shake well every day for a week. Then shake once a week for as long as you have the patience. A month before you plan to bottle or drink it stop shaking and let it stand and settle. When clear, decant into a pretty bottle. Like many liquors it is much better kept for a year or two.
Don’t throw away the thick fruit sludge. My neighbour Heather mixes it with dark bitter cooking chocolate to make a sophisticated alternative to after dinner mints. If your sloe gin won’t come bright, either be more patient, or if that is out of the question, desperate philistines have been known to use a coffee filter.
You can use the same technique to make Bullace Brandy, or even wild cherry vodka, that favourite Bolshevik tipple.