Foraging is one of those things that lots of us want to do but don’t.
The excuses are numerous: we live in the city, we don’t have time, and, crucially, we’re scared of poisoning ourselves.
Among the useless stuff we were taught at school, like Latin and the reproductive cycle of frogs, my geography teacher, accompanied by a couple of his more sane colleagues, took it upon himself to teach a group of silly school girls from west London how to find food in the wild.
I’d love to say that that one afternoon in autumnal Gloucestershire seven years ago turned me into an expert hunter-gatherer, but it wouldn’t be true.
However when I stumbled across a hedge groaning with bunches of blue-tinged berries on a recent urban ramble, I knew what I had to do.
The sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn tree, a thorny bush that grows in British hedgerows, and makes a delicious infused gin.
Once you’ve worked out what a sloe berry looks like, they’re very easy to spot. In fact, you won’t be able to walk past a thicket without having a look. They look a bit like blueberries, but for gods sake don’t eat them because, as one comment I read said, “they taste like your soul’s been sucked inside out”.
Importantly, you do not have to live in some rural idyll to find sloes. The clumps I came across were on council-owned land running alongside the A40 in London suburbia.
So grab a friend and a couple of baskets, and head outside. You might also want to take some gardening gloves to avoid being speared by the aforementioned blackthorn, but where’s the fun in that?
The number of berries you pick is up to you. Following John Wright’s loose guide, I aimed to pick a kilo of berries, or enough for two litres of sloe gin.
I may have miscalculated. By about a kilo.
£42’s worth of Sainsburys Basics gin later, I have produced three litres of what will eventually be sloe gin. I still have enough berries in the freezer for another two litres, but they can wait for another time.
Here is how you can do the same:
Firstly, you will need to gather your sloes. We used baskets because they look prettier and are more rewarding to fill than your average 5p carrier bag.
Once you get home, leave the berries to soak in water for 10 minutes or so. This will allow any maggots and wasp larvae lurking within to creep out and float to the top.
You will then need to freeze your berries. Various websites, blogs and books will tell you to prick your berries. Don’t bother: you will spend enough time picking the fruit and then mixing the sodding drink without wasting more time (and blood) spearing berries with pins or forks or whatever else.
Shove your berries in a freezer bag and whack them in the freezer for 24 hours, or longer if necessary.
Whilst your berries are freezing, you can gather your other ingredients and equipment.
In addition to the sloes, you will need jars/bottles, sugar, and GIN. Do not let the Sipsmith recipe that ranks highly on Google fool you into thinking you should use posh gin. They would say that, wouldn’t they? Even Sainsbury’s Basics is £10.50 for 70cl, so just buy what you can afford.
Bear volume in mind when choosing your receptacles (I told you this was an idiot’s guide). Do not assume that to make a litre of sloe gin that a litre bottle is big enough. It isn’t. I’d allow 50% more room than you think you’ll need (e.g. a 3l jar to make 2l of gin) because you’ve got to cram a load of sugar and berries in there too.
Kilner jars are good, but outrageously expensive. You could try buying them from TK Maxx but all the ones I saw had had their lids nicked. I think I’ll reuse the empty gin bottles when it comes to rebottling in the winter.
This is my first year making sloe gin, so take this advice with a pinch of salt/slug of gin.
To make one litre of sloe gin:
- Defrost your sloes
- Pour 500g of sloes into a 2l jar/bottle
- Add 250g of sugar (or less. Some recipes say much less. I have a sweet tooth so I’m sticking with this).
- Add a litre of gin (take care not to get it in the cuts sustained from picking the berries because they will sting like Satan).
- Close jar. Shake it like a polaroid picture (over a sink, in case of leakage)
- Store jars in a dark cupboard (some say the airing cupboard, but there’s a risk all your clothes could all end up reeking of booze).
- Shake jar every day for a week. Then shake once a week for the next few months.
- Drinkable after 8-10 weeks (i.e. CHRISTMAS), but better if left longer. At this point, you can remove the berries (you could use them to make chocolates, sloe sherry or slider) and rebottle and distribute among friends.
- DRINK, in moderation of course.
- Discover that second bottle at the back of the cupboard two years later and rejoice.
Time will tell how drinkable this stuff is, but with gin, you can’t really go wrong. If, like me, you think tonic water was made by the devil, try it with pressed apple juice.