"All around it looked so cold and raw: the long willow-leaves were quite yellow, and the fog dripped from them like water; one leaf fell after the other: the sloes only stood full of fruit, which set one's teeth on edge." ~ Hans Christian Andersen
If this country were a kitchen, its larder would be Yorkshire. I never fail to be amazed by all the wonderful produce around me whenever I go and stay in our house up north. There are the two excellent butchers three minutes away from our house, whose steak and ale pies, sausages and sirloin steaks are to die for, and whose meat all comes from farms barely a stone's throw away. There's another butcher a five minute drive from the house, where I picked up six partridge and a mallard for under £15 last week (more on the partridge at a later date...). There's the quaint little deli where I've found treasures like shocking pink Yorkshire rhubarb in late winter, or beautiful glossy damsons at the close of summer, and which can always be relied upon to sell oddities that you'd normally never find in a local country shop: tahini paste, quinoa, pomegranates, fresh fennel. However, it's not just the produce that I have to pay for that I love, but everything that's available for free, too.
Take a short walk into the dales, and you'll be rewarded with even more edible goodness, without having to spend anything at all. Towards the end of summer, ripe blackberries hang heavily from their bushes, lining almost every stone wall in sight and glistening invitingly, begging you to snatch them up before they're gobbled by greedy birds. A couple of years ago I went on a walk, without realising that blackberry season had started. I passed so many beautiful berries on my stroll that I couldn't bear to leave them behind, but I hadn't brought any form of receptacle in which to carry them.
However, dear readers, there is no end to my initiative and resourcefulness when food is at stake. I carried them home in the hood of my jumper.
It doesn't stop at blackberries, though I've collected enough in a single day in Yorkshire to freeze and last me nearly a whole year (delicious on porridge with chopped pear and honey, or in a crumble, or in a lovely apple and blackberry jam).
There are also bilberries, a curious and rare wild version of the blueberry. They are notoriously hard to pick and only grow in certain places (usually rather high up, requiring much climbing, scrambling and huffing and puffing) on the dales, possessing a very short season towards the end of summer. I was mad enough to go foraging for them in August during a torrential downpour...but more on that in another post, when I finally get round to cooking my gains. They're currently sitting in the freezer, awaiting the invention of a recipe special enough to justify the intense discomfort involved in peeling off a pair of completely saturated skinny jeans and acquiring a hideous illness for the entire week afterwards, which I'm sure resulted from the combination of wind, rain, and three hours hunching over mud and
occasional ubiquitous dog excrement in order to pick these damned berries. I christen said illness "Forager's Downfall". I'm sure I'm not the only one to have succumbed.
Our national larder didn't disappoint last week when I visited. During a little afternoon stroll I stumbled across a group of large bushes hanging heavily with little dark fruits, rather like overgrown blueberries but darker, and mottled in places. Having read a little bit about sloes and sloe gin in various food media lately, I had a strong inkling that these were, in fact, the elusive sloes. I'm still not actually sure they are true sloes - apparently sloes and bullaces, which are like small damsons, look very similar - but I'm hoping my resulting gin will taste delicious nevertheless.
I've always liked the idea of making sloe gin, but having never seen sloes before (not much chance of them in central Cambridge, I don't think) it was one of those items on my long-term gastronomic to-do list (I have various lists, you see, all relating to food. It's very stressful trying to keep on top of them all, actually). I don't really drink much alcohol; I only like wine, preferably white, and gin, and even then in quantities so small it makes most of my friends laugh. I often recall the depressing incident whereby my boyfriend and I drank a whole bottle of wine between us one night over dinner. I was immensely impressed with my tolerance, seeing as usually I can only manage a small glass. Flushed with my success, I then inspected the bottle more closely, only to find that the wine contained 5.6% alcohol. Sad times.
However, I do like gin-based drinks, and sloe gin is particularly tasty due to its higher sugar content and fruity flavour; it has a taste reminiscent of summer berries, with a pleasant blackcurranty tang. You can buy it, of course, but when there's a huge bush sporting hundreds of sloes only minutes from where you're staying, it seems rude not to take advantage of nature's offerings.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a hood to put the sloes in. I had to go back for a bag.
A happy half hour of dodging prickles and getting some very quizzical looks from a field of sheep later, I had 1.6 kilos of sloes, enough to make at least two litres of sloe gin.
Although I love the almost-instant gratification of most cooking - chop, stir, bake, eat - I also enjoy the occasional longer-term food project, mainly because it gives me an immense sense of self-satisfaction and makes me feel a little bit like a Victorian housewife or a home economist (not particularly glamorous role models, admittedly, but certainly useful ones). I enjoy making my own jam and chutney, and have made various forays into that arena over the years.
There was the fig jam, hastily whipped up with a plate of semi-rotting figs that I couldn't bear to let go to waste; the rhubarb jam and chutney made with an immense glut of rhubarb given to my mum by a colleague; the apple jam and chutney made with the windfall apples from the tree overhanging our garden; the quince paste made in a moment (more like five hours) of madness that I heartily regretted when I got cramp trying to press insufficiently soft quinces through a sieve; the red chilli and tomato jam that nearly had me in A&E because I got such severe and agonising chilli burns on my left hand (still remains to this day the most painful experience of my life, but at least I didn't do what a chef I used to work for once did, and went to the toilet without washing his hands after chopping chillies...).
I've also made my own preserved lemons (incredibly easy - stuff lemons with salt, pour over boiling water and leave to mature in a jar for a few months) to use in Moroccan cooking; my own bottled rhubarb and apricots for when these lovely fruits aren't in season; I dried my own apple rings one year, from the windfall apples in our garden; I made a jar of my own sun-dried tomatoes, by putting seasoned tomatoes in the oven on a very low heat for half a day. Projects like these are not only - eventually - tasty, but there's a certain satisfaction in opening a jar of preserved lemons that you've made yourself, or gorging yourself on sweet, soft apricots in syrup in the middle of February, or spooning homemade jam onto fresh toast. It always tastes better than shop-bought, even if that difference is entirely psychological.
This is another such long-term project. The gin needs to be left to mature for a good couple of months before drinking, though I intend to leave mine for a bit longer. However, there's very little work involved, and once it's all mixed you can just leave it, shaking or stirring it occasionally.
Basically, you mix your sloes with sugar and gin. There you go, readers - Nutmegs, seven's shortest ever recipe.
You need about 450g sloes for every 750ml gin, and about 225g of granulated or caster sugar for every 450g sloes, though you can add more if you have quite a sweet tooth. Then you just need to combine them in a jar or tub with a watertight lid, leaving a bit of space so you can either stir or shake the mixture.
You can either do this the painstaking way, and prick each sloe with a pin so that they release their juices into the gin, or you can do it the easy way, and freeze your sloes so the skins split, before defrosting and then squeezing them to mush in their bag (intensely enjoyable). Then you can add the sugar and the gin. Apparently it doesn't really matter what quality of gin you use - no point in splashing out on some Bombay, for instance - but I wouldn't suggest using Tesco Value gin. The next one up would be fine, though. I got mine from Asda - £20 for 1.5 litres, which isn't bad for two bottles of tasty sloe gin.
I made my gin in two large 3-litre Le Parfait jars - although they're not even half full, the space left gives you room to shake the contents vigorously to ensure they're well-mixed. Put the fruit in the jar, sprinkle over the sugar, pour over the gin, and clip on the lid. Then shake, shake, shake, and leave in a cool, dark place. Keep shaking it every day or so for a couple of weeks, then leave to mature for a couple of months at least.
I'm not sure whether to take the sloes out and strain the mixture after a couple of months before leaving it to mature further, or just leave the sloes in right up until I want to drink it. Apparently it's possible to do both, though I think leaving the sloes in for longer might give a better flavour, so that's probably what I'll do.
I'm also looking forward to using the gin-saturated leftover sloes for something delicious; I've read various people suggesting them as an accompaniment for game. What better partner for Yorkshire sloes than some nice Yorkshire venison, or pheasant?
Incidentally, sloes are not good for eating raw. I tried one out of curiosity, but Hans Christian Andersen was right when he wrote that they "set one's teeth on edge". Your whole mouth puckers up from the astringency, rather like trying to eat a lemon or gooseberry.
So that's a brief summary of my latest food project. If you know anyone who might have some sloes growing near them, ask nicely for a few and try it yourself. I'm going to decant the gin into lovely old-fashioned stoppered bottles when it's ready and make some nice hand-written labels for it, to please both my inner home economist and outer rampant aesthete.
I can't wait for the first sip of this sweet, warming, fruity concoction.
Have you done any foraging this year, or dabbled in the joy of home preserving? Do you have a favourite recipe for an abundance of wild ingredients?