Saturday, July 25, 2015
This week we have six sloe trees arriving to be planted in Badger’s Wood. We have waited patiently for several years to get our hands on some of these. There is only one nursery in NZ which grafts them, and for the last few years there has been a waiting list which outstripped supply due to a poor rate of the grafts taking. However, this year we were top of the list and have secured enough to grow our own little Blackthorn spinney within the woods.
Sloes (Prunus spinosa) are a member of the plum family, which grow wild in many places throughout Europe (and supposedly, according to Wikipedia, many places in New Zealand, although with years of searching we have not been able to find them growing in any of the hedgerows!).
Their common name of Blackthorn derives from the dark bark of the tree, which has large spikey spurs protruding from it. In the spring it blossoms with creamy white flowers which develop into a small highly astringent dark purple berry, known as a sloe. It is similar I guess to a Damson.
The fruit is used for preserves and for fillings (once combined with an unhealthy amount of sugar to make it palatable); and also for making sloe gin, which is a liqueur made by steeping the sloes in large jars heaped with sugar and then topped with plain gin and left for 6 months.
Traditionally the fruits are picking after the first frost of autumn. The frost allows the fruits to start to bletch a little (although these days one could pick them any time and put them in the freezer to achieve this). I like the tradition of picking them after the first frost, it seems so much more in-tuned with the passing of the seasons and leaves one something to look forward to.
Once picked, the fruits are then pricked several times piercing the skin. It is traditional to do this with one of the thorns from the bush itself. Once pricked one puts them in a wide necked jar or demijohn and for each pint of sloes (570 mls) one adds 4 Oz (110g) of sugar. The jar is then filled up with gin and left in a cool dark place for a minimum of 3 months, but much better 6 months (as when made sufficiently slowly the liqueur starts to take on a slightly almond-like taste as well, from the berry pips).
Above photo from London Eats Blog
The sugar is vital not just to humour the bitterness of the berries, but to help draw the flavour out of them into the gin. Turn the jars every day for the first week, and then every week for the remaining time. The gin will take on a lovely deep crimson hue. At the end of this time carefully decant the gin into display bottles and label. Be careful not to discard the sloes as these will now make a nice filling for a pie, perhaps mixed with strewed apple to make them go further, or for creating sloe truffles!
To make sloe truffles put the left over fruit into a pan and gently simmer until there is minimal liquid left in the mixture and the fruit has softened well. Rub the sloes through a sieve to separate the pulp from the stones. Weigh the pulp, and then add the same weight again in sugar (would make a great treat for the festive season due to both timing of completing the gin and in not caring about what one's waistline does for that month). Simmer again until all the sugar has fully dissolved (one does not want a crystalline filling). Scrape into a jar and leave to set. At this point you can also use this sloe mixture on biscuits with cheese, like quince paste). To make truffles blend the mixture with an equal amount of dark chocolate (or milk if you prefer), roll into little balls. Allow to set and then dust with cocoa powder and enjoy.