Making Sloe Gin Part 1: Hunting for Sloes
For this two part series, we’re looking at life in the sloe lane and exploring how one should go about making a own Sloe Gin infusion. We’ll be covering everything from start to finish, beginning with how to find berries before we share some of the top tips for pimping out your own recipes. Sloe gin is both fun and easy, and with these simple instructions you can be making yours in no time.
A few general rules of foraging
Read up on the foraging rules in your local parks and green spaces before setting off, or at least make a concerted effort to find out if there are any. If you’re likely to be going on a farm or private property, get permission before you start picking. It takes two seconds to ask and saves a very heated conversation when you find out that you are not welcome and that they were deliberately saving them for themselves… There is nowhere in the UK that doesn’t belong to someone (council / state or private), so it’s your responsibility to find out if you’ve got any rights, rather than theirs to announce that you don’t.
If you want to go foraging for Sloes, you’ll need good sturdy boots, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers that will also protect from any errant thorns or nettles. Bring a Tupperware box to put the bounty in, too, or line your bag with something, as it’ll stain.
To state the obvious, you should avoid patches that are next to busy roads or places that have likely been sprayed with pesticides. Most importantly, you need to be absolutely certain of what you are actually picking. It’s important to take a moment to properly identify the berries / bush before you start plucking.
Don’t forget that sloes are a good winter food for birds and mammals, so leave some behind – don’t ever strip a bush bare and be sure to be very conscious about what you disturb, move or push out of the way to have a minimal impact on the environment you’ve just profited from (especially on the ground as many small animals nest in there and a pair of boots can trash a nest easily). Treat it like a wildlife sanctuary even if the wildlife in question may not be obvious to you.
We’re just going to say it here once – if you do not recognise a berry as being one of the edible ones DON’T PUT IT ANYWHERE NEAR YOUR MOUTH. Things like Tutsan and Ivy berries confuse some people as they look dangerously similar – purple, round and can damson-esque. Plucking wrong, though, will almost certainly lead to you needing to go and see the doctor if you’ve consumed a handful.
Hunting for Sloes….
Kick off with looking for hedgerows, as most will have a blackthorn bush or two (or be entirely made of them!). For a full-blown geek read, check out the National Biodiversity Network’s records, which show the distribution of blackthorn and the areas of the country in which you are most likely to find sites. The good and bad thing is that blackthorn bushes grow around rocks, in fields and in woodland. As a shrub it grows up to 3m in height too, so it really does come in all shapes and sizes, as well as in a lot of different types of terrain, making it abundant, but quite varied in forms which can be confusing to the beginner.
The number of sloes you will find on a blackthorn is entirely linked to the weather during spring and summer. Too dry and the sloes will be small and shrivelled; too wet and cold and they will not develop at all. If you are picking them to make Sloe Gin, then traditionally it was customary to wait until after the first frosts. The theory behind this was that the frost would split the skins for you and the juices would flow into your gin without you having to go to the effort of pricking all the berries. Given that things like freezers exist today, there is nothing stopping you picking them when you feel it’s ripe. Pick a convenient weekend, then place your bounty in a freezer to mimic the frost. Our view is that provided the sloes are ripe (i.e. not bullet hard), it does not matter too much.
The best way to tell if they are ready is to look at the overall colour of the fruit; which should be a rich dark purple colour. Some people look see if any sloes have started to naturally disperse (dropped on the ground), but in our experience, this is bordering on too late, and most of the time, others will have already been round and foraged the best of the bunch….
How to identify a Sloe berry:
Obviously, you’ll recognise those little berries. You think that they are sloes and have been drawn over to forage for some. Just pause for a minute and take a look at the bigger picture.
Look at the plant itself, not just the berries (more on those in a second). Understand that blackthorn is a thorny, thorny shrub. It’s an absolute brute that borders on vengeful hatred of flesh and prying limbs, so if you’re able to happily pick away in a pair of shorts and haven’t been ripped to shreds, alarm bells should be going off… It’s thorny nature is why it is / was used as a hedgerow plant. It creates impenetrable thickets and therefore provides good protection for a whole range of wildlife (historically, it was used as a good division of land, as humans have a hard time crossing through them too).
Next up, look at the leaves, which are small and slender, oval in shape, tapering to a point at the tip. Yep, read that again and if like us London folk that sounds like every leaf in the world… well, you’re right, but if you can categorically say that’s not the case, you’re probably looking at Tutsan (and this article has just spared you from getting the shits).
In our experience of them, blackthorn bush leaves tend to be dull and dark and are sometimes sticky above and hairy on the veins beneath. To sum it all up in one question in order for you to figure out if your plucking from the right bush: Does it look like something that’s easy to harvest, isn’t going to cost you some flesh to get to the bounty and is filled with luscious leaves? If it’s no to all three, then you are in the right place.
What do sloe berries look like:
They are bluish-black (we think purple) ‘drupes’ that often bear a waxy coating and are between 1 and 1.5cm long. To check – smash one up, and look to see if it contains a large stone and, normally, not much flesh.
A lot of people then taste them too, and are surprised that they are very sour. Don’t jump to the conclusion that it can’t be sloe because it’s not the gorgeous nectar that you’re used to – that’s where the sugar comes in.
Each time we taste a freshly plucked sloe, our mouths instantly fur up from the tannin and it is impossible to avoid our faces screwing up into a grimace. Sloes sometimes sweeten after the first frost or a late spell of heat, but don’t be put off the identification process by the fact that they are unpleasantly sour.
Preparation tips before you begin any Sloe Gin infusions:
Wash them. You simply don’t know what’s been around the bush nor what’s been nesting inside, so a wash is a good place to start. While it can’t help with any pollution absorbed into the berry, it will at least get rid of anything sticking to the skin. Fair warning, it makes a mess so you might not want to be wearing white…
We’d freeze them to split the skins, but pricking works too. If you love that marzipan taste, expose more of the stone to the booze as this is where the flavour comes from (don’t do it for all though, lightly crushing 10% of your berries will dramatically increase the almond-like nature of the overall infusion, 100% will make it go very cloudy and chalky, let alone overpower the fruity tones). If you are going to do this – take a look at our “how to” as you need to be aware of certain compounds and the potential health risks of over exposing yourself to them (in this case over drinking) too.
Want to know how to make a Sloe Gin? Check out our part two of this article: How to make Sloe Gin
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