I’m not a botany expert, but the long, hot sumer (at least by English standards) that we have enjoyed this year, mixed with an exceptionally mild and sunny autumn seems to have lead to a bumper berry harvest this year. I don’t know about you, but I’ve already made the best of the blackberries, hawthorn and rose hips that my hedgerows have to offer and now is the time for sloes to come into their own.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn tree, and a good rule to remember is that if the tree that you are picking from doesn’t have nasty thorns, think twice about eating the berries that you pick. Sloes look remarkably like large blueberries, but so do other poisonous blue/ black berries so be careful and, as I always say, when in doubt check the leaves.
Blackthorn is the stuff of celtic legends. It was believed to be the thorns used to make Christ’s crown during his crucifixion, as (and you will know if you have ever picked sloes) any thorn pricks by a blackthorn usually turns slightly septic. Not only that, but any place where blackthorn grows alongside hawthorn is magical, where the boundaries between the spirit world and our’s merge. That must leave me living in one of the most magical places on the face of the planet, but I’m not complaining. It certainly makes things easier for harvesting around this time of year. Possibly these magical rumours stem from their numerous health benefits as alongside their plum cousins, sloes are rich in anthocyanins and vitamins C, as well as other anti-oxidants that help prevent damage to healthy cells and so fight cancer. They have also been shown to have an anti-bacterial effect, and their juice has been used for hundreds of years as an effective flu symptom reliever.
Now we all know that sloe gin/ vodka is delicious, and is probably the first thing that we think of when we see those gorgeous blue berries, but I have to say, there is only so much sloe gin you can drink. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff, but it is a real Christmas treat in my opinion, that you don’t usually fancy the rest of the year round. In fact, I still have two bottles of last year’s maturing (not abandoned, maturing) in the cupboard. So this year I decided to entirely forgo making the sloe gin and focus on just making the juice. Unfortunately that means I won’t get any sloe gin chocolates come Christmas, but that is a price that I am prepared to pay. For the record, sloe gin chocolates are the ultimate in food recycling. You take the sloes that you have removed from your sloe gin, after they have steeped in there with the sugar for a couple of months, then mix them with melted dark (70% of course) chocolate, with perhaps a splash of double cream and a drop or two of pure vanilla. Using a teaspoon, drop spoonfuls onto greaseproof paper and allow to set. They really are one of the best Christmas presents, as long as you are more gifted at making fancy labels than me.
Sloe Juice Recipe
For this recipe you will need two large suacepans.
Wash whatever sloes that you have picked and put them in a large saucepan. Cover them, by several inches in boiling water.
Leave them to steep for 24 hours in a cool place. I use my garage, but if you haven’t already got your heating on, you might get away with your kitchen, although I wouldn’t recommend it.
After 24 hours, strain the berries, and collect the juice in your second large saucepan. Bring it to the boil again, then pour over the berries back in the first saucepan.
Leave to steep for another 24 hours, then repeat the process.
After you have repeated the process 3 times, bring to the boil and add sugar to taste. This year I have only used around 300g of sugar for 5 litres of juice, but the sloes are particularly sweet.
When you have finished, you can repeat the whole process from the beginning again, but your juice will be slightly thinner.
I usually dilute the first steeping in a ratio of one one part juice to 3 or 4 parts water, but I always reduce this down for the juice from the second steeping. The children love this made with hot water, especially after they have been out playing in the cold, and it makes a fine child friendly mulled wine if you mix it with a splash of elderberry syrup and some boiling water.