PETER FROST finds a bonus harvest in his local hedgerow.
When winter comes in earnest to fulfil
His yearly task at bleak Novembers close,
And stops the plough and hides the fields in snows;
When frost locks up the streams in chill delay
And mellows on the hedge the purple sloes …”.
John Clare –
The Shepherd’s Calendar – 1827
John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet and agricultural labourer hated the job he was doing. He was enclosing the huge open countryside with hated hedgerows for rich and greedy landowners.
The landsnatcher’s weapon was the blackthorn and poor John planted thousands of them.
This work was one of the thing’s that drove the poet to insanity. He spent many years in the Asylum in Northampton and while there, was often seen sitting in the alcove next to the door of All Saint’s Church near the market square in the town. The alcove is still there, still a place frequented by local bards.
The blackthorn, (Prunus spinosa) is a small tree or large bush that today makes up so much of country hedgerows.
Clare’s hated inheritance actually brings two seasons of beauty to our countryside and a delicious bonus.
First are the clouds of early white blossom that herald the arrival of spring. Drifting petals can dust the country lanes with the nearest thing to snow.
At this time of year however, after the first heavy frost in November you can search out the matt black berries as they begin to ripen with their promise of sloe gin.
In folklore the blackthorn is regarded as an unlucky tree. Christians will tell you that Christ’s crown of thorns was blackthorn.
More usefully the bark of the blackthorn was boiled in water to make a drink to cure bronchitis.
Country folk would cut a strong blackthorn stick to help, both with walking, and also with fights down the pub. A blackthorn stick made a fine weapon particularly in Ireland – the famous shillelagh.
Dried blackthorn leaves were ground up to adulterate Chinese tea. In John Clare’s lifetime four million tons of leaves were being mixed in with Chinese leaves and sold as genuine tea.
Far from stopping this criminal act a bill was passed which legalised the practice provided the blend was sold as English Tea.
John Clare and his fellow agricultural workers planted Blackthorn because of its natural denseness and sharp thorns which make it a good stock proof fence.
As you will discover when you harvest the fruit, the thorns can cause a vicious wound. Wear heavy gloves and long sleeves.
In the past the fruit was used also to make juice, country wine and even a rough imitation port wine by mixing it with cider and brandy; it was coloured with elderberries.
Today most of the sloe harvest will go to make sloe gin. It is even made professionally, with most of the commercial sloes being picked from wild sites in Yorkshire.
Frosty’s Sloe Gin recipe
Pick your sloes after the first frost or if you want to speed up the process and have your gin ready by this Christmas pick them now and pop them in the freezer for a week. Freezing also means you won’t need to prick the fruit, always a tiresome part of the process.
What you will need
One pound (450g) wild sloes.
Half a pound (225g) of caster sugar.
One and three quarter pints (1 litre) good, but not too good, gin.
How Frosty does it
Prick the skins of the sloes with a needle or pickle fork and place in a large, clean jar with a good tight lid. No need to prick if the sloes have been frozen.
Add the sugar and the gin, seal tightly and shake thoroughly. It is good exercise. Store in a cool, dark place and shake well every day for a week. Then shake once a week for as long as you have the patience.
A month before you plan to bottle or drink it stop shaking and let it stand and settle.
When clear, decant into a pretty bottle. Like many liquors it is much better kept for a year or two.
If it won’t come bright, either be more patient, of if that is out of the question, desperate philistines have been known to use a coffee filter.
You can use the same technique to make Bullace Brandy, wild cherry or rosehip vodka – apparently favourite Bolshevik tipples.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 1 November 2013