There’s something about autumn that always gets me – well, there are lots of things, but a significant one is the prospect of (almost) free food. I am incapable of ignoring the possibilities for jams, chutneys, drinks and simple snacking that a straightforward walk presents.
After all, blackberries are made to be eaten as soon as you see them. Aren’t they?
I have the feeling that it’s all going to waste if I don’t do something with it, that I have a moral duty to get out there and harvest some of it, though I know it’s a rubbish theory. Last year I was a bit late and my favourite sloe location had been stripped. There were a few rather dessicated fruits, but I had to make a hedgerow jelly to eke them out, and couldn’t make any sloe gin as there weren’t enough good sloes. I had some gin left from the year before, and it was phenomenally strong, so all was not lost:
but if I missed another year, I’d run out. This could not be allowed to happen.
You have to hit the right moment with sloes, and one thing I have learned over the last ten years in Gwynedd is that I mustn’t wait for the devil to spit on them here (otherwise known as waiting for the first frost). If I do that: no sloes. It’s not people – well, not entirely; it’s a combination of weather conditions and wildlife.
So in the late burst of Archangel Michael’s little summer we experienced last week, I got out my boots and my basket and went gathering. This year – predictably perhaps, given that it was a superb plum year – the blackthorns were laden. I couldn’t begin to even make a slight impression.
And they were incredibly ripe. Great big fat juicy sloes, all ready and waiting to be picked and made into sloe vodka. Damson vodka has been good in the past, so I thought I’d try it with sloes. Also I had vodka and I’d run out of gin, but hey.
I didn’t even have to reach up high; I didn’t need my stick, I didn’t need to leap over the wall to avoid ‘interested’ and chancy Welsh Black cattle – perfect sloeing, in short.
I still can’t believe how lucky I was, but I think it was some sort of compensation for the 2011 elderberry fiasco. Every year I make an elderberry cordial which is very effective against colds and coughs; could be the ridiculously high Vit C content, could be the half-litre of rum it contains – whatever, it works. This year either I was a bit slow (sorry, agh) off the mark or the elderberries were early, but I kept missing them. When I did get any, they grew grey fur almost immediately, meaning a quick trip to the compost heap rather than the preserving pan. I finally managed to get enough by spotting some as I was driving along and screeching to a halt… phew. So I made the most of some easy foraging.
In the end I was so laden with sloes that I managed to walk past the hawthorns – but they’ll last a little longer. And they are equally beautiful, and equally laden.
I filled all my giant Le Parfait jars and used up all my cheap vodka. I had picked so many sloes that I had to think of something else to do with my bumper crop. Fortunately it’s been a good year for crab apples as well, and I have two trees.
I got out the steps, climbed on the wall of the old pigsty and picked a whole load, and then I picked another couple of carrier bags’ worth for some friends who are trying crab apple wine (exchange is no robbery, or so the saying goes), and there are still lots and lots left for the birds.
They are so beautiful and golden and light up the place, even on the gloomiest day. On a sunny day, you can warm your hands by the bowl:
Sloe and crab apple cheese. Yum.
Well, almost. Delicious with good bread and a nice strong cheddar. Just as well I’ve been saving jars for the past year!