No hedgerow left untouched


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!


22 Comments Add yours

  1. good to hear they still some for wildlife, something I miss as we don’t have any hedgerows to forage here, I’m trying to grow my own but the wind has other ideas, Frances

    1. kate says:

      Tons for wildlife! I’m amazed the sloes etc survive in the winds here, but once they’re out of the direct blast (and partly protected from the nasty east wind by other trees) they do quite well. I guess it comes down – yet again – to those windbreaks…

  2. I started skipping the words and looking at the pictures, wishing I was capable of making jellies and spirited drinks.

    1. kate says:

      I never thought I was and then I found out it was easy – and that’s really, really easy!

      (They never tell you this in preserving books – I’ve no idea why…)

  3. patientgardener says:

    I cant believe the number of sloes on those branches. You are very good with your preserving, I tell myself I dont preserve as I dont have time but I suspect even if I didnt work I just dont have the preserving genes

    1. kate says:

      Yersss – I’m not sure I have the preserving genes either, but I’m in no doubt about the presence of meanness genes! Almost-free jam, almost-free chutney? I think so!

  4. wellywoman says:

    I’m really impressed with all that foraging. I’ve never tried sloe or damson gin (I know what have I been doing with my life) but I did try a damson cake the other week from my local farmers’ market and it was lovely so I might give something like that a try. Not sure whether there are any left in the hedgerows now, might need to wait until next year now.

    1. kate says:

      I think you’ve probably missed the damsons – they were really early this year – but there might still be sloes about; depends what the microclimate’s been like… The real problem with sloe / damson gin is waiting until it’s ready. Best shove it to the back of a cupboard and forget about it!

  5. Dobby says:

    I had invited myself to Elizabeth’s for Christmas after her bumper crop, but as there seems to be more alcohol and cheese at yours, I am changing venue! That cheese sounds delicious.

    1. kate says:

      Well, all that booze won’t be ready till next Christmas, so you can still help Elizabeth out with her glut this year!

  6. Wonderful post! I am at the very same thing here, making the sloe gin/vodka and figuring out what to do with apples. Lovely to think of you there across the water taking care of the hedgerows. By the way congrats on the big win!! Couldn’t even look at the match, too sad:~(

    1. kate says:

      Thank you — I’m down to two crates of apples now, and I think there’ll have to be Giant Chutney Making Part 2 as they won’t store, grr… Glad you’re attacking your hedgerow bounty too!

      (I can’t really be too happy about match results unless it’s the ‘old enemy’ as I have too many links to other rugby-playing nations… and then I get horribly tribal. Quite shocking; I have to go and lie down, it’s like a personality transplant. Bechod – shame – we can’t all win…)

  7. Lyn says:

    Kate – I admire you tremendously for all this foraging and preserving! I have cut way back on the preserving in recent years, due to late summer laziness, but I’m really going to try this year. It’s a pity we have no hedgerows – they were either never planted in Australia or they have long gone. The hedgerows everywhere were one of the things we really loved when we visited the UK.

    1. kate says:

      I just can’t not collect some of the bounty – so much for grammar, but you know what I mean. I’d never thought about hedgerows being so specific, or rather so unspecific — fascinating…

  8. That’s really impressive Kate. We’ve been dire at plundering the hedgerows this year.

    1. kate says:

      Well, either last year wasn’t so good (and it wasn’t, really, giving the lie to the ‘lots of berries means a bad winter’ theory) or I missed out, and I certainly missed my usual haul, so I determined to catch ’em this yea. Now I can’t move for jars, preserves, pans, stuff. I may have over compensated.

  9. Looks wonderful and I love the colour of those crab apples. Seems to me we should get together with Dobby and Karen for Christmas and pool resources, and gin.

    1. kate says:

      Maybe we should! A sort of swap shop with alcohol…

  10. Clare says:

    No sloes here at all this year… bloomin’ squirrels have made off with everything else so they’re Prime Suspects… but I haven’t finished last year’s sloe gin yet!

    1. kate says:

      I think our squirrels where just so overwhelmed by the sheer quantity that they just shrugged, said ‘whatever’ and went and ate all the hazelnuts. Or they could have been so full of hazelnuts that they couldn’t move.

      Hang onto your sloe gin! (Well, drink it slowly, anyway…)

  11. Joan says:

    Thanks for the crab apples! We’ll give you some wine in a year (it’s supposed to take that long). Beautiful photo too

    1. kate says:

      Wine. I need wine. Now!!!

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