What a fabulous year it has been so far for hedgerow foraging! Unlike last year, when it seemed that they would never ripen, both the blackberries and the sloes have appeared comparatively early, in all their purple splendour. I have never seen plumper, glossier blackberries than those that currently adorn every hedgerow, lay-by and woodland path. Gathering a full kilogram of fruit is almost the work of moments. I am always careful, however, to pick away from roads and above waist height (to avoid them having been watered by passing dogs!)
Sloes, of course, are the fruit of the blackthorn tree. These can be a little more tricky to locate. Like brambles, they are found in hedges, verges and woods, but they are less prevalent. It is often easier to spot these trees in early spring, when they are covered in white flowers, and to make a mental note of their location in preparation for autumn.
I have a couple of favourite spots for sloe-picking. Last week, my husband and I were passing some of these blackthorn trees, not expecting them to yet be bearing fruit, and we were delighted to find them weighed down with the dusty little fruit. At this time of year, we never embark on a walk without some kind of container in hand, so we picked a tubful and took them home to freeze. Traditionally, sloes are picked after the first frost (which softens the skin slightly and reduces the bitterness), but a blast in the freezer has a similar effect, particularly when they have ripened so early in the season.
In a kitchen replete with freshly-picked fruit, the question is how best to make use of this bounty. When it comes to sloes, gin is their perfect partner. Each sloe needs to be pricked with a needle (although this is less essential if they have been frozen) and placed in a sterilised kilner jar. I add sugar (half the weight of the sloes) and fill the jar to the top with (cheap) gin (there’s a sloe gin recipe on the Sarah Raven website which is very popular).
It needs to be shaken daily until the sugar dissolves and kept in a dark place for at least six months. The gin is then strained through a muslin and decanted into sterilised bottles. The longer you leave it after that, the better it will taste. I have never managed to keep it bottled for longer than a year without sampling it, however!
Blackberries can be used in all manner of delicious ways. Personally, I am partial to baking with them. Perennial favourites in this house include blackberry steamed pudding and blackberry galette. This year, I have had success with a batch of Bakewell-style blackberry fingers and I also like to make the Kentish Apple Cake from Sarah Raven’s Garden cookbook with a handful or two of blackberries thrown in. In a glut year such as this, freezing blackberries is an excellent way to preserve them for use throughout the winter. I spread them out on a baking tray in the freezer, decanting them into small bags once they have frozen. They can then be used to pep up apple crumbles and pies or even popped into a blender with some milk and a scoopful of icecream for an easy berry smoothie.
I cannot let the autumn pass by without making a batch or two of blackberry jam. This year’s soft, plump berries lend themselves particularly well to jamming, and I love the depth of flavour that blackberries bring to a preserve. I use a kilogram each of blackberries and sugar, with the juice of half a lemon and 50ml of water, also adding a tablespoon of crème de mûres. Blackberries are high in pectin and so the jam is quick to set. Nothing pleases me more than picking blackberries on a Saturday afternoon in order to spread my toast with fresh blackberry jam on the Sunday morning.
Finally, if sloe gin is not enough, blackberry vodka is always an option, using the same method and proportions of sugar, fruit and alcohol. Not only is it deeply satisfying to make the most of nature’s largesse, but the thought of winter also seems a lot more bearable when the cupboards are bulging with jars of jam and bottles of warming liqueur.
Thanks for reading!