QUICK, QUICK, SLOE
I love Christmas. Everything about it. I love watching the same films every year. I love studiously avoiding those green triangles in the Quality Street tin. I love the fact that no human person is strong enough to crack a Brazil nut without a hammer. Most of all I love the feast. When you think of it, there aren’t really many other opportunities throughout the year for having a proper, old-fashioned feast. And for the Christmas feast, I like to be ultra-traditional – I don’t want to put new twists on things – shredding sprouts or soaking my turkey in a brine of exotic spices. I want a roast bird (a goose if I’m going hardline trad) with ‘all the trimmings’ (a phrase especially hated by my husband). I want muddy veg from the garden and I want to live up to the smallholder ethos and make everything made from scratch. Perversely, I quite enjoy the challenge and inevitable frisson of stress that comes with a huge list of fiddly and time-consuming things that need to be done in a certain order.
The reason I can indulge in this stress is that I know, waiting at the end of each day of Christmas there’ll be sloe gin: the festive cook’s ultimate reward. Sloe gin is to winter what Pimm’s is to summer. Best drunk by candle- or firelight when the house smells of pinecones and mince pies. With its distinct tang of Vimto, sloe gin is the perfect contradiction: an easy-drinking taste of the nursery with killer alcoholic volume. And it’s so easy to make, it would be rude not to.
Every year, in October, I start getting twitchy around the hedgerows. Where I live, in Devon, offers lean pickings for the sloe forager (even leaner for the rosehip forager, but that’s another story). Despite having my eyes perpetually peeled and a mental sloe-map permanently loaded in my brain, there aren’t many places to find them in abundance. During sloe season I yearn for my old stomping ground of Oxfordshire where there were so many sloes it actually induced a slight sense of panic – it was impossible to pick them all but felt negligent leaving any behind. Here, despite rambling to the deepest recesses of the darkest part of the woods, sloes are few and far between. In an ill-guarded moment, a woman I met out walking her dog revealed a good spot she knew of. Crestfallen, only too late she realised the error of her ways: never reveal a sloe oasis. Such a secret should be more jealously guarded than a seam of gold.
Freakishly, this year the gods of blackthorn bushes blessed me on my doorstep. Although the hedges around my patch are broadly unexciting, I spied an especially well-berried specimen behind the garage, reached with only a tiny amount of squelching through muck, clambering over wire and getting snared in brambles. And luckily, while it was a good haul, it wasn’t the sort of bumper crop that makes an obsessive pickler go over the top. It was enough to make maybe one or two large Kilner jars of sloe gin – sufficient for Christmas and maybe just a little way into January.
Because you’ve got to warm your cockles somehow, don’t you?