October Foraging: Sloes

Learn to forage for sloes and make your own liquor

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Hayley Bisofsky Pope
Cornwall dweller, lifestyle blogger and founder of The Little Naturalists Club
13 October 2022

"Of all the trees that grow so fair, Old England to adorn, Greater are none beneath the Sun Than Oak and Ash and Thorn."
- Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906)

Spring weather and October harvesting

A familiar hedgerow tree, the magnificent Blackthorn that lights up with white blossom in early spring is now richly adorned with deep purple blue berries. The blossom arrives early, usually well before the leaves. Rain and icy weather can quickly damage the blossoms affecting pollinations, thus the weather of March and April largely determines the success of the sloe crop in October.

A warmer March and April will result in the black branches being tightly packed with sloe berries, a bad year will provide enough for the birds and not much else. The only way to overcome these years of famine is to make as much sloe gin as you can in the years of feast!

Fairytales and omens

It spreads via suckers and can quickly fill neighbouring fields, where whole thickets of blackthorn can be found. The leaves are small and pointed at both ends.

The branches are black with long pointed spikes that introduce bacteria to any wound they create. They are called the spiny plum (prunus spinosa) for good reason. Blackthorn is depicted in many fairytales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen and in Celtic tradition, a long hard winter is referred to as a Blackthorn Winter.

Past and present uses

In Devon and Cornwall, witches were said to carry Blackthorn walking sticks with which they caused much local mischief and Blackthorn was feared as the ‘increaser and keeper of dark secrets”. Witches and heretics were burned on Blackthorn pyres. Today we ignore it until we flavour gin with it.

Old lore states that when foraging for sloes you should do so after the first frost. Last year the first frost didn’t arrive until late November when the berries were past their best and it wouldn’t have provided your gin enough time to ferment before Christmas.

Knowing when to go picking

In 2020, the first frost arrived in September when the berries hadn’t received sufficient sunlight to ripen. The frost causes the skin on the berries to split which negates the need to prick each one individually, a labour intensive process, before popping them into your bottle.

The first frost used to be a lot more reliable than it is now. These days it’s fickle and getting later and later so my suggestion would be to pick them in late October/early November and pop them in the freezer. This will burst the skin but the freezing process also converts their starch to sugar and decreases their tannin content.

Important advice for mini foragers

This makes them much milder and fruiter in taste. Be aware that children should avoid eating raw sloes as they are unable to process the prussic acid and it can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

One or two won’t hurt but any more than that could be dangerous. Adults too need to make sure that they don’t over indulge on the raw berries. The raw fruit should be consumed in moderation.

Concocting delicious liquor

To make pure sloe gin you will need all of the relevant equipment to make gin, which will absorb the risk of causing a small explosion. I opt instead to make sloe liquor which is much easier, less time consuming and safer. To make the liquor you simply mix sloes with sugar and gin, rum or vodka.

You can add a twist by adding cinnamon, cloves, star anise or even some spices from the Cornish hedgerow like hogweed seeds (bitter orange and cardamon flavour) and alexanders (juniper berry flavour). Once fermented, you can strain the liquor and bottle up as gifts for friends and family at Christmas.