The beginning of December and it’s minus 6 degrees. It’s normally the quietest time of the year for foraging; the mainstay of the mushrooms has finally vanished, the fresh shoots and leaves of spring feel a long way off indeed. Thoughts of summery wild beers and showers of autumnal nuts are past fancies. But even on the snow-heavy branches of winter there is something to be found for the basket, provided you have a little patience and time.
The one winter foraging treat on everyone’s lips is of course the persistent sloe, which doesn’t mind even the vagaries of repeated frosts, remaining on the branch well into the depths of winter. At my sloe spot there were plenty of dusky fruits to be had, while the thrushes landed to inspect the fallen fruit dislodged by my efforts. In the end I took about three kilos of fruit, thinking it would be more than enough. At this point, you might be thinking ‘ok, I like sloe gin as much as the next man, but how much is he planning to make?’
In my opinion, sloes have enjoyed a reputation as a bit of a one-trick pony for too long. The only two common uses seem to be the ubiquitous sloe gin and occasionally sloe wine. When I read ‘recipes’ for sloe gin, I always* feel a bit cheated – ‘steep fruit in alcohol and sugar’ is not a recipe, it’s a method of preparation, no matter how you word it. For this very reason you wouldn’t write a recipe for boiled potatoes, because it’s not a recipe to say ‘cook potatoes in salted water’. I have a plan to let my sloes star in a recipe, yes, a real recipe.
So, I got to grips with some other hedgerow berries. First up was the matrimony vine, or Tibetan Goji Berry, wolfberry, boxthorn, you name it (Lycium barbarum). This is definitely a plant where long term observation is important if you want to harvest it – the traffic-light coloured fruit on the naked stems could be reminiscent of bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), and in my opinion even black bryony (Tamus/Diascorea communis), though these all have different growth habits. Still, they are poisonous and should not be confused with ripe or unripe wolfberries.
The raw fruits are bitter and unpleasant, but after drying, they have an interesting texture, and look exactly like the packaged, extortionately expensive Goji Berries available from health food stores. The Tibetan Goji Berry moniker is very likely nothing more than an exotic-sounding marketing name – it was introduced from China to Europe in the mid eighteenth-century, and as it can spread vegetatively with little encouragement, it is not likely to have been scarce from that time onward.
There is a lot of writing on the internet about the health benefits of Goji berries, but, at least in my case, it would be difficult to harvest enough to make a significant difference to one’s diet; they lose a lot of weight and mass on being dried, and conditions are not suitable for gathering what will become a few handfuls of processed fruit. Still, it is satisfying work trudging through the snow, scouring for the bright berries, which are strung like lanterns along the boughs (to be very un-botanical about it), so they’ve paid for themselves with pure enjoyment more than anything else.
I also found a good number of barberry bushes (Berberis sp.), which, although even smaller than the Goji berries, can be stripped at a much quicker rate (provided you’ve got gloves), and which don’t need to be bake-dried to be used. The plant is marked in my field guide as mildly poisonous, but this applies to leaves and woody parts, another good example of how you can’t pigeon-hole a plant with poisonous properties. I know from reading recently about Middle-Eastern cuisine that fresh barberries are used to give a sour tang to salads and rice dishes.
But I promised a sloe recipe, so, I’d better deliver. After a bit of trouble with getting the biscuit dough down from clay pigeon thickness, I think these work quite well; the sweetness of the oatmeal takes the astringent edge off the pureéd sloes, and the dash of gin keeps them moist and crumbly on drying. Use a doubled-over piece of baking paper to ensure the undersides don’t get scorched:
Blackthorn Biscuits (makes between 20-25)
250g unsalted butter
200g wholemeal flour
200g medium-fine oatmeal
¼ cup crushed foraged hazelnuts
1 cup pureéd sloe berries
100g cane sugar
½ tsp. Salt
Tsp. Baking powder
Dash six month old foraged sloe gin
Go back in time one whole year, gather sloes, put sloes in gin. Leave to steep until now. Return to sloe spot, pick sloes. Stone two cups fresh sloes, pureé, and refrigerate. Mix flour and oatmeal, work butter into the mixture. Add salt, baking powder and sugar, work further. Add hazelnuts, sloe berry pureé, dash of anachronistic sloe gin. Shape into a ball, cover and refrigerate for half an hour. After this, pre-heat oven to Gas Mark 4. Flour and roll out dough, adding broken-off pieces back to centre. Roll thinly, under 1cm thickness, as thicker biscuits will burn before cooking. Bake for 10-14 minutes until lightly brown and still moist. Stud with barberries and wolfberries if desired. Allow to cool on a wire rack. Store biscuits in an air-tight container for up to a week.
*That said, I am a little particular about my sloe gin, but that’s more to do with the gin than the sloes, as they’re always fantastic, whereas you’ve got to be careful with your gin. For a few years now I’ve been using a certain Shetland gin made using the wild aromatics most abundant in each year of distillery – this year’s gin will be made with a four-year-old specimen where sea pink, meadowsweet and angelica root are predominant. A gin with wild pretensions for sloes with semi-wild heritage.