© Kat Morgenstern, December 2004
Well, it's December again, and for a forager this is not exactly the busiest time of the year. Even if the ground isn't frozen solid yet or covered in snow, there just isn't much out there and what there is, is not particularly crisp and appealing. Nature's life-juices have retreated. About the only thing I forage during the winter months are rosehips and sloes, if I can find them. Blackthorn, or sloe is one of those plants that, due to their thorny and inhospitable nature, are a favorite with farmers who use them extensively as a hedging plant. In places where the hedges haven't been ripped out to make room for bigger, squarer fields, sloe is commonly used to guard the plot - and incidentally provides a welcome wildlife habitat for small animals and birds who seek refuge among its dense branches.
In spring it is a welcome sight, as it is one of the first plants to dare put out its flowers. When the hedges turn white in February and you can't remember it snowing the day before it is more than likely that the blackthorn has burst into flower. Well, the early bird catches the worm and the early flower catches the bee. In February blackthorn reigns supreme.
The flowers incidentally are not just welcome early nourishment for roaming bees but also for roaming foragers. The flowers appear before the leaves. Both can be used for tea, but usually only the flowers are used. They are mildly stimulating for the whole body: mildly diuretic, mildly diaphoretic and mildly laxative. They 'cleanse the blood', and make a great supportive tea for those who like to do internal spring cleanses. Collect flowers on a dry day. They are best when they are still a little bit closed. Dry them in an airy and darkened space to avoid discoloration and mould.
Alas, right now February still seems an awful long way away. Winter solstice is only just upon us. If you have sloe in your neighborhood you might like to investigate if you can find any berries. Sloe is an ideal winter foraging bounty, as it does not really become edible until after it has been bitten by a few frosts. Before then it is incredibly astringent and sour and in fact quite unpalatable. So wait until it has been really cold for a few days and then sample some sloe from the bush, you'll be able to tell immediately whether the frost has been hard enough or not. (Some people cheat, it must be said, picking the fruit as early as September and giving it an artificial frost treatment in the freezer. Well, personally, I prefer to let nature do her job herself.)
Sloe berries, for those who don't know, a dark blue and look as though they are 'frosted'. Be careful when you pick them, the bush's legendary thorns are quite formidable. If you want to make the most of the fruit you have to collect them in quantity, as unfortunately there isn't much to them in the way of actual fruit flesh. A rather meager layer of yellow pulp surrounds the large stone. So don't fret and pick a good quantity, there are lots of tasty ways to use them:
Take a fork or toothpick to poke the sloes all over. Fill into a large pickling jar or Rumtopf. Cover with sugar and fill the jar with the Gin and the Brandy or Sherry until about ¾ full. Leave to infuse in a warm place for about 3 months, shaking the jar occasionally. Then remove the fruit and fill the alcohol into another bottle. Let it rest for at least another 6 months.
The alcohol infused sloes can be used to make sloe chocolate:
Remove the soft fruit pulp from the infused sloes and pass through a sieve. Stir into melted chocolate. This mixture is great for (Christmas) baking to use instead of regular chocolate.
Harvest your sloes after the first frost, clean and fill into a pot. Pour boiling water over them so that they are just covered. Cover with a lid and leave to rest for a day. The following day drain the liquid into another pot, bring to the boil and pour it back over the sloes. Repeat this procedure for another two days. Then strain the juice, add the sugar and bring to a boil. Simmer gently until all the sugar is dissolved. Bottle while still hot.
The same procedure is used to make sloe juice, just add less sugar (about half).
You can add a little pectin and make a tangy preserve, which is particularly nice to use instead of standard jams in Christmas baking:
Follow the instructions on the packet of pectin for making the preserve.
Although I have found some wine recipes for sloe I personally don't find it an ideal fruit to use. It's better as a liqueur or infused in Gin. However, those who like to experiment might like to try adding some to other fruit wine recipes for its very characteristic note. The secret is to allow the wine to rest for a long time. Leave for at least a year to give the astringent quality of the fruit a chance to mellow out.
And here is a recipe to look forward to when spring comes:
Pick the flowers early in the morning and place in cold water to soak for a little while. Then slowly heat it up and bring to a simmer. Strain and press out the flowers and filter the water, return to the heat, add the sugar and simmer to the mixture becomes syrupy.
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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.
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