Escape to the Chateau: Dick and Angel go Sloe berry picking
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Catching sloe berries at their peak ripeness is the obvious time to pick these versatile fruits – but being clued up on their harvest period is the best way to get the most out of these black-thorn bush berries. Sourcing the bitter-sweet berries is easy, even if they’re not in your garden you’ll find them right across the country – and this is your guide to harvesting them.
Blackthorn bushes blossom in early spring, growing an abundance of white flowers before the leaves arrive.
Through the summer the white florals of the blackthorn are complemented by bushes, green oval shaped foliage with the purple berries appearing from late summer through to autumn.
When to harvest sloes
Sloe berries can be found in abundance in the autumn of each year.
The blackthorn produces these small, damson-like fruits across the bush and are most ripe after the first frost of winter.
Blackthorns blossom between March and April and yield fruit from August to November – but it is advised to wait until later in the season to pick the best sloes.
It’s a little too early to be harvesting large amounts of sloes in September but come the end of October, there will likely be a mass of the small purple berries for you to pick.
Across the UK, most sloes are in their prime picking period between late October and early November, so you can start picking in time for those sloe christmas liquors and puddings.
Why the first frost is important
It is important not to pick sloe berries too soon – the first frost plays a pivotal role in the structure of sloes which make them ideal for use in festive treats.
According to the Woodland Trust, the effects of the first frost can be mimicked by using your own freezer if you’re eager to harvest sooner.
On their website they said: “These days, there’s no reason why you can’t pick them earlier, bag them up and pop them in your freezer to mimic that first frost.
“The theory behind this is that the frost splits the skins so the juices can flow into your gin without you having to go to the effort of pricking all the berries.”
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Traditionally, the pricking of sloe berries is done using a blackthorn from the bush on which they grow.
Where can you find sloe berries?
Found on the blackthorn, this thorny hedgerow plant with dark purple berries is fast approaching its fruit-bearing period, so it’s about time to brush up on some sloe berry recipes.
Blackthorn shrubs are grown right across the country, found in deciduous woodland, hedgerows, river banks, shrubs and are easily identified by their blackish bark and spiny stems.
Not only can these berries be used for sloe wine, gin or other sweet treats, but they also have a history of medicinal use in the British Isles.
For a touch of homegrown botanicals in your gin, try this recipe using just a few ingredients for a plummy essence in your evening tipple.
- One litre bottle of gin
- 450g ripe sloe berries
- 225g caster sugar
- One large sterilised jar or two empty gin bottles
You can make sloe syrup to add to puddings and drinks or even just to pour over your favourite sweet foods – this recipe makes around 600ml.
- 750g sloes
- 325 ml water
- 600g dark sugar
Sloe treacle tart is an autumnal treat to serve after dinner using freshly picked sloes and is a great way to utilise your sloe berry syrup – all you need is:
- 90g plain flour
- 90g wholemeal flour
- 50g porridge oats
- 125g butter
- Two to three tbsp ice-cold water
- 75g fresh breadcrumbs (fresh bread, grated or food processed)
- 75g rolled oats
- 400ml sloe syrup, plus 2 tbsp
- 2 free-range eggs
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