Monday, 17 October 2011

Foraging, time, and lack thereof

In yesterday's Observer, Nigel Slater talks about making his own sloe or damson gin. An excellent idea for this time of year - I myself found a very well stocked blackthorn tree this weekend, near the Pitshanger allotments, and spent a few minutes stripping it of sloes, aided by a couple of women who stopped to enquire as to what I was doing - one of them was from Montenegro and we had a nice chat about all the things you can do with different fruits and spirits.

When I lived Norfolk, I had to drive pretty much everywhere, and always kept a bag or two in the car in case foraging opportunities arose, which they did, frequently. In London, I never know when I'm going to come across something, and am very rarely prepared - yesterday I was bagless, so ended up stuffing my haul of sloes into a pocket at the back of Adam's pushchair. A certain degree of athleticism was needed too - the sloes were quite high, so I had to do that whole thing of jumping to grab a branch, before yanking it down and holding fast whilst one handedly stripping as many sloes off as I could. No mean feat if you don't want to drop them all or impale yourself on their fiendishly long thorns. Matters weren't helped by the fact that I had to keep letting go to drop the sloes into the pushchair. I only managed to collect around half a kilo before Adam got sick of watching Mummy leap around and let it be known that he'd Had Enough and would quite like to go to the playground NOW please.

I digress. The first thing I did when I got home was stick the lot in the freezer. Why? Because we haven't yet had a first frost yet, useful if you going to make sloe gin or vodka as it helps the skins of the sloes burst and their flesh to bleed into all that sugar and alcohol. This is where Nigel comes in again:

Appreciation, too, for those who suggested freezing my damsons and sloes before macerating them in the alcohol rather than pricking them by hand. I did some that way and was impressed by the speed at which the fruit leaked its juices into the gin, but (and this is a big thing for me) the instant method rather took away from the pleasures of an autumn afternoon pricking my damsons with a pin. I suppose it is down to whether you cook purely for the end product or for the sheer joy and pleasure of the cooking process. Either way will get you your gin.
I too have spent afternoons pricking sloes with a pin. It's a light, mindless task, one which can be done whilst listening to the radio, watching TV or taken outside on a sunny, Indian Summer day. There are a few kitchen jobs like this which can be similarly enjoyed - forking through fronds of redcurrants, squelching through soft walnut flesh to get to the shell within (wear rubber gloves for this one), podding peas and beans. When I worked in the Caribbean I used to love sitting outside, always with a sea view, often with one of the kitchen helpers, podding and destringing huge piles of tamarind (or tambrin as they called them in Dominica), or cutting the large, acorn-like seed from the centre of sorrel flowers. In this way we would emulate the women who spent entire days at market doing just this in large,noisy and companionable groups. One of my favourite memories is giggling with Anise whilst we shredded and deboned a quantity of smoked herring - a fiddly, tedious job when undertaken alone.

Some such jobs are not strictly necessary, or are slightly experimental. I recently spent a very long hour removing skins from cooked chick peas because I wanted to see whether deskinned, they would make a better textured hummus. To my utter disgust and chagrin, they did, which means that in future if I skip this step I will always be annoyed with myself. If anyone knows where I can get skinned chickpeas (available in Greece, but as yet unseen here), I will be eternally grateful.

I agree with Nigel Slater that such jobs can sometimes as rewarding as the end product, but I can't see myself ever spending an afternoon pricking sloes with pins again. If the freezer does the job just as well (even, perhaps, better?) I simply can't justify the time. Reading people such as Nigel Slater these days reminds me of my childless days when food was more of a hobby - endless hours, just pottering around garden and kitchen; entire days spent on preserving or patisserie, often without a thought for proper mealtimes. Those days are long gone - now every task is interrupted with endless rounds of mealtimes and snack times and play times in between.

I'm hoping that I will eventually fire the children with enthusiasm for foraging (Adam already loves picking up acorns and will spend most of his time in the playground rolling crab apples down the slide if I let him) and that they will get as much pleasure out of some of the more agreeable kitchen tasks as I do. I'm looking forward to teaching them to enjoy pricking sloes with pins and will hope that the thrill of watching indigo sloes covered in sugar snow, give way to a deep burgundy will be enough of a reward - they certainly won't be drinking the fruits of our labours any time soon.
For a good guide to foraging and what to do with anything you might find, Richard Mabey's Food for Free is the classic, but I also really like John Wright's book Hedgerow, which is one of the River Cottage handbooks.
Recipes for sloe gin or vodka vary, but I always do 1 part sugar, 2 parts sloes and 4 parts alcohol. Leave to steep for a few months, decant into bottles and leave for as long as possible. I haven't touched last year's yet, and have some from 2009.

Once you have removed the sloes, there's not much that's worth doing with them. However, you can make a good savoury jelly which is excellent with game, particularly venison. I threw some in the pressure cooker with a large Bramley cooking apple, some water and a generous teaspoon of juniper berries. Cook at high pressure for 2 minutes, let it release pressure naturally, then strain through a jelly bag. Add equal quantities of sugar and 1 tablespoon of cider vinegar or verjuice. Bring to the boil and once setting point has been reached, ladle into sterilised jars. A quick and low maintenance way of recycling your sloes once more before consigning them to the bin or compost heap.