As we re-engage with forgotten wild ingredients, its always interesting to note those which have never dropped out of favour.
The most obvious of these in the UK is the blackberry. Its popularity isn’t hard to understand as it scores highly in three key areas: abundance, ease of identification and deliciousness. I’d go further and say that its instant “pick-and-enjoy” gratification combined with its success in urban environments make it the only wild ingredient that over 50% of the UK population can recognise.
The perennial popularity of sloe berries is rather harder to understand. They are fairly innocuous looking and too sour for most people to enjoy unprocessed. Yet (although they aren’t nearly so widely gathered as blackberries) they do seem to have remained in high esteem with many otherwise forage-a-phobic people for generations. Why?
The answer is booze. There is a place in the psyche of most Brits for sloe gin. It sits in a warm, cosy nook alongside mince pies, rhubarb crumble and Morcambe & Wise. People who couldn’t care less about elderflowers or chanterelles go all misty-eyed and mysterious when you mention sloes. They will effuse about their “special recipe” yet go all secretive about their harvesting spots. None of this is surprising – sloe foraging is pleasant, meditative work and sloe gin rarely short of delicious. But what astonishes me is that so few think to extend those deep satisfactions to other ingredients. Rosehips? Hawthorns? Rowan buds? Nope. Sloe, sloe, QUICK QUICK, sloe!
Sloes are delicious, deeply sour, mini-plums. Judiciously infused into white spirits and balanced with an appropriate amount of sweetness, they make for a great drinks ingredient. That so many people have a “special” recipe is a lovely entry point to the wider world of foraged mixology. It’s about finding out what works for you.
For me, the essential joy of the sloe is its sourness (i’m one of few who like to nibble them raw from the tree). For my taste, many people over-sweeten their sloe gin to the point where it tastes like a syrupy liqueur. If that’s how you like it, then fair enough, but I don’t really see the point in adding all the sweetness early on in the process. Surely much better to infuse into unsweetened alcohol, then add a bespoke sweetener when it is served? As well as catering for a variety of tastes, this allows all sorts of quirks and flourishes to be introduced a la minute.