This winter was long and cold and, by the standards of southern England, very snowy. Spring has not been much better with little in the way of warmth for, even on sunny days, there has been a chill wind blowing from the north or east. Frosts have been commonplace and are still occurring - our last one, a hard one, was only a couple of days ago: in recent years we have had our last frosts in early April. This was the view of the entrance to the secret valley not so very long ago.
Now, just a few weeks later - and despite the efforts of our friend Jack (Frost) - the secret valley has been transformed by the best blossom for many years. Whether any fruit will set is another matter altogether.
One of the first trees to bloom is the Sloe, Prunus spinosa. The second half of its Latin name gives a hint of its nasty thorns, as does its other common name, Blackthorn. These thorns break off as you touch the plant, entering the skin and festering readily. The old country folk talk of "Blackthorn Winters" as, when it blooms, the weather always turns very cold once again. This year the tree has been caught out: it is flowering five weeks later than normal and the weather has been cold all the time with no warmer spells to fool us into thinking summer has come.
The Sloe is one of those remarkable species which flowers on bare wood in such profusion it gives the plant the appearance of being snow covered (photos above and below).
However, country people hold it in affection not for its early blossom or for making impenetrable, stockproof hedges. They even have a reason to forgive it for all the painful splinters it inflicts upon them, year in, year out. And that reason is alcohol. For despite being incredibly bitter when picked, its blue-black fruits, the size of a marble and equally hard, give rise to that most delicious and sweetest of drinks, Sloe Gin. Traditionally, the drink of hip flasks to be passed around amongst friends on a frosty shooting or hunting day, it is a good drink at all times - which is why I have none left to show you here. I have had to make do with a picture 'lifted' from one of the commercial makers of Sloe Gin, for it really is a business venture for some .
Nothing beats home brewed and our recipe, made each year, is below. The Sloes are picked after the first frosts, which softens them and brings out their flavour, although a couple of days in the freezer works just as well. And if Sloes aren't available where you are, don't despair: damsons or plums would be just as potent. Cheers!Recipe:
* Frosted or frozen, then thawed, sloes - weight not too important, probably about a pound.
* Place in a bottle/bowl and cover with gin (or vodka)
* Add a similar quantity of sugar
* Shake well every day until sugar has completely dissolved
* Top up with more gin (we add, at this stage, a quarter bottle of brandy as well - our secret weapon for making fellow imbibers 'legless'. It also helps to give much needed courage when jumping a big hedge on Barney!
* Leave for several weeks, then strain and enjoy
PS. The fruit will now be sweet and full of alcohol - absolutely delicious eaten with vanilla ice cream.