Sloe Gin (and how to slow time)

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I remember an old joke: a guy goes to the doctor, and he says, “Doc, if I give up the drinking, and the smoking, and the women, will I live longer?” And the doctor says, “Well, it will certainly seem like it!”

That’s pretty funny, and probably because there is some truth to it. A mind that is idle, or even bored, is a mind that can expand time. Ask my kids what time is the longest, and they’ll tell you it’s the time to clean their room, or the time until they can watch the telly. That’s when the hands on the clock are interminably slow!

I, on the other hand, never notice that my time – far from lengthening – always seems to be running out. The Author notices, because he is constantly chiding me for being at least 10 minutes late. (And I’m always 10 minutes late, even when I plan on being 10 minutes early.)

But in my mind, times expands and contracts based not on my boredom level, but on what I need to do. (Finish my coffee, brush my teeth, get my coat and bag and head to the car for work? Well, that will only take a minute!) In reality of course, time is the same, no matter what task(s) I’m focused on, and that leads to my always miscalculating my arrival time anywhere I go. (Bizarrely enough, while I was writing about this, a friend posted a definition of this condition; it looks like I am a tidsoptomist! Who knew?)

On the other hand, I’m very good at saving time. When I’m cooking, or working on a recipe, I usually try to reduce the steps or streamline the processes to maximise efficiency. The result is that I have some extra time, and I can do a few other things. I can pack a lot of events into less time (which probably fuels my bad tidsoptomist habits). Nonetheless, this is a very useful skill, because we’re all busy and could do with a little time-saving. But even I have to admit that, sometimes, it’s just wrong.

Sometimes, you just need to sit down and do a thing, with nothing else on your mind. Sometimes, you need to let your mind wander, maybe even become a little bored, so that your thoughts can flit wherever they want. Sometimes, when you do that, time will expand, and slow down, and become non-existent all at once. This is where creativity lies, where imagination blossoms, and where rest resides. And this is where the sloes come in.

To make sloe gin, you need to prick each sloe a few times with a needle or, in my case, a thorn from the blackthorn shrub.* With over a kilo of sloes, this can take a little while, but it is time well-spent. (At one point I got the kids to help, which they thought was great fun, even though they didn’t like the idea of the finished product. Also, The Oldest – our very own fruit bat – was unhelpful in that she kept eating the sloes, an experience I would not recommend but which she enjoyed.) So I sat by myself, pricking the fruit and daydreaming – about autumn days, winter nights and Keats – in the pleasant and unhurried passing of time.

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Sloe Gin

Sloe gin has a bad reputation. When I was younger, working as a waitress, we knew to card anyone who asked for a sloe gin fizz; it was the drink of new drinkers, underage rebels who liked the sweet, soda-like taste. But the sloe gin itself is very sophisticated, much like a port. The sloes are the very mouth-puckering fruit of the blackthorn, whose Latin name, Prunus Spinosa gives a clue to the inherent properties of the fruit: deep, plum-like colour and flavour (but only with proper preparation – otherwise, your mouth starts to fur up!)

These shrubs are abundant in Devon; we make sloe gin almost every year with the sloes we gather from our own hills. A few days ago, The Author and I went to the coast and picked some sloes there. For a while now, I’ve been keen to compare the coastal sloe gin with the Dartmoor sloe gin; in other words, I’m testing the terroir, a word that is not normally associated with gin. But why not? The land, the air, the surrounding flora all have their effect on plants. (My revelation came years ago when I tried a wine from the Western coast of Italy that tasted, quite pleasantly, of salt and mineral.) So stay tuned; there will be a gin tasting here in a few month’s time…

One more thing: sloe gin makes a great holiday gift. When The Author and I were living in Vermont, we gave small bottles of sloe gin to various friends for Christmas. Because of its reputation, we received a few puzzled looks, and one friend even mentioned that her sloe gin fizz days were way behind her. We advised everyone to drink the gin neat, like a port, which apparently they did; a few weeks later they were asking us if we had any more!

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The sloes look deceptively like blueberries, but don’t be fooled! One taste will set you straight. Also, when you are picking, take a thorn or two home with you: they are useful for preparing the fruit.

measures are approximate

  • 500g (1 lb) ripe sloes
  • 750 ml (25 oz.) gin (really, the cheapest will do)
  • 150g (3/4 cup) sugar

Wash the sloes and remove any leaves, twigs or other debris. Using a thorn from the shrub (or a darning needle or a sharp knife), prick each sloe a few times to break the skin, then pop it in a canning jar. When all the sloes have been pierced, add the sugar, and then the gin. Seal the jar and give it a good shake.

Your sloe gin won’t look very promising at this stage; it really just looks like all the ingredients in a jar. After an hour, you will start to see some colour, and after 4 hours it should start to turn a light ruby colour.

Leave the jar in a cool, dark place, and shake it every day for a few weeks and then occasionally after that. After 2 or three months, strain the liquid and taste. If you would like it sweeter, add a little more sugar to taste, and then bottle the gin.

If you start making it now, the gin will certainly be ready to drink by Christmas time, but you could also leave it to sit (strained and bottled) for longer. Basically, it will keep as long as you care to keep it, getting more mature and richer in flavour each year, although it will lose some of its ruby colour and get a little more tawny.

A glass of sloe gin is a glass of captured time.

*This is a process that you could speed up, ironically, by spending more time; in other words, you can put the fruit in the freezer overnight. The sloes will split on their own, and you can carry on with the recipe, but that step will take you an extra 12 hours or more.

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