The next in the series of Autumn Foraging posts from Scrubland Scavenger. This time we are out Foraging For Sloes.
In the previous post we were Foraging for Brambles. Prior to that we learned some Foraging Basics such as the kind of kit you need and how to forage responsibly and safely. Now we are going Foraging for Sloes with Scrubland Scavenger, the second of four autumn berries (Brambles, Sloes, Rowans, Haws) in this ‘Jewels of Autumn’ blog series.
Hi, just me again!
So today it’s all about the Sloes, Sloes being the fruit of the Blackthorn bush. When I mention foraging to someone for the first time, it’s not uncommon for Sloes (and of course Sloe Gin) to crop into the conversation soon after. Sloes seems to be synonymous with foraging in the UK, so how could I not include foraging for sloes in this autumn foraging blog series?
The ancestor of all our cultivated plums
Blackthorns (Prunus Spinosa) are in the same plant family cherries and plums. Richard Mabley advises in his useful little book Food For Free that “The Sloe is the ancestor of all our cultivated plums”, so we actually have a lot to thank the Blackthorn for. Despite this they seem to have a bit of a reputation!
I like a bit of botanical folklore and mythology, and there’s plenty of that when it comes to the Blackthorn. From its wood being used by From witches using the wood to make their wands and brooms and using the thorns in their curses, to the bushes being the home of fairies who, in one story I read, burnt a farmer’s home to the ground after he decided to take an axe to one bush!
Tales about the Blackthorn mostly appear to be ominous and some even a wee bit disturbing. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t believe in evil trees, I love coming across a Blackthorn bush!
In the past folk have said to me “The thorns of Blackthorns are poisonous aren’t they?” So, it seems there are still myths out there about the poor Blackthorn. The answer is technically, no, the thorns do not contain poison. However if you get a scratch, a bad prick or are unfortunate enough to have one of the long, sharp thorns break off under your skin, the wounds do have a tendency to get infected if not appropriately cared for.
Remember the gloves from my Foraging Kit? They are a good shout when foraging for Sloes. I’m not trying to scare you, promise. Similar infections can occur when injured by a Hawthorn thorn, or the thorns of other plants, so the main thing is just to be careful.
I’ve been foraging for Sloes and Haws many a time and, touch wood (but not the thorns!), have never had any of the minor injuries cause me any complications. Please don’t let thorns put you off!
Out foraging for Sloes with my mates
I’m pleased to say that most of my mates show an interest in my wild food obsession and recently two of them (a couple – so only one other household!), braving the risk of thorns, joined me for a wee autumn foraging mission. Heading out onto my normal stomping grounds close to home, we went foraging for Sloes. It wasn’t really much of a hunt if I’m honest, because I did the leg work earlier this year.
In late March and early April I had my eyes peeled for the white flowers that are the indicator of good things to come. Blackthorn blossom appears on the bush before the leaves do, so the contrast between the white of the blossom and the black of the bark helps to make them stand out when scanning the landscape.
If you are out foraging for Sloes, looking for Blackthorn bushes right now then the blossoms will be long gone. However you can use the leaves and the berries themselves, as well as the bark and the thorns of the bushes, to make sure you’re picking the right thing.
Oval leaves and matt blue berries
The leaves are oval and at their widest above halfway down the leaf, the leaves have a tendency to cluster on the end of the stems. The berries are round, a kind of matt blue turning to black as they ripen and generally about 1-1.5cm in length. Inside the flesh is greenish and there should be one central stone.
The bark is very dark brown, almost black as the name suggests. The long, sharp and stiff thorns protrude from the stems and leaf buds grow out of them.
After wandering through a scattering of pine woodland with a small burn running beside, pointing out to my mates some edible mushrooms and greenery along the way, we came across what I had sought after since first spotting the blossoms 6 months ago – bushes full of dark, ripe Sloes ready for the picking.
On coming across the abundant crop, one of the first things that one of my mates asked me was “Can you eat them raw?” “You can,” I said, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.” Gingerly she gave it a go….I had to giggle at her face (sorry hun!) Sloes have to be one of the tartest berries out there, think sour lemon but with an extreme dryness of taste and you are getting somewhere close.
My mates both turned out to be great pickers, and soon the bags we had bought with us began to fill up. I am an advocate of foraging with friends: more eyes to spy things out, more hands to gather your haul more quickly and a bit of good company to boot! It is easy to stay 2 metres apart while foraging, and safely share the joy of being surrounded by nature with people you care about.
As we picked, my mate asked, “So, what are we making with these?” I said proudly, “Sloe Gin.” It was just as she said it that I remembered…neither of them drink alcohol! After they had valiantly traipsed across fields and bogs to help me on my mission, I was planning on making something neither of them could even try! I felt rather bad. Only one thing for it…I had to expand my Sloe usage repertoire!
So the result of my attempt to create something tasty from Sloes that isn’t alcoholic: Sloe and Apple Jelly, the recipe for it is below.
As much as I admire my mates’ ability to refrain, I’m afraid I have to admit that I have also made some Sloe Gin again this year for my own enjoyment. If you haven’t tried it but you want to, then here’s a good recipe [speak to Adam for link or if he wants a brief recipe typed up with pics to link to]. If you’ve tried making Sloe Gin but want to try something different which is still alcoholic why not take a look at Adam’s Sloe Gin Alternative? I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on my list & if Adam recommends it, it will be pretty good!
Sloe and Apple Jelly
If you fancy giving Sloe and Apple Jelly a go you’ll need the same equipment as detailed in last week’s Bramble Jelly recipe. It’s also pretty much the same process, but obviously the main ingredients differ:
- 600g foraged Sloes
- 400g foraged Apples (fabulous to find those windfall apples last week)
- Granulated Sugar (how much you use will depend on how much juice is extracted from the fruit, but if you have at about 500g to hand that should be enough)
- 300ml of water
Because the process of making Sloe and Apple Jelly is so similar to that of making Bramble Jelly last week, I’m not going to go into major detail this time round or post more pictures of pans or jelly bags full of fruit. If you want a bit more detail then refer back to my Foraging for Brambles post, or give me a shout in the comments or via the Food Community Facebook group… I can explain further. If you hit a hurdle, no doubt it’s one I’ve also encountered!
So, like the Bramble’s last week, you need to put the fruit into the pan with the water. There is no need to peel or core the apples, just chop them into pieces and bung them in with the Sloes.
Bring to the boil then simmer as per the Brambles, but it will take longer for the fruit to break down, about 20 minutes. Use a tattie masher to break down the remaining solids, without crushing the stones of the Sloes. Strain the liquid through your jelly bag overnight, measure the extracted liquid then put into a clean pan.
Sloes are very tart and acidic, and Sloe and Apple Jelly is one Jelly where my normal rule of thumb with sugar (75g of sugar per 100ml of extracted juice) fulls a wee bit short. I suggest going with 75g per 100ml to begin with, then tasting the liquid once the sugar has dissolved but before you raise the heat and bring it to the boil. If you find it to tart, gradually add and dissolve more sugar, tasting as you go, until you like it. I ended up adding about 80g per 100ml, but again, this will depend on taste and how sweet the variety of foraged apples you find!
Once you’re happy with the sweetness (or lack of tartness), bring it up to jam setting point, then decant into sterilised jars. Another autumn foraging tasty treat preserved to enjoy in the colder, more sparse months ahead!
I’m not entirely happy with my Sloe and Apple Jelly as an inventive non-alcoholic Sloe recipe if I’m completely honest. It is tasty (my faithful guinea pigs gave it the thumbs up), but surely there must be more uses for my sought after Sloes? I will continue to try and find some new ways with Sloes… but if you have any recommendations, please do let me know!
Next time… Rowan Berries
Rowan berries are on the wild ‘shopping list’ in the next part of this autumn foraging series. Abundant and underappreciated, lets hope I can inspire you to give them a try if you haven’t already.
Scrubland Scavenger is based in the south of the Scottish Borders. With a real commitment to becoming fully self-sufficient, Scrubland Scavenger started foraging locally when still a child and, although never claiming to be an expert, has built up a good knowledge of many of the wild edible delights. Scrubland Scavenger promotes sustainable foraging, not only to collect culinary delights but also as a great way of discovering more about your local environment & as an exciting way to reconnect with the abundance of nature all around us.