BITTER HARVEST, HEARTY CHEERS
The beauty of blackthorn blossom belies the sour
fruit it will produce. But
Tessa Gates met a Devon farmer who cant get
enough of its bitter berries.
EVERY country child will have bitten into a dark and luscious-looking sloe – once. The mouth-drying sourness of this fruit of the blackthorn is not a taste you forget in a hurry.
But douse sloes liberally with alcohol and a little sugar, shake regularly and have the patience to wait at least nine months and these unpalatable fruit metamorphose into a deliciously smooth liqueur. And, if you are really clever, like Devon fruit farmer Edward Kain, you can make not one drink but two from the same batch of sloes.
Edward runs Dittisham Fruit Farm and Capton Vineyard, near Dartmouth, where he produces soft fruits, unusual herbs, salad greens and vegetables, wine and liqueurs. His Devon Pure Fruit Liqueurs* – blackcurrant, raspberry, strawberry, blackberry and plum – are all on the dry side rather than sickly sweet, and like his sloe gin and Slider – a by-product of the sloe gin – are made in his winery with his own and local fruits.
"We have blackthorn in the hedges round the farm but we can never get enough sloes. We have tried planting more but its the devils own job, they will only grow where they want to be. We pray for warm, dry weather when the blossom is out so that it will set and come September I put an advert in the local paper to buy in sloes at 50p/lb," says Edward, who needs about 500kg (1000lb) each season and likes them to be picked in October when the fruit not only looks ripe, but is ripe.
There are several varieties of blackthorn and sloes come in all sizes from that of a pea to almost as big as a wild plum. "But size doesnt seem to make any difference to the taste," says Edward, who says hedges should be left uncut for two or three years so that they can produce a good crop.
"You will never get sloes on a slashed hedge," he says.
He freezes all the fruit and this is an important part of the process and one that amateur sloe gin makers might like to copy. Most sloe gin recipes say each fruit must be pricked – in some it even states "pricked with a thorn from the bush" – a tedious job even for small amounts but well nigh impossible when you have 500kg (1000lb) of fruit to stab.
"I cant possibly prick each one so I pour the alcohol onto the frozen berries and the thermal shock does it for me," says Edward, who uses pure alcohol, rather than ready made gin, adding the "botanicals", the spices that give it a gin flavour, himself.
The sloes sit in 22-litre (5gal) buckets of gin, a size Edward finds most easy to handle, as they have to shaken to homogenise the fruit and alcohol. After straining and the addition of sugar, the sloe gin is tested for alcoholic strength and is sold at 26% vol.
"Every batch is measured to get this exactly right, and then filtered and bottled. Sloe is the easiest of all liqueurs," says Edward, who has been making it at the farm for eight years, but is a metallurgist by training.
He buys the alcohol in 50 litre (11gal) barrels. "The cost of the alcohol is about £40 but by the time the duty and the VAT are added it costs £1200," explains Edward. "Having got all this alcohol with all this tax on it into the sloes, the last thing you want to do is throw the sloes away, as this grieves me. Happily, I have found a use for them and invented a new drink, Slider."
"If you put raw cider on top of the sloes the alcohol comes back out and if you leave it for six weeks it goes a pinky colour. Cider is 6% and Slider is 17.5% alcohol." says Edward. "For every five gallons of sloe gin we make two and a half gallons of Slider. It is very popular and we cant make enough of it."
He would like to increase production of all the liqueurs, but finds it impossible with the fruit farm to run, especially as he has had two major operations recently. He and his wife, Penny, have made the difficult decision to put the farm up for sale and expand the liqueur business on other premises locally.
"We make about 2,000 litres a year and sell it all without advertising. We give tastings and sell here at the farm shop, through mail order and retail outlets, and supply hotels and restaurants," explains Edward,. "When we go it alone without the farm, I intend to step up production to 8,000 litres and feel I can do that competently, and sell it."
Every batch of sloe gin is measured for alcoholic content and Edward finds it the easiest of his liqueurs to make. When the sloes are strained from the gin, they are then covered with cider for six weeks to produce a new drink, Slider.