Michaelmas Day is when the Archangel Michael ejected his colleague Lucifer – a shady type known to use aliases and adept at blending in with the crowd – from Heaven.
It’s also my birthday.
A gorgeous day as it happens. I take the woofers out to Toton Fields, a half mile up the Erewash from its rendezvous with the Trent. The precise confluence is lost to antiquity and the flooded gravel pits of Attenborough, through which it filters before entering the bigger river by way of sluiced outlets like this one, captured last November.
Here, no matter what the time of day or year, I can almost guarantee to see a heron up to its knees in a waiting game.
But I digress. On this sunlit Michaelmas, 2020, I’ve come prepared, having spied the day before a purpling of sloes on the steep slopes above Toton Sidings on the east side of the valley.
In ninety minutes I have over two kilos; more than enough. Back home, it’s in the colander and under the tap with them for a thorough rinse and leaf/stalk removal. Then into the freezer to emulate frosts that bring out the flavour. That done, I amble over to Lidl for things to go with.
Things that don’t grow on bushes.
Home once more, I assemble all ingredients.
All? Hang on a mo. Summat’s missing here. Ah, that’s more like it …
Opinion divides sharply over what gin to use. Some say go cheap as the sloes do all the heavy lifting on flavour. Then again, two sources say it makes little sense to embark on a project that won’t come to fruition for three months if it’s a day – better a year, and better yet two – with parsimony aforethought. Ships, tar and reluctance to part with ha’pennies are darkly implied.
That said, the dissenters do happen to be Jamie Oliver, whom I’ve always had trouble taking seriously, and a company flogging their allegedly superior gin. I’ve written elsewhere on the manufacture of “our” preferences in the drinks department.
(Actually I have been known to fork out £40 plus for a 70cc bottle. Forked if I could say how, in a blind tasting, it merited a hike of what cockneys call a pony over Lidl brand Haysmiths. But then I’m the kind of philistine who couldn’t be relied on to tell – ten times out of ten in blind tastings with all other variables held constant1 – a Schweppes from a Fever Tree G & T.)
In the end I compromise. There are cheaper gins, and assuredly dearer ones, than the brands I choose. For the first batch it’s Gordons at £17 a litre; for the second, a Lidl offering at £15.99 the standard 70cc bottle. Did you know Lidl has in recent years won awards in the spirits stakes; gin included?
In the main I’m working to a BBC recipe – 500gm of sloes, one litre of gin and 250gm of caster sugar. But I’m omitting the tiresome business of pricking each and every sloe. Jamie Oliver, a chap to be taken seriously, has it that if the sloes are slightly soft to the touch when picked and you store them overnight in the freezer, such tediousness can be safely bypassed.
Copy that, Jamie.
I happen to know, through carefully calibrated increments the night before with the Gordons batch, that my two-litre kilners will take 600gm of sloes, 300gm of caster sugar and 1.2 litres of gin to bring the mix almost to the brim. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think this preserves the specified ratios.
Upturn the sealed jar. Shoulda taken a video. It’s a pretty sight – a cross between those sixties lava lamps and the snowstorm-in-a-dome affairs kids used to get in Christmas stockings.
Picture it in your mind’s eye: Santa and sleigh, reindeer and jingling bells, hauling into view on Sloe Ridge, then down into Sugar Gin Valley.
On that upturning and/or gentle shaking, here too every recipe has its own algorithm. Except when I forget, I’ll turn the jars once a week till Christmas.2
Then it will be ready to decant. I may or may not need to filter for that look of darkly pristine clarity. First things first though. For now, it’s down to a “cool and dimly lit place”, aka the garage.
And I still have more than enough sloes in the freezer, and a third two-litre kilner jar on stand by – just like the Proud Boys – for a 1.2 batch of sloe vodka. Watch this space.
- Such blind tastings should of course follow a strict procedure: not a drop swallowed, but spat out prior to rinsing mouth and palate with water for next tasting. A lifelong buddy of mine – a commenter on this post, though to spare his blushes I won’t say which (thereby putting the others under a dark cloud of suspicion, tee hee) – did in his callow youth swagger into his local to demand the Chivas Regal favoured by Mr Bond. (This in the days when anything but Haigs, Bells, Teachers or Johnny Walker Red Label existed only in the world of 007.) As it happens the barman, who knew my pal and his cocky ways of old, did have a bottle or two of single malt for extra special occasions. (For merely special occasions, Bells was lavish enough.) Said pal was challenged there and then to tell the difference in a blind tasting. Young and foolish, he knocked back six doubles in succession. By tot four he failed to distinguish scotch from rum and, by tot seven, would have been hard put to tell either from meths. (He never got to seven but I’m told he’d by that point have struggled to tell champagne from shoe-shine.)
- Next day update: my friend Jackie emailed with this: “I heard of someone who puts the sloe gin in the boot of her car so that it gets mixed up with the movement of the car!” Cracking wheeze: into the boot it goes! Of course, Green Me uses the car only on rare occasions like roughing it in the Fens, but my less fastidious sweetie’s reckless and profligate use will allow me to have my cake and – washed down with sloe gin – eat it.