Autumn in a bottle (or a jar)

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Sloes + gin+ sugar = sloe gin

I’M no good at finding sloes, that bitter fruit of the backthorn, but it doesn’t really matter because I know someone who is. Every year I get two or three pounds of berries and have to find a use for them.

Particularly as the person who provides them (my ex-wife and her boyfriend who bungied off a bridge to get them) had taken so much trouble.

That’s not difficult and this year they have come early, big ripe juicy berries which haven’t needed a frost to soften. They have been compensation for a poor blackberry season my way (although the berries on a bramble in my garden were excellent) and a dismal crop of tiny, tasteless bilberries up on the moors.

The most obvious recipe is sloe gin or vodka and I reckon it takes a pound of berries to a 70cl bottle of gin plus four to six ounces of sugar, depending on how sweet you like your liqueur. Don’t spend a fortune on gin either. The award winning Oliver Cromwell at Aldi is a best buy at just under a tenner.

Normally, after destalking and washing, this is a painstaking business pricking the hard little berries with a pin to enable the juices to leach out. I have been given another, quicker, tip: run them against a grater. But I didn’t need to do either, they crushed easily in my fist.

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Juicy ripe sloes

I put them in a large jar which I had strained only moments before of last year’s sloe gin. You do, of course, get more than 70cl of sloe gin because the volume increases with the sloe juice and dissolved sugar. It doesn’t really take a year to make the gin liqueur. I was just lazy. It should be ready for Christmas. Autumn in a bottle!

But what to do with those used sloes? They were still gin soaked and it seemed a waste to throw them out.

In previous years I have painstakingly stoned the fruit and turned them into Mother’s Ruin Chutney. I still have the odd jar and it’s terrific. I have also made truffles out of them and if you want to know how to do it see here

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Sloe truffles

I warn you, it’s fiddly so I for one am not doing it this year! Instead I decided to use them in a hedgerow jelly, when there’s no need to stone anything. I used the gin soaked sloes, some fresh ones, half a pound of blackberries from the freezer where I also found some blackcurrants picked earlier this year on the Ponderosa. These last would provide the pectin to make things set. It occurred to me I could also call this Black Fruit Jelly: blackthorn, bilberry and blackcurrant.

Making jelly is easy. There must have been several pounds of fruit, tipped into a preserving pan, just covered with water and simmered until soft. Then tip them into a scalded jelly net (I have now bought a little jelly making rig so I don’t have to suspend it from an upended stool) and allow to drain overnight.

The discarded fruit went in the compost and I measured the juice, just under a litre. For every 600ml of juice you need 450 grams of sugar or pro rata. Simmer until dissolved then boil fast (about 10-15 minutes) until you get a set. I ignore my deceitful jam thermometers and use the saucer test: chill two or three in the freezer, take one out, put a blob of jelly on it, turn off the heat, put the saucer in the fridge for five minutes, then see if it wrinkles. I got a result, a nice, soft set, on the second attempt.

That made half a dozen small jars. The jelly makes a change from jam on toast, can be used to fill cakes and a spoonful really enhances sauces and gravies.

I still had some sloes left over so I bunged them in the freezer until I decide what to do with them Any ideas?

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Hedgerow jelly

Crab apple crazy!

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Chilli and crab apple jelly

This year I’m going crab apple crazy. All that fruit for free which nobody wants is just begging to be turned into jellies at hardly any cost except for the sugar. And that’s at bargain prices at the moment.

So far I’ve made rowan and crab apple jelly and chilli and crab apple jelly and both have been a great success. I can’t think why I haven’t done it before.

Actually I can. It’s all that straining overnight through jelly bags and trying not to squeeze and turn the liquid cloudy, then worrying about getting a set, overboiling and it finishing up hard and stiff instead of coming quivering out of the jar.

In fact, what I wanted was the sort of jellies that excellent chef Hugh Cocker always had on the menu at the Old Post, Chesterfield.

But now I’ve cracked it with the help of Pam Corbin’s Preserves, the River Cottage Handbook No 2. There are red and orange rowan berry trees all over Sheffield and I picked a kilo at the Ponderosa in Crookes. It’s a great place for fruit. Some years ago a local conservationist group planted fruit trees and bushes so now I pick gooseberries, blackcurrants, plums, damsons, blackberries and elderberries there throughout the year. The area, a big patch of parkland and woodland, got its name from local kids playing there after the ranch in the Sixties TV series Bonanza,

As I walked back to my car there was a crab apple tree ablaze with fruit. I picked some and to get an equal quantity of apple to rowan I scrumped more from my neighbour’s garden, with his permission.

Pam doesn’t mention this little trick but I blitzed the fruits in a processor, put everything in a big pan, just covered it with water and simmered for an hour. I tied the jelly bag to the four feet of an upturned stool, put a bowl underneath and covered the lot with a bin bag to keep the flies off.

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An upturned stool and jelly bag makes this improvised strained

The next day I had about a litre of juice. It was back in the pan and for each 600ml of liquid I stirred in 450g of sugar. (This is the same formula for whatever jelly you make.) She also recommends the juice of a lemon although there is plenty of pectin in the apples. It’s there to sharpen flavours. As I wanted to use the jelly with meats I tied a bunch of sage and thyme together and hung it in the pan during the simmer and boil.

It was a remarkably quick set (test early) using the saucer test and the flavour and colour, a gorgeous pinky red, is excellent. It will go well with meats and enrich sauces and stews.

Flushed with success I tried again, this time with chillies, a mixture of bought ones from the local Indian shop (costing only pennies) and some tiny ones I’d grown on the windowsill. I chopped these up and added them to the pan while the juice was coming to the boil. I wanted it quite hot so had four chillies, red, orange and green, some deseeded, others not.

When the jelly sets you want the chilli bits suspended in it but they insist on floating to the top. Pam has a good trick. At setting point turn off the heat and leave the pan to cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then bottle. Every time the chillies rise to the top upend the jars and give them a twist. Eventually they give in, the jelly sets and they are suspended all through the mixture.

It’s hot but not too hot. Remember that one way to tone down a too chilli-hot curry is to add a tablespoon of sugar. There’s plenty of sugar in the jelly so the heat tends to balance out. It will be an alternative to the chill jam (made with tomatoes) which goes well with fish cakes and similar foods – just about anything really!

There are still shedloads of crab apples on the trees so I’m working out what to do next!

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Crab apples – all for free