THE blackthorn, prunus spinosa ("thorny plum"), a shrubby tree frequent in hedges, makes a good security fence thanks to the long thorns and its habit of producing suckers and spreading.

Its bark is smooth and dark, in early spring contrasting with the delicate paper-white blossoms which break out all over the bare black twigs. Blackthorn breaks blossom before leaf, which is how to tell it from its companion the whitethorn, or hawthorn, which breaks green leaf before blossom.

Blackthorn fruit, the sloes, are small round berries, blue-black and with a purple velvet bloom. You have to watch out for thorns, and should you so much as lick your finger while handling sloes your entire mouth puckers and shrivels with the acidity: they are bitter as remorse. Hard to believe this is an ancestor of all our sweet domestic plums and greengages, and that our Neolithic ancestors gathered them by the ton, desperate perhaps for the vitamins.

Sloes release their juices better for being frosted before you gather them, though you can cheat by popping them in the freezer overnight. Pick them over to remove stalks and the odd stony little shrivelled one.

The simplest Wild Brew recipe I know is my grandmother's Sloe Gin. It is rather like a magic trick, or one of those "is the bottle full?" demonstrations which prove that, no matter how full your life is, there's always room for sweetness - and for gin!

Olive Walker's Sloe Gin
Into a clean, screwtop bottle, put as many washed sloes as will fit. Shake into the bottle as much fine-pounded sugar as will fit. Pour in as much gin as will fit. Close the bottle well and shake vigorously night and morning for a fortnight. Stand for six months, strain and bottle.

In practice, I find that a kilo of sloes takes at least 750 grams of sugar, vanilla sugar for preference. It does not need to be "fine-pounded" - caster sugar, I suppose that means - though if you have a coffee grinder you can give it a quick whizz first.

Use a funnel to get the sugar in the bottle, shaking it down carefully among the fruit, and then to pour in the gin, cautiously. Give each sloosh of gin time to settle and let the bubbles rise. Too fast and it will turn into a fountain. I use a litre of gin to a kilo of sloes, which you can divide between bottles if necessary. Stand the bottle in the kitchen and give it a vigorous shake every time you catch sight of it for two weeks, to make the sugar dissolve and the fruit release its juice. Then put it away in a cupboard for six months. Strain off into a clean bottle and label.

The strained-off fruit is now sweet, aromatic and thoroughly gin-soaked, delicious with whipped cream. The liquor is pink, scented, smooth and quite intoxicating. The longer it keeps the better it gets ... I believe.

Sloe wine
Sloes also make a rich, dark wine, which must be aged for at least a year but is worth the wait. The skins need pricking with a sharp-tined fork to release their juice, though if you have simulated frosting by freezing them and put the boiling water directly onto the frozen fruit this will break the skins.


  • A crock, bowl or bucket for fermentation, with cover. It must be big enough to cope with the expansion as the pulp ferments
  • A fork
  • A saucepan
  • A wooden spoon
  • A chopping knife and board
  • A large mug, with cover
  • A clean boiled cloth big enough to cover the crock, and something to secure it with
  • A sieve fine enough to trap with stones
  • A funnel
  • Two demijohns, either of dark glass, or to be wrapped in brown paper or several sheets of newspaper to preserve the colour
  • A rubber bung with a hole in it
  • An airlock
  • A plastic tube for racking or siphoning the wine
  • An unpierced rubber bung
  • Clean bottles with screw-on tops or corks
  • Labels
  • For 1.5kg of washed, pick-over sloes, you need:
  • 1 kg of demerara sugar
  • 300g of unsulphurated sultanas or raisins
  • 4 litres of water, 1 litre at first and 3 litres later
  • 10g wine yeast, Burgundy or Montpellier for preference
  • 1 teaspoon yeast nutrient
  • Cool boiled water to top up with after 1 week
    1 If the sloes have not been frosted, prick them with the fork.

2 Wash and chop the sultanas or raisins coarsely.

3 Put fruit and sugar into your crock. Pour 1 litre of water of boiling water on top and stir vigorously with the wooden spoon. As the liquid cools you can mash or press them with your hands to pop the skins, but avoid cracking the stones.

4 Boil the remaining 3 litres of water and stir onto the mash. As it cools, stir in the yeast nutrient.

5 When the liquid cools to blood heat, take half a mug full and whisk in the yeast with a fork. Cover the crock carefully with the clean cloth and secure it, then cover with the lid. Leave somewhere warm for one week, stirring twice a day to mash the fruit. The fruit will rise to the top in a thick crust and the juice should be dark and velvety.

6 Strain the pulp through the sieve into the demijohn using a funnel.

7 Top up to the neck of the demijohn with cool, boiled water.

8 Fit an airlock and leave in a warm place to work.

9 When you are certain the wine has finished working, rack it into a clean demijohn, top it up to the neck with cool, boiled water, and stop it up with the unpierced bung. Leave in a cool dark place to age for 1 year, then bottle. It is now ready to use.

Gifts from the hedgerow
If you brew with any degree of success you are likely to have a range of very acceptable presents for your friends at Christmas and New Year. You must of course be sure that the recipients do actually drink, before you give alcohol and it is very bad form indeed to give unripened wines: never give anything that you yourself would not be happy to drink at once. Sloe gin and this summer's blackberry or raspberry cordials (made more or less as above, only using less sugar and vodka instead of gin) are fine festive tipples.

You can often find decorative coloured bottles, with corks, in charity shops for a pound or so. Check that the colour is not just painted on - there was a fashion for glass decorating some years ago and the paints tend to peel - and that the corks fit snugly. Avoid old oblong bottles with raised print in the glass, as they may have been used for poisons. The raised writing was to let blind people know what they were holding, and prevent people grabbing the wrong bottle in the dark.

Sluice out the bottles with warm water, dissolve a tablespoon of bottle-sterilising powder in a sink full of boiling water, and immerse bottles and corks for at least 20 minutes (if you put the bottles in cold they will crack). Drain them and rinse thoroughly with clear warm water. Let the bottles and corks dry out over night, making sure you can remember which goes with which, then decant your brew through a funnel. Red sealing wax melted over the cork, an attractively-written label, ribbons and so on are all additional flourishes to make your presents more appealing.

Perhaps you have a wild brewer or wild brewster in your life to find gifts for? (A brewster was a female brewer, just as a spinster originally meant a woman who spun. In the Middle Ages, brewsters were highly respected and often wealthy women who sometimes gave their names to their husbands, rather than vice versa, which is where the surname comes from).

There are all sorts of bits of kit that can be useful for the home winemaker, from old cider barrels for large-scale production, if you have the space, to vacuum-operated home corking gadgets. Good identification guides to wild flowers, fruit and trees are always useful, pocked-sized ones that you can take with you when you pick. Old books of country recipes often have a section on interesting wild brews: there are many in Florence White's Good Things In England (Jonathan Cape, 1968), for instance. Traditional wine recipes often dispense with yeast and tell you to ferment the brew in a barrel and use it "when it stops whistling", which seems a little hit and miss to me. The more scientific extreme is found in winemaking pamphlets of the 50's and 60's which go into great detail about specific gravities and such like: I have one (published by the Grey Owl Laboratories, price 5 shillings) with recipes for making your own vermouth and Benedictine! For my Christmas stocking, I would love to find one of those pamphlets on country crafts published by the Women's Institute in the 1920's and 30's. One lives in hope!