Filling your hip flask with berries from the garden
With the 2021 season only just around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about your winter warmers. Being ahead of time will pay dividends in the season as being too late or early can leave a sour taste in your mouth, literally. With damsons and sloe berries coming into season in a month it’s time to get your ducks in a row. You’ll need bottles, cooking utensils and plenty of fruits. We also recommend some labels, when you find a bottle in the back of the cupboard it helps to know when it was made. This also may be a brilliant gift for your shoot host or captain.
Elderflowers are critically underused but the juice is definitely worth the squeeze. The heads are plentiful and should be used if you have them available to you. The best use we’ve found is Elderflower wine which is a perfect complement to a summer’s picnic. Take 25 heads and then stim them away from the central stem of the plant. Take 200g of sultanas,1 juiced and zested lemon, 1kg of sugar and 5g of citric acid to a bowl. Cover and leave this to marinate for 8 hours, ideally done overnight. Add 75ml of cold black tea, 2.5 liters of cold water and stir, then 5g of wine yeast to the mixture.
Cover your mixture and leave it in a warm spot out of sunlight, this will take a minimum of 5 days but as many as 14. Then, transfer this mixture to a clean container which you can seal and top up with some boiled water. Leave this mixture to ferment for 6 weeks and wait until it stops bubbling and the liquid starts to clear. Transfer this all back into a clean container and add one campden tablet. This will be the last stage for further fermenting but can take a couple of months to complete. At this point, you can decant into your bottles and drink. Its labour intensive but not expensive, just let the process take its turn and be patient.
Finding your Sloe/Damson berries
Finding your berries is going to be the biggest challenge, both finding them and finding enough of them. It’s better to have too many than too little. Sloe Berries can be found after the first frost in the UK which is often around late October or early November. Damsons are abundant between August and October. We’ve found finding the right trees on your summer dog walks the best way of pre emptying your harvesting spots. There are laws around where you can pick berries from but as a rule of thumb don’t take more than can feasibly use and you can’t pick them to sell at a later date. To make a litre of your chosen drink you’ll need 500g of each berry. You won’t make any friends taking the entire tree/bushes worth of berries.
What you need
The amount of items you need for a successful brewing session isn’t much more than what you’d have in most kitchens. Things you might not have include, a large jar to sit your sloe’s or damsons in, a conical sieve and coffee filters. These coffee filters should slow the flow to a rate that makes the bottling process easier. This should also remove any leftover sediment that remains in the bottle. The bottles that we recommend are the swing top bottles as no special machines are needed to seal them and they’re reusable. They also come in a myriad of sizes so you can have smaller ones as gifts and larger ones to take with you shooting.
You will need to do your prep before you start. One thing you might not have is a funnel to decant into your bottles, its worth getting this ahead of time. With your spirits, sugar and cooking utensils in place, you’ll be ready to go. With damsons, it’s best to freeze them overnight the day before you intend to use them. The day you intend to use them, rinse them and remove any leftover branches. Once washed, dry them off and add them to a bowl. Here, you should take a fork and pierce or break the skin of the berries to make sure the flavour gets out. Add the sugar (250g), the alcohol (1 litre) and the berries to a large jar and shake. You will need to shake the jar each day for a week and store in a cool dark place for 3 months. After you’ve waited 3 months you can retrieve your jars and decant them into fresh bottles. We recommend using a coffee filter in a cone shaped funnel to make this process a little easier. Your gin/vodka is now ready to drink but will improve over time.
It’s not always possible to pick out exactly 500 grams per liter of alcohol. It’s likely you’ll pick a few too many and be in the position of what to do with your leftovers. Jam is what we’d suggest as it’s easily made and only requires some water and some sugar. This is something you can keep in the fridge and use as an alternative to your shop bought jam. Per 1kg of damsons, you’ll need 800g of sugar and 500ml of water. These ratios will scale should you have more or less damsons.
For sloe jam, the process is similar but we’d recommend something to counteract the natural bitterness so add something like apples. 500g of sloes, 500g of cooking apples, 1kg of granulated sugar and 400ml of water. Remove the pips from the sloes and dice the apples and add to half of your water. Boil these for 20 minutes while keeping the lid on to retain the water. With your leftover sloe pips, use the rest of your water and bring them to a boil. Both should finish at the same time, at this point you should drain the water into your apples and sloes. Add your sugar and bring to a boil for 4 minutes stirring throughout.
The jam will set quite quickly so be careful not to overcook your mixture. Place a bit of your mix onto a cool plate and run your finger through it. If the Jam doesn’t fill the void then it’s ready, if it runs back into the void boil slightly longer. You can now add your mixture to your jars and then leave to cool. After the jam has cooled, you can seal the jars and put them into the cupboard or fridge.
If you have these berries growing in your garden then you really should be taking up the opportunity to use them rather than waste them. Many people will have friends or family who have elderflowers or berries in their garden but don’t put them to use. If you know these people then let them know you’d like to know when they’re ready. You can return the favour by bringing them a bottle of your homebrew.
If you’ve read this and really can’t find any berries then they can be found online. A website called Sloeberry will sell you everything you need to get started including the bottles. They sell both sloe and damson berries so you can pick either or both. This might be perfect for those living in cities with less access to wild gardens.