Friday, 6 November 2009

Sloes and a slice of history!

The Indian summer of September and October has finally disappeared. Clocks going back to Greenwich Mean Time seemed to herald a return of normal temperatures and lots of rain. Before this happened, I managed to achieve three field walks, one in the Cotswolds and two in the town.

During our last visit to the farm for the woodworking workshop on October 24th, I was anxious to pick more sloes and rosehips to try making a hedgerow tonic. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday morning. After pulling all the bark off my crampbark prunings, I made my way outside to a neighbouring field armed with a wicker basket and my late great-uncle’s walking stick.

As I opened the small hunting gate into the field, twenty partridges and a cock pheasant who were sheltering against the wall next to our barn flew up into the bright blue sky. I was so sorry to have disturbed them. There were lots of sloes on the trees, although most of them had dried up. I also found a good handful or more of late blackberries. There were even some blackberry flowers which showed how unseasonal the weather was!

I was very grateful to have Uncle Arthur’s walking stick as it made it much easier to reach all the fruit which was above my height. When I came to the open gate, I saw two horses coming along the road, so I hid behind the huge pile of lucerne bales in plastic covers so they couldn’t see me and wouldn’t be spooked. I was very surprised to find a host of dandelion flowers by the bales, so I picked them for the tonic.

There were cows about to calve in the field where I picked rosehips the last time I visited my parents, so I decided not to disturb them and made my way up the side of my original field and found a large bush with bright, ripe rosehips just waiting to be picked. Chris had to come and call me in to dinner as I’d been having too much fun out in the fresh air!

We were supposed to fly off to a long weekend in the sun last weekend, but the online ticket order wasn’t recognised, so we decided to forget about it and I spent a happy five days pottering at home with my herbs and knitting needles.

After four days of being shut in an office, only able to see sunshine through distant windows made me desperate to be outside. I was able to sort out some dried herbs and some sewing whilst sitting on the bench underneath the kitchen window, but in the afternoon, I took my basket and wellington boots and ventured around the corner into the Friary field.

Our area in Olton (literally Old Town) has an interesting history. I live on Kineton Green Road. The word, Kineton, means King’s Mead i.e. the land belonged to the King rather than to the nearest Abbey.

Interestingly, all parishes called Kineton are still managed through the Queen’s personal offices. When the Gloucestershire parishes of Upper and Lower Slaughter, Kineton, Cutsdean, Temple Guiting and Naunton were merged into one benefice in the early 1980s, permission had to be granted by the Queen for Kineton to be included. Wawickshire also has a village called Kineton near Edgehill where one of the early battles of the second Civil war were fought.

Olton was originally farm land, benefitting from the introduction of the Great Western Railway from Leamington Spa to Birmingham and the Warwickshire canal. The first Catholic bishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne, built St. Bernard's Seminary at Olton in 1873, giving its name to the road.

In 1889 his successor moved the seminary to Oscott and the Franciscan Friars, Capuchin, bought the site, bringing the Roman Catholic Parish into being. They built and opened the church of the Holy Ghost and Mary Immaculate (otherwise known as Olton Friary) in 1929. Fr. Pascal built the parish hall in 1955. I used to take the children to the Tuesday afternoon mother and toddler group in the parish hall as it was only a five minute walk from our house.

The Friary also leased land to the Jewish community, so there is a synagogue right next to the churchyard! I often see people walking along St Bernard’s road heading for Friday night or Saturday prayers. The friars provided a Catholic chaplain to Solihull Hospital for many years.

During the late 1980s, planning permission was sought to build on the remaining five-acre field in the parish next to the Friary. Permission was granted, provided that one acre was left as public land for people to walk their dogs.

You can still see where original hedgerows divided ups the land. Amongst the trees are elder, hazel, holly and hawthorn, which are normal hedging trees. As you enter the field there are a group of ancient horse chestnut trees, where I gather my conkers in August for tincture or infused oil. It was lucky I came here in August because the squirrels appear to have eaten the majority of the conkers. There was nothing left besides pieces of seed casing and bright fragments of conker shell.

High banks were built around the Friary itself to preserve the privacy of the car park with elder and laurel planted at the top of the bank. Over the past five years I have noticed how blackthorn has taken over the sides of the banks. It’s never mown or slashed, so they just keep on growing. Most of the trees are still too small to bear sloes, but I found some wonderful juicy berries on older trees, all of whom had lost their leaves.

I’d noticed some dog roses on the top of the bank in the spring, but as they didn’t look quite like the ones I’m familiar with, I didn’t pick any. Luckily, they’d made some beautiful large rosehips, so I climbed up through tall nettles and small blackthorn bushes and picked a large handful. I was very glad I’d got my wellingtons on!

What really made me laugh (and cry at the same time inside!) was a dog walker who wanted to know what was in my basket. He looked quite perturbed when he saw the rosehips.

“Are you sure those are edible?” he asked me and when I reminded him of the rosehip syrup he must have drunk as a child, he said, “I always thought those were deadly nightshade and poisonous!”

I’ve had the same thing said to me when I’ve been picking haws from trees there. It makes me want to lecture people about what is edible and what isn’t!

As the weather was still glorious on Saturday, I returned to the field in the afternoon to pick nettle seed. I’d seen lots of nettles in just the right stage when I’d been wandering around the previous afternoon, but I didn’t have any gloves or secuteurs with me and I don’t like picking nettle seed without them.

I got a huge basket full which are destined for my friend Debs’ husband Simon. It’s hoped they will act as a replacement for Ashwaghanda roots to give him more energy until we can grow some more plants from seeds harvested this year.

Half of the sloes picked went into the freezer for Debs to make some infused sloe vodka and the rest I made into sloe and rose hip cordial with lemon juice. It was the best tasting cordial I have made so far!

Spiced Sloe Cordial
1lb sloes
4oz blackberries (less than one handful),
4oz rosehips(about a handful)
1 cinnamon stick
½ freshly grated nutmeg
1 inch root ginger (peeled and chopped into tiny pieces – optional)
1 doz yellow dandelion petals from about a dozen dandelion flowers (optional).
Cover everything with water in a medium sized saucepan and cook at a gentle simmer for half an hour. When everything seems cooked, liquidise and then strain it through a seive to remove all seeds and other hard bits. Recover what is stuck on the sides of the liquidiser with some boiled water to make the liquid up to 1 and 1/4 pints. Add 1 and a 1/4 lbs sugar to the liquid back in the washed saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has all melted. Pour into sterilised bottles, seal, label and date.

It tastes wonderful. It is definitely astringent, which goes with what Glennie Kindred wrote about blackthorn in that it is helpful for diarrhoea, but very comforting when drunk warm.

Sloe/Rosehip Cordial
1lb sloes
1/2lb rise rosehips
I added 2 pints of water and the juice and zest of half a lemon and simmered for about an hour until the rosehips are soft. (I was outside de-petalling dried calendula flowers and hanging out washing, so I just let it get on with it!). I ignored it for most of the day and came back to it around 5pm, so it had cooled down by then. I liquidised it and then tasted it. It wasn't bitter or sour and tasted very much like blackberries - still an astringency in my mouth, but not unpleasant. It was 2 pints of liquid, so I added 2lbs of sugar and brought it back to the boil. It tasted a little too sweet, so I added juice from another whole lemon.

I have to tell you I am totally in love with sloes and rosehips. It tastes even better as a simple syrup than it did as a spiced one, and that was really good. I cut some lemon peel and put it in a mug together with some recently boiled water and the dregs from the saucepan. I gave it to Chris to try and he almost wouldn't let me have the mug back. I've never seen him that enthusiastic about a syrup before!

If you know where your blackthorn trees are locally and haven't searched for sloes yet, you might still find some. Believe me, it's worth it!


Hear Mum Roar said...

Can I ask a dumb question: what is a sloe? LOL, I'm sorry, I'm an Aussie, I hope that excuses me ignorance.

Hear Mum Roar said...

My, not me, oops! Typo...

Rowan said...

I so enjoyed reading this, I've not picked any wild fruits this year which must be the first time ever, one way and another the fruits and I and the available time never coincided. Reading this has made me determined to do better next year though. Another thing I love about your blog is all the wonderful inspiring photographs. I will definitely do a course with you next year!

Sarah Head said...

Hi Mum, the sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn tree and is a type of wild plum. You may not have blackthorn in your part of Australia.

Hi Rowan, thanks for your comments - I suspect it's not absolutely too late to gather, I'm going to see if I can find some more sloes tomorrow. I posted this at work, so haven't put up all the photos for the article yet!

Hear Mum Roar said...

Oh, in that case, sloes sound utterly delicious!

Anonymous said...

Please could you tell me where I could find some sloes near Kineton

Sarah Head said...

Todd, you need to look in your local hedges for blackthorn trees/bushes. They're the ones with the long, viscious spikes/thorns. The sloes tend to hide as they hang down from the branches. They can also be high up from the ground if the trees are cut by council or farm workers trimming the hedges next to a road. They look like small black/navy blue plums. Good luck with your hunt!