Like blackberries, sloes are often picked by people who don't otherwise scour the hedgerows in search of forageable goodies.
When sloes are someone's only foraged food, they tend to get made into sloe gin. I have a bit of a problem with the concept of sloe gin, in that if I'm buying alcohol to start with, why not just drink it as it is? For my foraged and home-made drinks, I'd rather use sugar and let yeast make the alcohol for me. The sugar still has to be bought, but it's closer to self-sufficient booze than buying booze to start with, I feel. With this in mind, I experimented with sloe and elderberry wine a couple of years ago. This was hugely successful, and I have a batch on the go this year, which I'll file under
elderberries and tell you about when it's ready.
The usual advice on picking sloes is to wait until after the first frost. This advice is given for various other things, including parsnips, and I'd heard that it's just an indicator of season, and when they're likely to be ripe. In other words, the frost itself has no effect on the fruit. I had the opportunity to test this theory when I was visiting my sister. I'd picked a few sloes near her house, then a couple of days later we had the first frost of the year, so I went back and picked a few more (not from exactly the same place, but somewhere a little closer, as we were leaving that morning and I didn't have very much time), so I had two samples of sloes to take home with me, picked just a couple of days apart, but before and after the first frost. Once home, I split the earlier sample and put half of it in the freezer overnight, which some people do to mimic the effect of frost.
I did my best to set up a blind taste test. I put my samples in three ramekin dishes and stuck labels to the bottom of the dishes. Over the course of a few hours, I then shuffled the dishes every time I went past them, so that I wouldn't remember which one was which. Unfortunately, it was quite easy to tell them apart. The sloes in the second sample were slightly larger than those in the first, and those that had been in the freezer were considerably messier than those that hadn't. Still, I did my best to ignore these features when I tasted them.
The first one I tried had the familiar astringency - you know, the kind that instantly removes all moisture from your mouth and turns your face inside out. Yep, definitely a sloe. The second one... Oh! Where has all the flavour gone? On further testing, there was some flavour - mostly of plums - but no face-turning-inside-out astringency. The third one was somewhere between the two - sharp, but quite palatable. These differences were huge - I felt that my precautions to disguise the samples were entirely unnecessary, but then I didn't know there'd be big differences before I did the test. On looking at the labels, sure enough, the first sample was pre-frost, the second freezer, and the third post-frost. Conclusion: Freezing sloes does indeed reduce the astringency and more freezing (overnight in the freezer) reduces it more.
That said, milder tasting sloes are not necessarily a good thing. Especially in wine making, I value that tannin and balance it with sugar. I'm glad I picked mine early. The sloes I've been eating this week were picked even earlier...
I'd read on the self sufficientish website that unripe sloes can be used as an alternative to olives, if soaked in brine followed by vinegar. Back in early September I spotted a great abundance of unripe sloes growing a long way from where I live, making it impractical to go back for them later in the year. I remembered the olive-substitution, and thought I might as well pick a few and give it a try, seeing as there were so many there. At about the same time, I was starting to experiment with lacto-fermentation and noted the similarity of the salt then acid sequence. How about trying lacto-fermented sloes?
I started with a fairly strong brine - about a tablespoonful of salt in a smallish jarful of sloes in water.
After a couple of weeks, I diluted the brine a bit (can't remember whether I took some out or just added water) and added a blackcurrant leaf to introduce the right kind of bacteria, then put an airlock on the jar, as in the photo above. I'm not sure I needed to bother with the airlock, as it fermented so slowly. But... it did ferment. Every day or so I looked at it and saw tiny little bubbles making their way to the top of the jar. I usually gave it a little shake to help them on their way.
A few weeks ago I tasted one of the sloes... Ewww! Way too salty! I removed about half of the liquid (using it later as seasoning in a stew) and topped up with water (tap water left to stand for a bit to let chlorine evaporate. I've come to accept that too much chlorine is not going to be good for lactobacilli. I've no idea whether the chlorine in tap water is
too much but it's easy enough to let it evaporate.) After a couple more weeks of slow fermentation I tried again, and... these are really good! They don't taste exactly like olives, of course, but they're similar enough to be an alternative. If I really wanted some olives and only had these in the house, I'd be happy to eat these instead.
Dandelion flower tea
Chestnut biscuits (Previous post edited to correct the recipe for these.)
Courgette and mint soup (from freezer) with added fresh sorrel
Dandelion and honeysuckle ale
Foraged food challenge summary page here.