An extract from Ian Clayton’s book Right Up Your Street: the great Boxing Day tradition of decanting homemade sloe gin and then supping it as a chaser with a pint of beer among friends.
I’m a great fan of the food that comes to us free every autumn from the hedgerows and trees. I can’t pass an apple or pear tree without ‘scrumping’ one or two and blackberries, well, I absolutely adore them with the relish of a poet. I can’t make apple and blackberry pie as nice as my gran could, but I do a mean crumble. I’m also a dab hand at pickling and preserving and, at this time of year, I love to look through my stash of jars that have handwritten labels on them like ‘Apple Jelly, October 2010’. People know I like this stuff too, my friend Jan makes the best preserves this side of the Pecos and this year for Christmas another friend, Pam, gave me some beautifully homemade green tomato chutney with red and white chequered lids on.
For many years I have made sloe gin. I generally pick about four or five pounds of the fruit of the blackthorn, wash out a big bell jar and put in my sugar and gin. I shake my jar every day between the end of September and Christmas and, by tradition, I decant it on Boxing Day morning and take a bottle or two to the pub to share out with my mates. Sloe gin goes well as a chaser to a foaming pint of Tetley’s bitter.
Last autumn a friend called Alf, who goes in the taproom at the Shoulder of Mutton, asked me where I got my sloes and would I give him my recipe. Like any self-respecting sloe gatherer, I refused to give him my source, but I did tell him the recipe. As it turned out, I might as well have told him where I got my fruit, because when I got to my favourite stand of blackthorn bushes, I found out that somebody had been there before me and I had to go in search of another tree.
Alf duly went in search of his own sloes somewhere near Methley and must have found some real beauties because he showed up on Boxing Day with a gorgeous, rich ruby coloured concoction, which he presented in a cut-glass decanter. By common consensus, well by the nods of the heads and barely discernable mutterings of various taproom imbibers sat round the fire in the Shoulder, Alf’s sloe gin tasted better than mine. For some reason, this year mine turned out to be a pale pink without the usual fire and warmth that you get in the chest as it goes down. Amidst much good humoured banter, Alf spent the whole of Boxing Day afternoon with a wry smile on his chops and I was left to wonder if a fairy or pixie or something had been tampering with my sloe gin in the middle of the night. It hurts me to say it, but I award this year’s gold medal for sloe gin making to Mr Alf Varley, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this coming autumn I shall be out hunting down the best sloe berries and I will look to regain my title. In the meantime, if Alf asks me for my recipe for damson jam, he can whistle!