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Sloes - Rubus spinosa

This week I've been busy with painting projects so haven't had time to go out digging for burdock and more Dandelion but no matter, those roots will be safely waiting in the ground for me next week. I needed something a little easier and cleaner to prepare for this weeks Foraging Friday post.


Like marble sized plums the Sloes wait amidst yellowing leaves, usually for the migrating birds to collect when they arrive in winter. You'll have likely spotted the developing berries already in late summer and they can be gathered as soon as they turn their dark purple but nature keeps them particularly well on the tree, long past when the soft skinned blackberries have shrivelled away. Although they're related to plums and damsons, and certainly look alike, they are far too bitter when raw to eat as they are! The birds seem to know that they sweeten when the frost catches them so as usual keep your eyes open for nature to tell you when to pick. So in this past week, as the leaves begin flutter past the motor home window I've noticed a few extra blackbirds and thrushes about, and since I know we've had a few soft frosts already it must be time for Sloes.


Sloe berries are borne on the Blackthorn, the same bushes that are the first to blossom in spring. Nordic tradition links the plant to the god Thor, represented by the Thorn rune, and is symbolic of protection likely due to the strong thorns, many up to two inches in length which aren't always evident until they snag you, so take care when picking. Nature often seems to demand you pay a price for its bounty. A true thorn is a modified stem rather than the detachable prickles you find on a rose or bramble, and that of the blackthorn is reported to cause particularly sore scratches that can become infected quite easily perhaps due to the ingress of lichen and other debris into the wound that covers older branches and the thorns. The thorns are easier to see as the leaves fall away, another good reason to wait as long as you can before gathering!

Take care not to confuse the berries of the Blackthorn with those of the poisonous Dogwood or Ivy, the blackthorn having much smaller leaves without the stringy veins present on Dogwood foliage. The berries to are very different when compared side by side, the Sloes being larger and spaced further apart with the classic blue-purple bloom like its fellow plums. Still, it's better to be safe than sorry so don't forget your identification guide if you're not yet familiar with the tree.

Harder to tell apart is the Damson which are similar in every way albeit producing slightly larger and sweeter berries, closer to the size of a walnut but still smaller than a plum. The good news here is, it doesn't really matter whether you have Damsons or Sloes as they can be used the same way! 


Most people will have heard of the popular Sloe Gin which if set to steep now can be part of a heady Christmas cocktail. I know, I mentioned the C-word in October but that doesn't mean I'm prepared by any stretch of the imagination - rather I'm keeping my head firmly buried in the sand until the last minute, and figure that the promise of a nice strong traditional cocktail will help me along when I finally give in to it all! ;) Personally I can't stomach Gin in any form, it's flavour is far too overpowering for me to enjoy so instead I figured that perhaps Sloe Vodka would be a better spirit option for me. Feel free to use whichever spirit you prefer. See below for the method:

Making an enjoyable liquer is not as simple as merely combining the two ingredients as they are since as I said Sloes are unbearably bitter as they are so will result in nothing more than a bitter bottle. Yes the frosts will have sweetened them a little but you'll still want to add a great deal of sugar to bring the mixture up to something palatable to our taste.

To allow the alcohol to get through the thick skin of the Sloes to infuse you'll need to prick each one a couple of times with a needle or a fork before placing it in the bottle. This also gives you a chance to wash and check each berry for rot or pests. If you're trying this recipe before the natural frosts set in your Sloes will benefit from a spell in the freezer beforehand.

Fill the bottle or mason jar to about a third of it's volume with the pricked berries and add approximately a quarter of the berry weight in caster sugar. A funnel will help you keep the kitchen clean ;) If you don't have caster sugar that's OK, you can use regular granulated instead but of course caster sugar dissolves better. I used our regular Billingtons organic granulated cane sugar so will let you know how it goes!

I found it easier with a small batch to calculate the weight of the berries per jar by zeroing the weight of the jar and measuring them as I pricked them

Top up the bottle or jar with your spirit of choice (I managed to find an organic Vodka!), seal and give it a shake to begin to dissolve the sugar.Yep organic vodka too! :DYep organic vodka too! :D

You'll need to give the bottle a shake everyday for about a week, or until all of the sugar has dissolved then every so often after that. I thought it does make a lovely snow globe so perhaps there's hope for me yet! :D

Sloe Vodka snow globeSloe Vodka snow globe

Leave the bottle to further steep in a cool, dark place from between 4 weeks to a couple of months, the sugar and alcohol content should allow the mixture to keep for over a year if necessary, though you'll want to strain the fruit out after several months to avoid spoiling it. For this reason I chose to begin the process with a mason jar, allowing me to later strain the finished liqueur into more attractive bottles along with a few of berries for decoration. Of course the longer you leave it, the stronger the resulting flavour will be, but it's more down to how long you can resist pouring yourself a glass!


It makes a great home made gift and the berry filled bottles look fantastic nestled amongst other unusual liqueurs on a bar or kitchen shelf.

 Update: the finished product! Minus half the bottle before I remembered I needed a pic..!Update: the finished product! Minus half the bottle before I remembered I needed a pic..!

What else can you do with Sloe berries other than flavouring booze? Like plums they are said to make a good jam or jelly, see our jam recipe here> Unlike other hedgerow fruit however they are simply too bitter as they are to be used in anything other than sugared recipes.


If you opted for the booze and so find yourself in several weeks time with leftover berries from the bottle you can apparently cover them in chocolate to make delicious liqueur sweets – for adult consumption only of course! This got me to thinking that perhaps they could be set with gelatin to make a kind of vodka jelly, or pureed and frozen as a sorbet? I'm not quite sure how to deal with the small stone inside in either of those suggestions. For those projects you shall just have to wait and see what I decide on experimenting with, after having finished the liquid contents of the bottle! ;)

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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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