Thursday, 20 September 2007

How I make sloe gin

Once again, it's that time of year where the beautiful berries of the blackthorn can be seen cheekily gleaming from the hedgerows, and I sally forth with my crumpled carrier bag to pluck and harvest a few to make my habitual ode to seasonality: sloe gin.
For the last couple of years, I've gone a-picking on September 1st. But this year, the fruit looked so fresh and full and swollen that I couldn't wait that long, and went out mid-August. I use both sloes and damsons, whatever I can find in the hedgerows and passages of my corner of the world.

Every year a number of people ask me how to make sloe gin, and I find myself repeating the instructions. This year, as a public service, I share with you, the Jaffle McSnaffle Secret Recipe for Sloe Gin. It's not secret. It's so simple a barely a recipe. But it's how I do it.

What You'll Need

  • Gin, as much as you fancy. It generally comes in bottles

  • Sloes, about equal in volume to your gin

  • Some sugar (see below)

  • A tight-sealable jar about twice the volume of your gin

  • A pointy thing, such as a cocktail stick (I use a wooden one).

What To Do

  • Pick

  • Prick

  • Pour

  • Pause

  • Partake

Having picked and washed a quantity of sloes broadly equal in volume to a 70cl bottle of gin, I take a two-litre Kilner jar. Any kind of tight-sealable container will do, but it will need to be about twice the capacity of the gin you've got (because you've got a similar volume of fruit, see?). I'm not precious about the quantity, I just go a-picking and stop when I have what seems to be about enough.

Next, prick each sloe a number of times with the pointy thing and dump it (the sloe, not the pointy thing) in the jar. This helps the juicy berry goodness to infuse in the gin, which is the whole point of the exercise. It's a tedious job, especially if you've gone crazy and picked lots and lots of teeny tiny little sloes. But it's essential, so wind your lower lip in and get on with it. If it helps to alleviate the tedium, just imagine making all those holes in a teabag yourself. Blimey.

Next, pour some sugar into the jar until it completely covers the sloes, shaking the jar so that the sugar fills all the gaps between the berries. Sloeberries are more than a little bit bitter, so you'll need a fair bit of sugar; don't be shy with it. I use Fairtrade Golden Granulated, but you'll doubtless choose sugar appropriate to your personal ethics and tastes.

Finally, glug in the gin. Seal the jar tight and you're done with all the hard work!

Now all you have to do is wait. Give the jar a bit of a shake once a week or so to help the sugar dissolve. After a while, it'll have magically vanished into the by-now deep-purple liquid.

It'll take a fair while for the flavours to infuse properly, and you should expect to leave it three, four, or even six months before you strain off the fruit and begin sampling. Slurp!

Other Stuff

You might have noticed that this isn't one of those recipes that requires exact quantities and measurements. And that's half the fun of the process; just lumping together the ingredients and letting nature take its course.

I'm not religious, and even if I was, I wouldn't be religious about the leave-four-to-six-months-before-straining thing. Indeed, I often leave the fruit in whilst I take my drink, or even don't touch the gin for a whole year, until I need to empty out the jar for the next season's crop of sloeberries. This time I've got some pretty bottles for the decanting, though I'll probably have mislaid them by decanting time.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

A sweater kind of day

It's one of those days where the wind is cold, and strong. The overwhelming urge is to switch on the heating, close the doors, and snuggle up on the sofa.

Instead, I have to pull on a sweater, and get on with Things of Import.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The least pleasant way to gain 370 calories?

Tesco's Knotted Seeded Roll with Egg Mayonnaise and Prawns. And icy lettuce.


Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Vindaloo ice cream

Last night I had the pleasure of the tasting menu at Bell's Diner in Bristol.

This seven-course foray in the fun of food included an egg poached for 90 minutes (at 55 degrees Celsius, mark you) and culminated in vindaloo ice cream.

At first bite, this dish seemed like it could be a splendidly good idea. At second bite, the impression faded, and by the third bite, I had had enough. Not even the amusing poppadom cornet, and mango chutney sauce could convince me otherwise.

Overall, however, this is an accomplished menu is an unprepossessing setting, at a sensible price. Definitely one to visit again and again.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

My definition of pie

Almost anyone can open a dictionary, or browse to a website, to find a definition.

I mean, young children generally can't, given that they generally lack the motor skills and inclination. And someone without access to a computer would have a pretty tricky time browsing the web. But given these fairly basic premises, my point is that it's a pretty straightforward thing to do a bit of research about what other people mean by pie.

I've been doing just that, and have formulated my own conclusions. Because I can.

So, let's see what we have.

Firstly, let's think about what we mean by a pie, in terms as general as possible. For me, it's like a covered bowl, a shell that encloses and contains a secret, tasty filling. What forms that container is, however, the nub of the matter.

Obviously, there are cottage pies and shepherd pies (and the many variations on the theme), where the container is made of stoneware, and the lid is formed of mashed potato. As delicious as they are - and they often are - they're not what I crave when I fancy pie. If you promise me pie, and deliver me mashed potato, I'm afraid I'm going to be disappointed. I'll still love you, but my face will fall a bit. It's not you, it's me. That's just the way I am.

So we come to the pastry pie, which may be one-crust, where the lid alone is pastry, and a dish or a bowl forms the remainder of the shell (I have previously referred to this style of pie as the opposite of quiche). Alternatively, there is the tart (sometimes known as a quiche), where the pastry forms the container, but comes without a lid (or crust).

Again, as delicious as these pies-with-bits-missing may be, I do not consider them True Pies. They may aspire to pieness (they may indeed have had pieness thrust upon them), but they do not achieve it. Again, if I'm expecting pie, and I get one of these faux pies - Pie Lites, if you will - then there's going to be a certain amount of disappointment on my behalf. If you're going to serve a tart (or, daringly, a quiche), then by all means call it by its proper name. But let us not pretend that it is a pie.

For me, a pie must be two-crust, meaning that the pastry forms both the basin and the lid, completely enclosing the filling in pastry goodness (alas, too often, pastry badness is served). I can understand the reasons for the other variations and indeed enjoy them from time to time. But they lack that essential Pieness that I demand.

Pies, as I have observed before, are presents wrapped in pastry. When it's as simple as that, why change a thing?

Monday, 3 September 2007

Variations on the theme of pie

The steak and ale pie I had this weekend, at the Betsey Wynne in Swanbourne, was yet another variation on the broad theme of Pie. It was, essentially a stew served with a kind of puff pastry biscuit.

The stew itself was delicious; the steak was extraordinarily tender, in a thick, peppery gravy. The consistency was rich and thick. The puff pastry lozenge laid on top was buttery and perfectly crisp - an advantage of it being cooked separately from the "filling".

Despite all of this tasty goodness, I felt somewhat...disappointed. For me, part of the joy of a pie is the unwrapping, the broaching of the covering, the digging around inside for the rich rewards to be found. This particular "pie" (and I am even less sure of the meaning of the word now) offered none of those delights. From the start, it was laid bare, a pie that revealed its inner workings. If it was a pie at all. Oh deceptive food!

It struck me that this is yet another example of the kind of deconstructed style of cooking that has been a feature of the menus of the top-of-the-pile restaurants for sometime, and is beginning to filter down into the mainstream. It is playful, for sure, and when the food tastes as good as it did at the Betsey, who am I to argue?

But I would like to see the essential characteristic of the food being retained. For me, this was outside the definition of pie.

Damn tasty though.