This is a long way from Sicily, or indeed Birmingham.
Once, someone ate a sloe, possibly expecting a damson-like burst of sweetness. They got a wincing, puckering, spit it out sourness instead. They persevered. Somehow they thought ‘If I add these to gin, it’ll be perfect in the depths of winter’ So they did. It caught on. There must be a thousand and one understairs cupboards where a bottle of this peculiar British stuff is ageing to inky purple perfection. And then it was monetised, obviously, into a vapid version itself, allowing you to buy it off the shelf and forego the pleasure of musty, mouldy autumnal foraging, spiking your limbs on the blackthorns that jealously guard their sloes. And the patience, the delayed gratification of prolonged steeping. You get to forgo that too.
There are people who have deep pockets, or steely resolve. They manage to keep their sloe gin for years; either they make so much or drink so little. But my gin budget is limited and it would be disingenuous to claim I’m abstemious, so my single bottle rarely lasts long past Christmas, leaving me bereft of my British bitter liquer until the following December. Sad, but then that is partly the point of delaying gratification.
However, help has arrived from France, the north I think, with my discovery last year of Epine (literal translation, spine). Not at all like Sloe Gin, this is smoother, colder, more almondy and carries the vague peril of death by cyanide.
Like all members of the Prunus family – the leaves and seeds contain traces of the poison, whose older name of Prussic acid I prefer, it’s more melodramatic, less serial killer. The key word here though, is ‘traces’. They’ll only kill you if you eat enough. So, spend your day in the hills of Italy, snacking on wild, bitter almonds, you may die (believe me, it happened, I remember a childhood news story of a poisoned teacher on a walking trip in Puglia. I didn’t eat an almond for years). Or if you have a rampant laurel hedge, that you prune and decide to shred, the strong smell of marzipan and simultaneous light-headedness are a sign to step back and perhaps take a break.
If I haven’t scared you off, make épine. Now, in April, is the time. You need half a litre (by loose volume) of fresh, green shoots – free from aphids and their insect relatives. Once these shoots have turned woody from added lignin, you’ve missed the window and will have to wait until the purple sloes and the frosts arrive for your foraging hit. Wash your shoots and then add them to a sealable jar into which you pour 1.5 litres of wine (I use red, but rosé works well too), half a bottle of own brand vodka (that’s about 375ml). This stops any unwanted fermenting, as well as upping the booze quotient and making it a liqueur. And finally, sugar. Around 100g – but play with the quantities to hit the sweetness you desire.
Shake, seal and leave, for two weeks. Then strain, bottle, leave it in the fridge, forgetting about it until there’s a heatwave in June or July. You should be outside, in that heat, as the evening begins and waiting for dinner. Now you can open your épine. It is not just an infused red wine, it is something simultaneously both refined, and domestic. There is a sense of something forgotten, delved from the past about it, perhaps a little deliciously illicit. One glass is not enough, and yet, with that vague almondy poisonous peril hanging over it, perhaps, one glass is plenty.