Irish - Draighean
Latin - Prunus spinosa
The first frosts have come and gone and so now is the time for Sloe picking, to brew your Gin for the holiday season or any number of dark and sweet concoctions. The frosts make this bitter fruit a little sweeter, so it’s traditional to wait until they come before harvesting the berries. Sloe’s grow on the Blackthorn, a formidable and important tree in Irish folklore. And so I thought it was time to write up the lore of this oft foraged plant.
In Ireland Blackthorn was prized for it’s tough wood, often used to make shillelaghs and walking sticks, it was used in folklore as a protection charm; keeping the faeries away due to their high regard for it, whilst it’s dark bark and pale blossoms came to symbolise the epitome of Irish female beauty; pale of skin with pitch black hair.
The Blackthorn is associated with the Irish Goddesses of war, the warrior Queen Meadhbh and witches in Ireland. Perhaps due to it’s strength, beauty and sharp thorns alongside it’s association with the faeries. In other Celtic regions this led to the tree being considered unlucky, but knowing what side our bread was buttered on and having a very healthy respect for the preternatural we Irish held it as a protective charm. Indeed my grandfathers favourite walking stick was made of it’s dense and thorny wood and looked like a formidable weapon even without the superstitions attached.
Classified as one of the lower divisions of the wood in early Irish law, the tree wasn’t used for much save hard weapons or sticks however the sloes were widely harvested and a custom in Galway tells of Sloe wine brewed for Halloween.
Sloes are incredibly bitter and must be cooked throughly or steeped in alcohol to make them edible. A sloe syrup is a quick and easy way to preserve these berries and can be added to your cocktails, including Gin (try it with muddled rosemary and a crack of black pepper and be sure to stir rather than shake the mix) or to champagne or wine replacing the créme de cassis to make a wild winter Kir.
1/2 cup of sugar (I use unrefined)
1/2 cup of water
a handful of sloe berries
(Increase your measurements with the quantity of sloes, you absolutely need as much sugar as possible with these!)
Add all the ingredients to a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar has dissolved, continue to simmer for at least 20 minutes until the sloes have burst releasing their juices.
Allow to cool and sieve into a sterilised bottle or jar, store in the fridge.
*If you haven’t picked sloes before look for large blueberry like fruits growing on a dark wooded tree, the thorns may be hard to spot, I’ve included some leaves above to help with your identification. To be sure it’s a sloe break open the berry, it should have a tiny stone like a plum at it’s heart. As always if you are unsure please don’t eat it, and always supervise small children!