‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’ This certainly sums up my autumn kitchen, says Kate Houghton Cheshire Life: November 2018 Cheshire Life: November 2018
Ilove Autumn. From the salad days of summer we move into cosy meals of warming beetroot and horseradish soup or butternut squash and chorizo risotto. It’s definitely my favourite time of the year in the kitchen.
Having spent many happy hours in my kitchen over the summer months, making jams and jellies with fruit from my garden, it’s time to start raiding the hedgerows for fruits I can do slightly more - shall we say - exciting things with.
Yes, it’s time to get creative with gin. And vodka. Oh, and there’s a bottle of blended whisky my husband won’t lower himself to, so that’s up for grabs too.
Please don’t think I am some sort of gin-swilling party girl, I’m really not, I just love to take advantage of the season’s fruitfulness and really can’t face making more jam. The problem with jam is that it needs eating – on toast, spread on cakes, or loaded onto crumpets – and there are only so many of those I can eat before my jeans no longer fit.
First up, before September’s sunshine turns to chill, it’s damson season. Damsons were, it’s thought, brought here by the Romans and Cheshire was a major damson-growing area right up until the Second World War, after which changing tastes, the effect of wartime sugar rationing and the relatively high cost of British-grown fruit caused a steep decline. They are related to the sweet dessert plums we know better, but are quite sharp to the taste, as many discover to their cost when the temptation to take a bite overwhelms. This year they have been fat and sweet and juicy however, no doubt due to the
extended period of hot weather we enjoyed during the summer.
My damsons come courtesy of a local dairy farmer, who patiently lifts me, his wife and our respective children in a special ‘man basket’ on the front of his tractor up to the fruit-laden trees, while we are watched by befuddled cows wondering what we’re up to. It’s quite the annual occasion now, five of us reaching into the tree and filling boxes and buckets with fruit. Not a lot of fruit is needed for my purpose, but there’s so much and it’s so tempting, I know I’m going to be ‘jam-ing’ as well as ‘gin-ing’!
It’s a simple process, but a satisfying one: take 500g of washed damsons, avoiding any with splits or bruises, and freeze them overnight. Next day, put them in a large Kilner (or similar) jar and add 300g of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Shake the jar every day until the sugar is fully dissolved, then pop it in a cool, dark place for two to three months. When you decide you can’t wait any longer, place a square of muslin in a sieve, hold it over a jug and pour though. Decant this into sterile bottles (you could use the original gin bottle) and prepare to have a very merry Christmas! I made the damson gin with my daughter Amy this year, who is planning on decanting into 250ml bottles and gifting it to her friends. As an impoverished student she’s quite thrilled with the high-impact lowcost gift this will make.
As September draws to a close, it’s time to check the hedgerows for sloes, which start to come
‘Yes, it’s time to get creative with gin’
ripe about now. Related to the damson, they’re very similar looking, but smaller and rounder. When they’re ripe they take on a lovely powdery sheen. Take care when picking, as the name suggests, the blackthorn bush on which they grow has long, sharp thorns. My sloe gin recipe comes from my grandmother and has no weights or measures; it’s all done by eye, but it works every time, so I won’t be changing it.
Pop your sloes in the freezer for a few days. This makes them swell and the skin split. Then take a clean bottle and fill it around one third full of sloes, add around the same amount of sugar (less if you like it less sweet) then fill the bottle with gin. If you’ve not got a ready empty bottle, use a Kilner jar, as for damson gin. You need to leave it for at least three months, but if you can leave it for longer, do! When you’re ready, strain the gin and fruit through a muslin square then pour the gin back into the bottle. If you like a measurable result, BBC Good Food recommends 500g sloes, 250g golden caster sugar and one litre of gin.
Are you wondering about the whisky? Well, that has bramble written all over it! Hedgerow blackberries are rather small and densely seeded, so don’t make great puddings or jam. They are best converting to a jelly (which is marvellous when added to red cabbage) or making a fruity whisky. I use the River Cottage recipe: wash your fruit and allow it to dry, then fill a Kilner jar two thirds full. Add sugar till it comes half way up the fruit and then top up with your whisky. Seal and gently shake. Do this every day until the sugar has dissolved, then pop it away for about six months. Strain and decant.
That’s me done until December, when clementines arrive in the shops and I have an uncontrollable urge to make marmalade. The same marmalade that makes a rather excellent marmalade vodka…
‘It’s a simple process, but a satisfying one’