CZ452 Varmint HMR begins post Covid catch up

May 6, 2021 at 10:26 am

Covid restrictions meant only a few visits to most of my shooting permissions last year, and now into May it is time to begin catching up on lost time. One of my first targets of the year has always been to clear a large warren of  rabbits, before the farmer puts out his cattle to graze. My time limit is the end of April, when he runs over the area with a small excavator filling in the burrows, but unfortunately his untimely death has meant all at the farm was on hold for months. His daughter has now taken over and called me in to do what I can to clear the rabbits, which have multiplied unchecked, digging fresh burrows deep enough to snap a cow, or horse’s leg.

Heading north toward the farm, I could see a massive black cloud creeping over the land in my direction, driven by a bitterly cold wind. I was quick to unload my gear, climbing a pair of gates before I could reach the field, the warren sitting in the middle surrounded by stinging nettles.

This is just a snapshot of the area, 50 yards by 300 yards long, with some interlinked burrows having collapsed leaving 3 foot deep craters. As I approached a rabbit emerged from the ground, ran ten yards and stopped when it saw me. It was about 60 yards away, an easy shot with the HMR normally, but a gusting side wind was blowing the rifle off target on the bi-pod sticks and even a body shot missed. I could see heavy rain advancing across the adjacent field in my direction and just made the lee side of an oak in time.

I stood and watched a rainbow glow in the sky, before it faded when the rain eased, using my time to scan the area with the scope. Rabbits don’t like rain, or cold winds and I had both in Spades. There was nothing about until the wind dropped and the low evening sun came out. A head appeared, then ducked down, another bounded like a gazelle from one burrow, then ran a 100 yards to disappear again.

I decided to invest my time on a raised area of burrows, with a clear view down the bottom half of the warren, having caught sight of movement among the nettles. Extending the legs on the HMR’s Harris bipod, I got myself comfortable, pulling up the hood of my jacket over my cap to keep out the still gusting wind plucking at my body. The movement was increasing, with flashes of fur, or twitching ears, but nothing worth a shot. Increasing my scope to 12 magnification, I saw that a rabbit had left the sanctuary of the nettles to feed on the nearby grass. The rifle was already in my shoulder, the cross hairs were on and the rabbit jumped clear of the ground as the .17 ” bullet struck home. One down. With the wind almost directly behind, the shot was spot on.

15 minutes later a pair ran out of cover close to the first about 130 yards away and I easily tracked them through the scope, but they would not stop trotting around. One of them turned back to cover. It was now or never, taking the shot as it turned toward me. Number two crumpled.

The other rabbit turned to join it’s friend, pausing to sniff the air, the impact causing it to jump clear of the ground. I waited for twenty minutes, but there were no more positive shots and I went down to collect my prizes, scattering another unseen pair as I concentrated on my footing, burrows being everywhere.

Walking back, another black cloud was beginning to block out the sun. I had intended staying until dusk, but more rain was in the air and I bagged up the rifle, making my way back to the van, only to see a sitter in my path, but maybe next time.

Th following day the rabbits were quartered to two loin backstraps and a pair of back legs each, ready to join the freezer as bunny burgers.

Chopped red onion, apricots and garlic were placed in a pan and lightly browned, then added to the minced rabbit, chorizo and pork lardons, liberally dusted with mixed herbs and a couple of tablespoons of Worcester Sauce. A couple of  slices of ground seeded brown bread with a beaten egg to bind and I was ready to fold it all together. The last job was to get out the burger press, laying out 14 on trays for overnight freezing.

The best part of rabbit pest control. Tasty food. Click on the Recipes page of this blog for more.

 

 

 

 

Rustic pigeon pie

December 4, 2020 at 1:31 pm

Having been gifted a brace of fresh wood pigeons, I knew what I wanted to do with them, make a pie. The meat is dark and rich in flavour, having the texture of beef when cooked, benefiting from the addition of a beef stock cube to complement the flavour. This pie is ideal for using up any vegetables in the kitchen and is ready for the oven in under an hour.

Not pretty , but very tasty.

Removing the breast meat

Removing the breast from the pigeon is quick and easy, only requiring a sharp knife, a bowl of water and kitchen towel. A bowl of water? Pigeon breast feathers are soft and sticky, the water being handy to dip your fingers and knife into, cleaning your fingers on the towel, while separating the meat from the breast bone. Stage 1, cut, or twist the wings off and lay on it’s back. Stage 2, pluck a few feathers from the crown of the breast to expose the skin. This is where the bowl of water comes in handy to unstick the feathers. The exposed skin is very soft and can be peeled away on either side, revealing the meat, while saving the mess of plucking the whole breast. Stage 3, take your knife and follow the line of the breast bone each side, allowing the bone to guide the blade, front and back, until each half is released and able to be lifted out. If doing this in the field, grass is a convenient cleaning cloth! The rest of the pigeon can be bagged and discarded.

The above ingredients is enough for two pies.

Ingredients

4 halves of pigeon breast

2 small potatoes – diced

1 carrot – diced

1 medium onion – chopped

2 sticks celery – chopped

4 mushrooms – peeled and chopped

100 grams pork lardons or fatty bacon

1 TBS of cooking oil

1 beef stock cube

1 TBS of flour

1 pack of ready made short crust pastry

Method

Tenderise the breasts. I use a steak mallet. This also flattens out the meat, allowing it to be diced into 20 mm cubes. Put to one side.

Put the diced potato and carrot into a small saucepan and par boil on a gentle heat. When easily pierced with a knife, remove from the heat and drain off into a cup, breaking up the stock cube and stirring in to make a stock.

While waiting for the diced vegetables to boil, using a large frying pan, add the oil and brown off the onions until transparent, add the celery along with the lardons, stirring until lightly browned. Being fat free, the pigeon will cook better in the pork fat. Now add the pigeon to the mix,  turning over and lightly browning the meat, not too much, or it will toughen. Now add the diced vegetables, the mushrooms and the stock, bringing to a boil, while stirring in the flour to thicken the stock.  Leave to cool.

In the past I made pastry the way mother used to, a pinch of salt, self raising flour and butter rubbed gently between the fingers in a bowl, until a crumbly mix was formed, then milk added sparingly, while working the dough into a dry ball. Cover and leave in the fridge to cool for 30 minutes. This helps the fat in the pastry to cool, for rolling. Works every time.

With a Tesco supermarket just around the corner however, it was convenient to buy some ready made short crust pastry, as I wanted to enjoy the fruits of my labour that evening for dinner, while the other was put in the freezer for another day.

 

Homespun cider making made easy

October 4, 2020 at 7:00 pm

It is cider making time again, the temperature has dropped and apples are abundant, either to be scrounged, scrumped, or gathered from the wild. Over the past few weeks we have gradually accumulated over 60 lb of several varieties of donated garden windfalls, both cookers and eaters along with feral apples gathered from local hedge rows. It was time to literally dust off the cobwebs from the “equipment” stored each year in the shed and begin on a cool, dry late September morning.

A typical mix of apples in the washing bin, ready to be processed.

Here is the production line that I have used over the years to extract the juice from the apples ready for fermenting. Don’t laugh, yes it looks crude and very basic, but don’t forget that people have been making cider for hundreds of years with very rustic equipment, mashing the apples with heavy poles and pouring the rough juice into barrels and leaving it to ferment from the natural yeasts in the air and the apples themselves. My two pieces of modern equipment are a garden shredder, for creating the mash and a car hydraulic bottle jack for compressing the juice on my home made wooden frame, which is screwed and glued together using 4 x 2 rough timber. As can be seen, the frame is held in an old Workmate.

This is a two person line. My wife cuts the apples into pieces that will fit into the shredder, removing any rotten fruit as she goes, while I collect the mash from the bowl beneath the shredder.

Note that much of the mash is already juice. The mash is ladled into an old ice cream container, which has netting, or muslin draped over it. The netting is then folded tight over the mash, forming a parcel of mash, squeezing out some of the juice along the way into the container. The parcel is lifted out, the container emptied into the 5 gallon bin holding the squeezed juice. Without a press, just wringing out the mash parcel would produce about 75% of the juice on its own.

The parcel is then placed on the press platen, the secondary platen placed on top then a block, followed by the jack, which is pumped to squeeze the remaining juice out.

This image shows the roasting tray around which the press was made, with the pine platen, part of an old shelf, in place and the parcel ready to squeeze. The tray can be lifted out easily to drain the juice. I considered fitting a drain plug at one time, but this takes only seconds to lift and pour out the juice, so why complicate matters? Due to the tannin in the juice, it soon turns brown, but a test taste proves it to be pleasantly sweet. Sweetness means sugar and sugar ferments into alcohol. Floating a hydrometer into the juice gave a Specific Gravity (SG) of 106, enough for around 6 % alcohol, when fully fermented. Enough for a pint, or two around a summer BBQ.

This image shows the press at full squish, with the juice flowing into the tray. Another platen and parcel would speed up the whole juicing process, but this system and rig produced 3 gallons of juice from 6o lb of apples in 2 hours. We started with a cup of coffee at 11 am and finished with a toasted cheese sandwich at 1 pm for lunch. Perfect timing. I used to make 6 gallons of cider each year, with a break for lunch, but you were very ready for that cup of tea at 3 pm.

A useful byproduct of cider pressing is the left over apple cakes. Once these would have been fed to the family pig, but the worms like them just as much, boosting the working of the garden compost heap and giving a ready supply for fishing.

We now have a bin full of juice, what next? When I made my first cider, I lived in a rural setting with my own trees and hedgerows full of crab apples a hundred yards down the lane. I wanted to be as traditional as possible, deciding to only use the wild yeast from the apples, that formed as a light foam on the top of the juice. Stirring in the foam, I then poured the juice into demi jons, put on air locks and left the cider to get on with fermenting in my kitchen. I racked them off before Christmas and did a taste test. Each demi jon had a different flavour, one very harsh and dry, two very bland and one perfect with a sweet dryness. From then on I used shop bought sachets of wine, champagne, or cider yeast, sprinkled over the juice, all giving good consistent results.

This year I have gone one step further, stirring in a sachet of nutrient twenty minutes before adding the yeast, which I started off in 100ml of warm water at 30 C degrees. According to the blurb, the fermenting time will be reduced, which will result in a happier wife, who gets fed up with cleaning around the demi jons.

Certainly the initial rapid fermentation that takes place within the first few days has been accelerated, the demijons below very active after only 18 hours.

I used a jug to remove the rough juice from the 5 gallon bin, then pour through a fine mesh, or sieve in to the demijons. I then use rolled up newspaper to stop the rapid fermentation from bubbling over as the yeast eats up the sugar, producing a thick brown scum of dead yeast, which will be removed after a few days.

After three days the cider had settled down and I cleaned the necks of messy debris, then fitted air locks, seeing bubbles blowing through the air locks immediately.

The lees and settled out yeast can be seen in the bottom of the cleaned demijons. These will be left for another two to four weeks, until fermentation has slowed down and the cider has changed to a slightly hazy golden colour. At this stage the cider should be racked off into a clean demijon. Racking is the process of syphoning off the cider from the lees using a tube, which is placed into the demijon with the clean container at a lower point. I put the full demijon on the kitchen worksurface, with the clean one on a chair below, sucking through the tube to draw the cider through and down into the empty one, watching the tube as it empties the demijon, allowing the tube to draw off a small amount of yeast into the new container, making it hazy again. Top up with water and refit the air lock. The emptied demijon will contain about 20 mm of yeast, which can be washed out ready to repeat for the next one.

A TIP HERE. To avoid the syphon sucking up too much yeast at this point, a small piece of cane can be tied to the tube with, say 25 mm (depending on the depth of yeast)  protruding from the end of the tube, which will prevent the syphon from getting too close to the yeast.

If a still dry cider is required, then move the demijon to a cold place like a garage, until the cider has cleared, usually about two weeks. All fermentation should have stopped. There will be a slight film of lees at the bottom of the demijon, which should be racked into a  clean one, avoiding the lees. The cider can now be bottled, pouring into a jug, then through a funnel into bottles. I use old pint beer bottles. Tasting it at this stage, the cider will be dry and acidic, but will mature enough after 4 to 6 weeks to be drunk, when left in a cool place off the ground. The longer the better.

A medium sweet still cider can be produced at this this time, after the cooling, by adding 4 oz of sugar, dissolved in hot water as a syrup to the racked off clear cider, when cooled, sealing the top of the demijon and giving it a good shake to mix the sugar, before bottling.

Obviously, the more cider that has reached this stage, the more experiments can be carried out.

For a dry sparkling cider, after the second racking, having brought some yeast through, keep the cider in the kitchen, until the lees have settled and fermentation should have stopped, usually another week, or two. Rack again, drawing through a small amount of yeast. The cider will be slightly hazy and can be bottled, adding a level teaspoon of white sugar to each bottle. Store in a cool place. The cider will clear leaving a paint of hardened lees in the bottom of the bottle, although care should be taken when pouring to avoid them, as they are quite bitter. I am told that the lees contain some valuable vitamins, but I’ll take their word for that. The beer bottles will contain any pressure generated, while a heaped teaspoon will result in a slightly sweeter cider. I don’t advise two full teaspoons for more sweetness, as a champagne style outpouring from the bottle, including the lees, will occur.

I prefer a strong, dry, sparkling cider and add 4 oz of dissolved white sugar after the first racking and top up with water. A slight, fresh fermentation will take place, when most of the yeast will be used up after another week, or two. Rack off again, drawing off a small amount of yeast, continuing as above.

I do not advise plastic caps for the bottles, as they can lift off, allowing air in, which will ruin the cider. Compressed bottle caps are the answer. When I first started bottling, I used a hand held swaging tool. The cap was placed over the mouth of bottle, the tool placed over it and tapped down with a hammer. Each year I tragically lost a few bottles this way and the precious liquid inside and eventually bought a much more efficient, safe alternative.

The original swaging tool is at the bottom.

I store my cider on a rack on the north side of the garage to avoid possible over heating in the summer. My usual output of 50, or more pints a year, resulted in a surplus, which has built up and am currently working my way through four year old cider. Three month old cider is drinkable, but it definitely improves with age.

I hope that this has persuaded you to have a go at cider making. There are many varieties of cider sitting on the supermarket shelf, but the satisfaction of making and drinking your own cannot be beaten.

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Festive pheasant pasties with sweet potato

December 23, 2017 at 9:10 pm

Gifted three brace of pheasants by a shooting friend, I occupied one end of the kitchen, while my wife was busy at the other end. The birds appeared to have run the gauntlet of several guns before hitting the deck and with several entry wounds in each, they were unsuitable for roasting, but ideal candidates for some pheasant pasties, alongside more of my popular pheasant burgers with apricots. With only days before Christmas, my wife had her sausage roll and mince pie production line in progress, getting ready for the annual influx of family to our home. This gave me the idea to try pasties with a savoury twist, by adding spicy mincemeat with a dash of whisky. Instead of traditional swede, I also substituted sweet potato, giving a touch of the exotic to a humble pastie.

The end result, a sweet tasting pasty more suited to accompany the after dinner nibbles and mince pies, than the main course. Offered up warm and sliced, they were the perfect match for late evening mulled wine. Hope there are some left for the New Year Bash.

Ingredients

600 g Minced Pheasant pieces (Coarse Blade)

200 g Sausage meat

400 g Potato, diced into 10 mm cubes

400 g Sweet Potato, diced into 10 mm cubes

200 g Red Onion, coarsely chopped

1 Rosemary sprig, stripped and chopped

3 tbs Mincemeat

3 tbs Whisky (Blended)

250 g Butter

Salt and Black Pepper to taste

2 packs Short Crust Pastry

1 Egg, beaten

Method

Cut the sausage meat into rough 20 mm cubes and add to the pheasant strips as they are minced to allow an even blend in a large bowl. Stir the vegetables into the bowl and sprinkle over the rosemary, followed by the seasoning. Scoop out the mincemeat from the jar into the mix, trying to get an even spread of the fruit throughout. Last but not least, add the three tablespoons of whisky, making sure to stir up from the bottom to avoid waste! Cover the bowl with cling film to infuse for at least an hour in the fridge. If making up your own pastry, this is good time to do so, also allowing time for the pastry to chill in the fridge.

Roll out the pastry into 3 mm thick squares and place a dessert plate over as a guide, cutting out a 170 mm diameter disc. Using a brush, paint round the upper outer face with the egg approximately 25 mm wide. Scoop out about two tablespoons of the meat / veg mix into the centre of the disc, piling up into a heap, adding a knob of butter to the top. Take two opposing sides of the disc and bring them up to meet above the centre, pinching them together between fingers and thumbs, working back down to the ends, creating a long oval. Pinching the thumb between two fingers of the same hand, go back over the join to form the traditional pasty zig zag pattern over the top. Place on a baking tray ready to cook at 180C for 50 minutes, or freeze, painting over the outside with the egg wash to give a gloss to the finished pasty.

An afternoon’s work in the kitchen made the most of what is now considered an often unwanted by product of organised game shooting.

 

 

 

Pheasant burgers with apricots

December 1, 2017 at 4:30 pm

Its good to have friends who shoot and even better when they have some surplus pheasants going spare. This week a nice fat, maize fed brace came my way and I decided to make some burgers, adding ready to eat apricots to complement the richness of the pheasant meat.

Building on the experience of my tasty rabbit and chorizo burgers (also on this blog) and substituting sausage meat for pork lardons, the recipe below produced a stunning burger that gets the mouth watering every time.

Ingredients

1kg Pheasant meat minced (coarse)

250 g Sausage meat, cut into 25 mm cubes

150 g Ready to eat apricots, rough cut to 5 mm cubes

1 Red onion finely chopped

1 Clove garlic finely chopped

1 Sprig rosemary

1 tbs Mixed herbs

1 tbs Worcester sauce

1 tbs Cooking oil

1 Thick slice wholemeal bread, reduced to bread crumbs

1 Egg (beaten)

Season to taste

Method

On a low heat, soften the onion and garlic in the oil and allow to cool.

Strip the rosemary leaves from the sprig and reduce with the bread in a liquidiser. This will allow the herb to be evenly spread.

Over a large mixing bowl begin to mince the pheasant, adding the cubes of sausage meat at regular intervals, which will result in an even mix of the two meats. Being low in natural fat, pheasant needs extra fat such as pork lardons, or sausage meat to aid cooking.

Add the onion and apricot then stir in, sprinkling on the bread, herbs, egg and Worcester sauce, turning the whole until an even blend is achieved.

Either roll into balls and flatten into patties, or place in a burger press between grease proof sheets and press out perfect burgers every time ready for the freezer.

That is just about it, either grill, or BBQ. Serve in a bun, or without. They are delicious!

 

 

 

Baked rabbit with peppers and courgettes Sunday roast

September 10, 2017 at 7:20 pm

With a pair of tender young rabbits fresh from the cricket field, I had considered a family BBQ for these fryers, but heavy showers and thunder put a stop to that idea and my mind turned to a Sunday roast with a difference.

These days I tend to just take the loins and back legs for most dishes, unless making bunny burgers, or pasties. Instead of kebabs from the loins and marinated legs on the barbie, I would oven bake everything in one tray. This proved to be a very successful tasty dish. More tasty than it looks my wife said.

 

Ingredients

500 grams approx (two young rabbits)

120 grams of smoked pancetta lardons

300 grams new potatoes quartered

one red pepper, sliced

one red onion, rough cut longways

two small courgettes sliced

2 cloves garlic

2 stripped sprigs of rosemary

1 tbs mixed herbs

2 tbs olive oil

250 mil dry cider, or white wine

Method

Place the herbs and garlic in a liquidiser and reduce to a paste.

Pour one tbs of the oil into a bowl, then mix in the herb paste, followed by the rabbit, cutting the loins into 25 mm chunks. Work the marinade into the meat and leave in the fridge for at least an hour.

Spread the loin pieces and lardons in a large baking tray, and then place the prepared vegetables into the marinading bowl and add the other tbs of oil, stirring and shaking to ensure full coverage. Pour over the top of the small meat pieces, then place the legs on the top.

Put the tray in the oven preheated to 220 degrees and leave for 30 minutes. Take out briefly, the potatoes and legs will already be browning. Turn over the veg and meat, mixing in the juices. Turn over the legs to allow even baking.

Pour over the cider, or wine. This will prevent the dish from drying out, with the bonus of providing a rich gravy. I used half a bottle of my own dry cider.

Return to the the oven for a further 45 minutes. Check and baste the dish after 30 minutes adding a dash more liquid if needed.

Serve straight from the dish.

 

Rabbit loin, smokey bacon and vegetable pie

February 16, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Following the success of my cottage pie using rabbit and bacon loins, this is an easy to prepare pastry pie variation, which allows any number to be made up to suit the family, or individual, which can be frozen for a later date if required.

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Ingredeients

500g of Rabbit Loins, removed from either side of the spine. Cut across the loin in bite sized chunks.

250g of Smoked Bacon Loins, sliced into lardons, then rough cut into 20 mm pieces.

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1 tbsp Rapeseed Oil

1 Large Onion, coarsely chopped

2 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped, or crushed

50g Frozen Peas

50g Frozen Sweet Corn

50g Frozen Chopped Green Beans

2 tbsp Plain Flour

1 Cup of Water

2 tbsp Cre’me Fraiche, or Double Cream

1 500g pack Short Crust Pastry

1 Egg

Method

Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions and garlic until softened. Remove from the pan and introduce the mixed meat, increasing the heat to release the bacon fat, turning, but not browning the mix, while cooking through. Now add the cooked and frozen vegetables, then sprinkle over a tbsp of flour, adding water, stirring as you go. Bring to a boil, until the sauce begins to thicken, then mix in the cre’me fraiche, covering the contents and allow to cool.

Taking the easy way out, I use a pack of ready made short crust pastry. The quantities above will fill two 200 mm pie dishes, each enough for four adults. Start by cutting the pack in half, then dust the work top with a little flour, before rolling out the pastry to about 4 mm thick and laying it over the dish. Trim to the edges. Repeat for pie 2. Equally fill each dish with the cooled mixture, then roll out the remaining pastry to form the lids. Beat the egg in a dish and brush round the rim of the pie, before covering with the lid. Using a fork, pinch the edges of the pie together, then pierce the top to allow steam to escape. Finally brush the top of the lid with the beaten egg.

To cook, place in the oven at 200C for 30 minutes, or until brown.

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Rabbit loin, bacon and asparagus cottage pie

January 16, 2016 at 6:54 pm

With four rabbits earmarked for more bunny burgers, I set about separating the loins in preparation for a family favourite, which includes smoked bacon loins with asparagus baked under a cheesy potato topping.

pie 005

Ingredients

Serves 4

500g  Rabbit Loins, removed from either side of the spine. Sliced into bite size chunks across the loin

250g  Smoked Bacon Loin. Slice into lardons, then rough cut into 20 mm pieces

pie 001

1 tbsp rapeseed oil

1 large onion – coarsely chopped

125g Asparagus Spears rough cut into 30 mm lengths

I tbsp Plain Flour

2 tbsp Cre’me Fraiche, or Double Cream

1 cup Water

800g Mashed Potato add – 2 tbsp Butter, 2 tbsp grated Cheddar Cheese and 1 tbsp Milk. The potatoes can be quartered and boiled ready for mashing, as the meat is being prepared, the mash ready at the end of cooking.

2 tbsp Parmesan Cheese grated to act as a mash topping

This dish needs no seasoning, or stock, as the smoked bacon provides enough.

Method

Heat the oil in a large frying pan and add the onions, turning to soften for a few minutes. Remove from the pan, then add the asparagus pieces, increase heat until browned at the edges, then remove. Now introduce the two meats to the pan, the fat from the bacon will help cook the rabbit through, then add the vegetables again.

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Sprinkle over the flour, until it thickens, adding water, stirring as you go, bringing to the boil to thicken the sauce, then mix in the the cre’me fraiche, until all the contents are covered. Pour the the mixture into a large casserole dish.

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Now add the cheesy mashed potato to the dish, spooning it over to cover evenly, using a fork to spike up the surface. Sprinkle over the Parmesan, adding a tomato garnish, if wished. Place under a hot grill, until the top is browned and the cheese melted.

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 A simple, but very flavoursome dish, which can be ready, start to finish in just 30 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

Sloe gin making. A taste of Christmas.

November 3, 2015 at 8:14 pm

For many, their first taste of alcohol, was a sip of sweet sloe gin at Christmas, offered in my case by a kindly aunt to a curious nephew, much to the amusement of the other grown ups, who laughed at my initial shuddering response to the magic potion. The smooth, warming afterglow had me badgering for more, but the liqueur was considered too precious to waste on a mere child, although in reality, they were probably more concerned with the alcoholic effects on an eight year old.

sloe 001

Sloes are the hard won fruit of the blackthorn, the spiky staple planting of English hedgerows, an effective barrier to grazing animals and humans alike. Collecting is always a painful activity, thorn proof trousers and jacket a must, the fruits in clusters surrounded by the sharpest of thorns, that nature can muster. Why they are so well protected is hard to understand, as anyone who had bitten into even the most ripe looking fruits will agree, you will only do it once. The immediate bitter flavour is followed by an intense astringency brought on by the tannin in the fruit, drying out the mouth.

Unrefined gin was once the only spirit available to the lower classes of England, brought over from Holland by soldiers returning from the Thirty Years War, it had provided “Dutch Courage” during the winter campaigns. Juniper berries were used to improve the flavour and no doubt sloe berries, readily available to the common man, were added by a few enterprising souls, the alcohol drawing out the natural sugars of the fruit.

Today London gin is a prized product, offering subtle flavours from several well known distillers and there is a wide choice to use as a base. I tend to keep an eye out for supermarket offers through the year, I do not drink gin, whiskey being my tipple, buying solely for sloe gin production.

Traditionally sloes were not picked, until after the first frosts of autumn, the cold bringing out the sugars. Once gathered, the skins had to be pricked with a thorn from the bush, or a silver pin. An old wive’s tale probably, but having picked your fruit and ended up with sore fingers from the inevitable snagging of the thorns, you added to the misery by pricking them all over again with a thorn, or pin. I have done it the hard way and it is impossible not to stab yourself, when faced with hundreds of sloes. These rules added to the mystique of sloe gin, making it a valued drink by it’s followers, masking the simplicity of it’s preparation.

We now have freezers, an overnight stint being enough to split the sloe skins on thawing. Once thawed, the berries should half fill an air tight jar, or bottle, castor sugar added, topped up by the gin, then left for at least three months. That is it, nothing fancy. The ratio of sugar is up to the taste of the producer, many adding a couple of tablespoons to start the process, topping up to taste, after straining off the fruit. What was passed down to me was half, and half. Half a Kilner jar of fruit, add half the fruit in sugar, then pour over the gin, the gin filling the gaps and dissolving the sugar. The jar should be kept in a cupboard and turned daily to distribute the sugar among the fruit, this should continue for a month, then at weekly intervals. The gin will gradually turn pink, then deep red. If begun in late October, or early November, the almond like flavour will have leeched out of the stones to give a pleasing, warming Christmas drink.

sloe 004

Over the years I have built up a backlog of sloe gin and aim to strain off the liquid a year after I have made it, conveniently starting a new batch in last year’s jars. Strain through a muslin cloth, or coffee filters if preferred, into a dark glassed, screw top wine bottle and identify with the date to avoid mix ups later. The longer you can leave it, the richer the flavour.

 

 

Blackberry and Apple Jam

August 7, 2015 at 2:14 pm

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Blackberries are one of nature’s freely available bounties, even in cities there are wild corners where brambles grow, producing their fruits throughout the month of August. I am fortunate that my country pursuits give me access to land not visited by the general public, where the fruits are able to achieve their maximum size.

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A recent visit to a farm orchard provided me with the main ingredients for blackberry jam, fresh, fully fruited berries and unripe sour Bramley cooking apples.

INGREDIENTS

For 5 lbs of Jam

2 lbs of clean blackberries

3/4 lb of peeled and cored sour apples (cooking apples)

3 lb of sugar (Jam sugar if possible)

1/2 pint of water

METHOD

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Place the blackberries in a large saucepan, or preserving pan with 1/4 pint of water and stew slowly to bring out the juice and soften.

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Cut the apples into thin slices and stew slowly in 1/4 pint of the water, until soft.

buckhurst 151

Add the apples to the blackberries and mix together, then pour in the sugar, turning and stewing, until the sugar is fully dissolved.

Rapidly bring up the heat, stirring the mix constantly to avoid burning the jam. This will liquefy the mix, the bubbles will growing bigger and noisier. This is a sign that the setting temperature is close. If a cooking thermometer is available, test the temperature at this point. When a temp of 220 F or 104 C is reached, the setting point, remove from the heat.

If no thermometer is available, place a dessert plate in a fridge before starting the process, so that it is cold, when the noisy boil begins. Remove the plate from the fridge and drip some of the hot liquid onto the plate, then return it for a minute to the fridge. The jam on the plate should have produced a skin, which will wrinkle, when pushed and will not stick to the finger, when lightly touched. Continue to stir and boil the jam, testing at intervals, until this condition is met. Another ready sign, is that the jam on the spoon will begin to congeal, watching for signs of drips solidifying.

A thin sugary scum will have formed on the top of the jam, which may be scraped to one side, before pouring the hot liquid jam into warmed, clean jam jars, using a jug. Pour a small amount into each jar and swirl round, before completely filling, to avoid breakage.

Once filled, the jars need to be sealed, ideally with readily available kits, which consist of a grease proof disc to drop onto the still hot jam, a larger cellophane disc, which is placed over the open neck of the jar and a rubber band, which is then used to retain the cellophane disc over the neck.  If lids are available, screw these on too. Belt and Braces.

Don’t forget to label your jam, name and date. This will avoid mixing up vintages over the years, as jam will begin to ferment, if left for several years.

buckhurst 152

This was the result of my latest jam making session, 13 jars of Blackberry and Apple, with enough left over for a pie.