The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Jess of the dairy fields: sloe gin

By Jessica Miller; the illustration is by Becky Blake

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Blackthorn-finger aside, I always look forward to picking sloes in November and this year was no exception. On one of my meandering rides around Fifehead Neville I had spotted a sloe bush, the branches of which were drooping under the weight of thousands of plump berries. I stopped and looked at them hungrily, admiring their dusky blue bloom and mentally calculating how much sloe gin I could make if I stripped the bush bare.
When I got home I set about sterilising the dozen Kilner jars that had been collecting dust in the utility room all summer, and then went to the discount supermarket to buy ten bottles of cheap gin. (My mother-in-law is a proficient maker of sloe gin and maintains that the cheaper the gin, the better the end result).
The next day, having dropped Lily at school I drove to Fifehead Neville, parked at the top of Green Lane bridle path, and set off the half mile or so across the fields. It was a stunning morning. The sun shone in a cloudless sky and the hedges sparkled beneath a sharp frost. My breath hung in the crisp air as I climbed the steep incline to the ridgeway. I poured myself a coffee from the thermos and began stripping the branches, whistling cheerfully as I dropped the sloes into Granny’s treasured AGA stock pot, which she had kindly lent me for the job. I was surprised by how long it took to fill, but it was a beautiful morning and I worked steadily, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my back.
By 11.30 the stock pot was full and I set off across the fields feeling very pleased with myself and day-dreaming about sipping sloe gin in front of the fire on Christmas day. I also planned to fill small bottles, put pretty hand written labels on them and give them to people for Christmas presents.
As I emerged onto Green Lane I met Mrs Bodkin walking her dog and stopped for a chat.
‘Good heavens! How long did it take you to pick all those?’ she exclaimed.
‘Three and a half hours’. I replied proudly.
‘I’ll be glad to get back to the car. This pot is so heavy that my arms are aching.’
‘I’m not surprised, there are enough sloes there to sink a battle ship!’ she chuckled .
I got back to the car, put the pot on the roof and flexed my aching arms. I couldn’t wait to show Jasper my bounty and imagined how pleased he was going to be to have a hip flask of homemade sloe gin when he goes shooting. All I had to do now was pop them into the freezer overnight, buy a big bag of sugar and I could begin. I rubbed my hands gleefully, started the engine
and set off home.
I was driving down the narrow lane toward the ford at Fifehead Neville when a sheep shot out of the hedge in front of me. I swerved violently and braked sharply to avoid hitting a fluorescent bollard. Something shot over the roof of the car and crashed into the ford with a splash. For a millisecond I thought it was a bird, until I saw the sun glinting off the stainless steel and realised with abject horror that it was the stock pot.

Something shot over the roof of the car and crashed into the ford with a splash.

Something shot over the roof of the car and crashed into the ford with a splash.

Sloes rolled wildly in all directions but most of them had landed in the water on the side of the lane. The sheep bleated in surprise and put its head down to eat one of them, before spitting it out in disgust and trotting off up the lane.
I could have wept. The air in the car was blue as I cursed my own stupidity and the wretched sheep for choosing such an inopportune moment to emerge onto the lane. My efforts had been fruitless I thought. I felt utterly wretched as I got out of the car to retrieve Granny’s stock pot which was 20 yards up the lane.
The rumble of an engine was approaching and I broke into a run.
The driver was clearly in a tearing hurry and barely slowed down at the bend in the lane. I had almost reached the stock pot when old Bob appeared round the corner in his tractor pulling a roller which rumbled over the concrete making the ground shudder. I waved my arms wildly at him as he bore down upon the stock pot revving his engine. I can only assume that he didn’t see me because the sun was in his eyes, because he drove straight over the stock pot which disappeared beneath the roller and was dragged along the lane with a deafening clatter and a crunching of metal. The sun glinted off Bob’s bottle bottom glasses as he roared past me with an imperious wave and disappeared up the lane at great speed.
I shook my fist at him, swore loudly and did an involuntary jig of rage as I surveyed the flattened piece of metal that had once been a stock pot.
Granny was going to be furious, I thought dismally as I retrieved it and trudged back to the car, trampling sloes underfoot.
Jasper was in the kitchen when I got home. He took one look at my stricken expression and the newly low-profile stock pot and struggled to keep a straight face.
‘Is that Mum’s stock pot?’
‘It was.’ I said dismally.
‘What happened?’
‘I decided against gin…, in favour of squash.’ ◗

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