There is a very rutted lane near where I live, just outside Bradford-on Avon, which is what country lanes must have been like before they were all tarmacadamed over. It is festooned with hips and haws and blackberries and wild marjoram and scabious, and the surface is mud in winter and caked earth in summer, and it is so innocent of traffic that the other day I was cycling up it when I suddenly realised I was overhauling a badger.
I had always been taught that badgers were too shy to come out during the day, yet here was this shameless animal in front of me and yet preventing me from overtaking by waddling right in the middle of the road. How do you get a badger to move over? Nothing about it in the Highway Code.
Anyway, I was back up this lane the other day because I knew that I had seen a sloe bush up there somewhere. I had been browsing through one of those books called Use Your Hedgerow While You’ve Still Got Some Left or something similar, and had come across a recipe for sloe gin. Normally I would read such a piece with great interest and then ignore it. I am terribly in favour of the making of things like parsnip wine and corn dollies, as long as I am not involved. But then two factors came together with frightening coincidence.
1. Our local post office sells draught gin, at a very reasonable rate.
2. I had recently seen a sloe bush up the lane.
3. I had also seen some late-fruiting blackberries up the lane.
4. There was a recipe in the hedgerow book for vodka and blackberry juice.
5. If I didn’t make sloe gin now, I never would.
6. Or vodka and blackberry juice, come to that.
Is that six factors instead of two? Well, even more compelling. So off I set and gathered 8oz of sloes, which is what the recipe called for, and came back bleeding and triumphant. Bleeding because sloe bushes have these enormous spikes which would easily do as 78rpm needles if they ever stopped making them, and they very nearly have. Triumphant, because I had correctly calculated 8oz of sloes without taking a weighing machine with me.
I then put the sugar, gin, sloes and almonds in the bottle in which they are to remain for the next three months. (Why almonds? Don’t ask me. I just do what my hedgerow book tells me.) And all I have to do in that time is shake the bottle regularly to make sure the sugar melts.
Actually, the sugar has all melted after three days, maybe because I used up all those picturesque but decaying sugar lumps which we had brought back from French holidays over the years and hadn’t the heart to throw away, so perhaps they had all gone a bit weak in the head. And the mixture has already acquired a pink tinge, so I keep saying to myself: ‘Go on - you could taste it now and see what it’s like…’ But a sort of respect for all those old ladies who, in years gone by, used to make sloe gin patiently, and never taste it before the New Year, holds me back. If they could wait till January to get gently pissed, so can I.
I hope it works. Because then I can put it into the cookery book I hope to write one day. It will be a book called The Great Steeping Book or Marinading Made Easy, or Leave to Soak or some such, and it will describe all the ways in which you can put solid objects in liquid to the benefit of both.
For instance, I will describe the recipe for lemon vodka given to me many years ago by the manager of The Russian Gift Shop in Holborn.(‘You put lemon peel in plain vodka, and then you leave it there. Later, you take it out.’)
I will describe the recipe for chilli peppers in sherry which I first encountered in Bermuda, and which creates a perfect sherry for adding to a perfect Bloody Mary. The recipe is like this: you put chilli peppers in sherry and you leave them there. Later, you take them out.
I will give the recipe for ceviche, the wonderful Latin American fish dish I first encountered in Peru, which is made by leaving white fish pieces in lime or lemon juice until the acid in the fruit juice ‘cooks’ the fish. The recipe is simple. You just put the fish in the citric juice and leave it there. Later, you take it out…
But I will not give away all my secrets now. Meanwhile, you must want to know how to overtake a badger on a bike. Well, first you ring your bell. It takes no notice. Then you just barge past it. When it notices you, it scarpers like mad.
Oldie November 1996