sloe picking in the Forest of Dean

October 30, 2009 at 6:19 pm 17 comments

sloes blue skiesThis time last week the Queen was in Gloucester.  Was I down at the Dockside giving the Queen a wave?  No I wasn’t.  I was in the Royal Forest of Dean instead picking sloes with my friend Deb oblivious to the fact that the Royals were on my doorstep (not literally you understand).Royal visit to the Docks copyI wouldn’t have changed my plans even if I had known: Deb is much better company and is as keen on cooking and vegetable growing as I am.  We’d also agreed a chutney and jam swap so nothing was going to stand in my way of sampling some new preserves: plum jam, gooseberry jam and piccalilli.Deb's jams and chutney_outsideThe first location we went to in search of sloes had lots of lovely berries on the higher branches but the lower ones had been stripped bare.  A passing dog walker confessed to having been out picking the week before.  Another passer by gave us a tip off for a second location when he saw us struggling to fill our bowls and using all sorts of ingenuity with bungy hooks to strap down the branches and squeeze past the thorns to reach the sloes.
Deb scanning branches copy sloes on high branchesDeb picking sloes copy Deb was more diligent about keeping her gloves on than I was (you can guess why – that’s not her sloe pickings in the front of her dungarees!).  I found my suede gloves to be too cumbersome and took my chances with the thorns.  A little mild tingling from a few small scratches came to nothing with a spritz of the antiseptic gel I keep in my gardening bag.  It pays to handle blackthorn branches carefully though: if thorn tips are not properly removed scratches can turn septic in some people.

We came to the conclusion that dungarees, whether pregnant or not, are the ideal foraging clothing.  Comfortable, ample pockets and with handy buckles from which to hang bags to avoid continual bending over bumps or straining backs and knees. And hooded tops with kangaroo pouch pockets on the front are very handy too. Deb with co-op bagWe each collected about 800g of sloes which will easily make a recipe and half’s worth of sloe gin.  It may be a little late to make sloe gin for supping this Christmas and most recipes recommend storing it for a year to enhance the flavour anyway.  So being in no rush to make it my sloes are in the freezer being duped into thinking their feeling the first frosts.  When they’re mixed with the gin their skins will burst more easily and save me having to prick them all with a pin.  Or so they say.  This will be my first time making boozy beverages with foraged fruit so I’ll let you know next month if other sloe gin makers are telling tales.sloes in bowlI was wondering whether the soaked berries could be used for anything once the gin is decanted and a google search took me to the sloebiz forum.  I may have to rethink my method of making sloe gin if I do want to use the berries.  Slitting each sloe with a knife to ensure the stones come out easily might sound tedious but the thought of turning the gin soaked berries into chocolate truffles makes it an option worth considering.

So, you’re probably wondering where we found our sloes?  Well, I’m not going to tell you (very ‘bah humbug‘ I know!).  If you live in Gloucestershire you may recognise the waterside view from beneath our first blackthorn bush.  Or perhaps you recognise our second location below where yet more friendly dog walkers stopped to ask ‘making sloe gin then?’.  The gentleman in the picture went so far as to dig in his pocket and throw us a boiled  sweet each.  He always has sweets in his pocket for sharing according to the elderly lady we were chatting to when he crossed our path.  What a great afternoon.  dog walker with sweets

© Docks photo BBC

Entry filed under: away from the plot, great people. Tags: , .

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17 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ann  |  October 31, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Loved this article and pictures, looked like a perfect day to be out picking sloes. By the way, my great grandad was from the Forest of Dean, don’t know exactly where though. What do sloes taste like? The only wild fruit I’ve ever picked is blackberries. I saw a crab apple tree on one of our walks recently, never thought to pick some. You need to set up a timetable so I know when to be out there searching for free fruit!!!

    Reply
    • 2. Nip it in the bud  |  October 31, 2009 at 8:46 pm

      very bitter raw, inedible like damsons but hopefully nice when soaked in gin! A foraging timetable is a good idea so if I do it I shall dedicate it to you Ann :o) (and send you a copy!)

      Reply
  • 3. mangocheeks  |  October 31, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Envious of your sloe berries.

    What more can I say…

    Reply
  • 4. carol  |  October 31, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    I know where you are….. the boiled sweet man gave it away!!! Don’t worry have our own stash of sloes, I don’t divulge the location of them either!!! 🙂

    Reply
    • 5. Nip it in the bud  |  October 31, 2009 at 8:46 pm

      Hi Carol, glad to know our secret is safe :o) does he give sweets to everyone in the Forest? what a wonderful thing to gain notoriety for!

      Reply
  • 6. miss m  |  October 31, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    Looks like you had a great time picking ! 🙂

    I can only imagine sloes are like small damsons ? They are in the same family, are they not ? How do they compare in taste ? and size ?

    Reply
    • 7. Nip it in the bud  |  October 31, 2009 at 8:48 pm

      in answer to your Q’s miss m… yes. yes. both bitter and inedible raw. they were much smaller than I expected, about the size of small blueberries

      Reply
  • 8. Kirsten  |  November 14, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    So interesting! I never knew “sloes” were a berry! Seeing the pictures it just looked like blueberries and as an American reader I thought that was the British term for them! So funny! Can’t wait to hear how your sloe gin turns out.

    Reply
  • 9. Aprilbell29  |  September 7, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Hello – love the site and the pics. I am new to wild berries and last week made apple and blackberry jam from apples and blackberries all within metres of my house. I was so impressed that I have bought a book but I am stuck – – I think I have found sloes, they look exactly the same as your picture and the leaves are also the same…I am scared that I am going to poison someone and all over the net people are saying that you have to be careful when picking as the thorns are really nasty….but there are no thorns on the ones I found growing, do they all have thorns??

    Reply
    • 10. Nip it in the bud  |  September 7, 2010 at 8:36 pm

      Hi April. Welcome to the wonderful world of foraging. Enjoy your jam :o)
      If your berries look like these they probably are sloes but your doubts are understandable as damsons and plums look so similar (not poisonous though!). It’s a bit early for picking sloes so the easiest way to be sure is waiting a bit (most other berries that look like sloes are going over by October when the sloes are at their best). The simplest berry check otherwise is to have a look at where the berries are attached on the tree. Plum like fruits hang from teeny stalks whereas the sloe berries are really closely attached to the branches. That’s why it can be a bit of a scratchy task picking them because the thorns are also on the branches. It would be easy not to notice the thorns when looking at trees – that joy comes when you start picking!
      The health concerns related to the blackthorn bush are from sharp thorns penetrating the skin and causing septicimia. My friend Deb wore gloves because she was pregnant but I found it cumbersome picking the small berries so took mine off and decided to just be a bit more mindful. I got a few small scratches, no worse than you’d get blackberry picking, and just spritzed them with antiseptic gel and suffered no ill effects.
      Hope that helps. Nic

      Reply
  • 11. Aprilbell29  |  September 7, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Thank you Nic for such a thorough and quick response. I will wait a few weeks (if I can) and then go and pick them…hopefully I will get there before they have all been picked!! Thanks again I very much appreciate it…

    Reply
    • 12. Nip it in the bud  |  September 8, 2010 at 11:37 am

      …or pick them and fake nature’s frost by freezing them until your ready to make something!

      Reply
  • 13. Aprilbell29  |  September 8, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Ooooh top tips – love it. I know what I am doing with my Sunday afternoon!

    Reply
  • 14. Sue Jordan  |  December 31, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Ah I live in the Forest and in the town where I bleieve you found your sloes. and how about his I got a feeling I know “john” the sweetie man lol, did he give you a Werthers? or a fruit one with a soft center from Lidls? I was given by someone else a bag of fresh picked sloes and made 3 bottles of sloe gin, we are enjoying them now.was the first time I tried this and is well worth it, so will be on the hunt for the “special” berries next year. a hint if you don’t want it overly sweet (as mine is !) don’t put in loads and loads of sugar. is well worth the little trouble it is . and I pricked all my berries several times before I chucked them in bottles.

    Reply
  • 15. Nip it in the bud  |  January 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Hi Sue, yes it was a soft centred fruit sweet :o)
    Pricking the berries definitely makes for the best sloe gin.
    You’re certainly in a great place for getting first dibs on lots of berries.
    Thanks for stopping by to share your tips.

    Reply
  • 16. Sue  |  January 3, 2011 at 10:38 am

    As soon as you said you were “fed” sweeties I knew it had to be John, with his little dog Oska, I groom Oska and am regularly fed sweeties lol. he’s a good old Londoner living in the forest, like myself lol, Gonna go try and gather some of those sloes myself this year then, I bet i miss them. We are already one bottle down here (2 more to go) and shall certainly be making more it’s lovely

    Reply
  • 17. Nip it in the bud  |  January 5, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    October is a good time for picking sloes but often the trees have been stripped by then if they’re on a popular walking route. If you can find sloes off the beaten track you’ll be onto a winner!

    Reply

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