Autumn foraging – quinces and sloes

Living in south London doesn’t mean I have to work that hard or pedal too far on the foraging front. There are mini orchards of apples on common land along the river, and I’ve pinpointed treasure troves of blackberries, wild plums and elderberries. Please note I have also developed a forager’s love of secrecy, so I’m not telling you where they are.

japonica quincesAt this time of year I go out scouting for quinces. Not the huge fragrant fruit that I wish I had in abundance, but their smaller, thornier, spicier cousins. Whoever did the Borough’s planting liked edibles and there are japonica bushes dotted about in the hedges, along with figs, a strawberry tree and lots of roses. No one else seems to want them.

quince jellyThe quinces are turned into jars of jewel-like jelly or chopped for infusing in brandy when there are lots. This year the various bushes have been full of fruit, and I was gifted bonus supplies from Val (thank you!), so brandy may also be on the cards. I made jelly late last night and went to bed hearing the lids pop as they cooled.quince on the boil This year’s jelly is beautifully clear, but in years where there aren’t many fruit, the jars are less poetically jewel-like and much more murky from my squeezing the jelly bag. I know that’s heresy in jelly circles, and it goes an unattractive brown colour, but it tastes almost the same and you do then at least get a decent amount. I like it best when it’s just been made, just set with a bit of a wobble, on a piece of flinty cheddar or melting into hot buttery toast.

sloesIt’s also sloe season. Down here in the balmy south there haven’t been any frosts to sweeten the berries yet, but a day or two in the freezer will do the same job. Over by Mum’s the fields are lined with blackthorn, usually dripping with fruit. This year they are more scarce. The farmer’s hacked the hedges back by 2 metres and it will take some time to recover. I was very grateful for my height and long arms this year as they are all up high.

Sloes need to be picked with care. The thorns can grow 1-2 inches long and have a reputation for causing nasty infections if they break your skin. I vividly remember my hand puffing up till I couldn’t bend it after one went through my glove. It wasn’t fun.

The kilner jars of gin & berries go under our bed, to sit and infuse in the dark. They get 4-6 months’ neglect before the gin is filtered, bottled and left to mature some more. In a break from most recipes, I don’t add sugar to my gin – I think a G&T is nicer without the sweetness. Leaving the infusion for the extra months gives you an intensely sloey, dark gin, perfect for sipping in a cosy room when it’s howling gales outside.

sloe vodkaIn true foraging spirit, the gin-soaked berries get a second stab at infusing, this time red wine, which, with a (very) little sugar and some decent brandy will transform itself over 4-5 monthvodka recipes into a beautiful rich port. This year I am also going for a small amount of sloe & chilli vodka, just to see if it’s any good. Though I might have to fish out the chilli from the vodka after a few days, it’s a home-grown habanero and eye-wateringly hot! If it works I’ll try the same with dark rum since the chilli plum rum from the Challock Chilli Fest has pretty much disappeared.