Easy pickings

Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but if you really can’t be bothered with all that seed-sowing and weeding and tying in and composting you don’t have to do much gardening to get a free supply of food.

Let the brambles grow and you’ll get blackberries by the basketful, and for nothing. Some years are better than others, but I have known years that we have been picking them from the hedgerows in such quantities that we could have been eating blackberry and apple crumble for life. If you don’t happen to live anywhere near a hedgerow, either take a day out into the countryside and go foraging somewhere likely, or plant your own: cultivated varieties like ‘Loch Ness’ have the undeniable advantage of not having thorns, the main reason I can accept for bothering to give garden space to blackberries when there are so many to be had for the picking in the wild.

Rosehips are another delicacy available in hedgerows, though rarer: thread a dog rose through your own hedges for a supply, or simply grow a hippy rose. Rosa rugosa has the fattest and tastiest hips, but others you could try include R. spinossissima (the clue’s in the name: ouch. But it does have very fat hips), and R. setipoda with hips like upside-down goblets.

Our hedgerows are also full of blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) another British native and tough as old boots. It’s also extremely thorny (come to think of it, every blimmin’ thing you pick from the hedgerows is prickly as hell. Perhaps its their way of making you work for it after all. Or at least suffer, which is just another way of paying for being too lazy to do the gardening).

Its take-no-prisoners robustness is one of the reasons it’s so good if you have a coastal garden: there are hedges of the stuff along the tops of cliffs on the south coast of the Isle of Wight, where the wind doesn’t get much blowier. Walking along behind the wall of gnarled black stems and vicious thorns it’s as sheltered as a summer’s day: if you have an exposed garden, especially on the coast, this is the one for you (though buy a good pair of gauntlets along with your plants).

Quite apart from its usefulness and the pretty, frothy white spring blossom, in autumn buckthorn is laden with fat, dusky blue-black sloes, this year (just like the blackberries) more heavily than since I can remember. You wait until they have a slight powdery bloom on them – a little like a blueberry – and ideally a little frost, though that’s not always possible here in the south-west as we rarely have frosts before December these days (if at all) and by then the sloes will be past their best. Once they look right, just pick them in their hundreds.

They are horrid. Bitter as a Conservative candidate in Clacton, they extract all fluid from your mouth before turning it inside out if you try to eat them raw. So what’s a girl to do? Buy a bottle of gin, that’s what.

Sloe gin has now ousted sherry at Christmas in our house. Warm, fruitily syrupy, richly flavoured and dangerously drinkable, it could have been invented solely for the festive season, if only to give you a tearing hangover by Boxing Day.

It’s easy as pie to make: collect about a pound of sloes (450g if you were born after 1980), then prick the skins all over with a needle to release the juices. Pack them into a sterilised jar (sterilise by washing in hot water then baking in the oven for 10 minutes at 100°C), then add half a pound of sugar (225g) and a litre bottle of gin. Seal and shake well.

Pop the jar in a cupboard and make a note to yourself to shake it every day for a week. After that you can slack off to about once a week for the next two or three months. Finally when you’ve had enough, strain it through a muslin into a sterilised (see above) bottle: and there’s your sloe gin.

You can drink it right away but it won’t taste anything like as good as if you lay it down, rather like a bottle of good wine, for as long as you can bear to. We left one bottle for three years once and it was like nectar once we came to drink it at last – an exercise in self-restraint, but well worth the wait.

Brandy and schnapps work just as well as gin if you want to ring the changes. And for the teetotals among you, or indeed anyone who has a surfeit of sloes and is worried about what the local shop staff are going to think if you go in for yet another litre of gin, there are lots of other things you can do with them too: sloe jelly sounds particularly scrumptious, as does sloe chutney; and best of all, you can use the leftover sloes after steeping in gin to make sloe chocolate. Now that’s what I call lush.