Having raided the hedgerows, stripped the trees, harvested the vegetable patch and bought the necessary extras from the shops, we set down to transforming the vast array of fruit and vegetables in front of us into a selection of, hopefully, delicious preserves.
There’s something homely and warming, almost antiquated, about making chutneys and jellies, jams and alcoholic drinks. Although it was warm outside and only the merest hint of autumn was present, I had images of dark afternoons and crackling fires in the grate. In my head I was already enjoying the fruits of our labour as the snow came down outside in a soft translucent sheet. Sipping on sloe vodka and munching chunks of cheddar topped with tangy pickle whilst listening to the wind race through the gaps in our ancient front door.
But those times are far off and there was work to be done to before we could realise them rather than just visualise them.
Naturally, we started with the vodka. Making sloe gin, or vodka, is a simple process that takes no more than a few minutes once you have gone to the trouble of picking the berries themselves and stabbing each one with a pin three or four times (which is a real pain in the arse). These little round fruits look similar to blueberries but have an astringency that renders them almost inedible on their own. Although they can be made into a jelly, they really come into their own when turned into a sweet alcoholic drink.
Simply add them to a spirit of your choice with a load of sugar, give it a mix and leave it for about six months, giving it an occasional shake. After the allotted time, strain off the berries and bottle the purple liquor. It should taste pretty good by this point, but will get even better if you can hold off for another half a year. This really is sloe food.
Next up were the elderberries. The white flowers of the elder, so redolent of summer, quickly disappear only to be replaced with hundreds of tiny purple berries. These can be harvested and boiled up with a little water and, again, plenty of sugar. Once strained through muslin and heated to the correct temperature (about 110 degrees), a delicious jelly is the result. Hopefully we’ve made enough to see us through to next autumn, a great accompaniment to a multitude of warming winter dinners from roasts to stews.
For the chutney we turned to the many courgettes that our plants have provided us with over the summer. After roasting them, stuffing them, frying them, braising them and turning them into soup we were a little ‘courgetted out’ so decided to preserve the remainder. Even the most diligent gardener will miss a couple of these fast-growing fruits and large marrows are the inevitable end point and we had a few of these overgrown fellas just waiting to be chopped up and gently cooked with onions, tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and plenty of spices.
Our largest pan proved to be a little too small to take the huge quantity of ingredients that we wanted to turn into jars of homemade chutney so we ended up buying a new cauldron sized pan perfect for making preserves and stocks.
Once all the fresh items had been chopped up, in they went to be cooked gently for three or four hours until the whole lot had reduced down and changed colour to a deep dark brown, a rich and sticky chutney, the smell of which warmed the soul and brought to mind those rich images of crackling log fires and cold winter evenings. I couldn’t wait to try it with a chunk of cheese, so I didn’t and spooned a little onto a slice of cheddar whilst it was still warm. Simple pleasures truly are the best.