Blackthorn hedges are just about in full bloom now, with their distinctive white flowers appearing before the leaves come out. Normally I'd expect to see them in full bloom in March so it seems a little late.
Blackthorn grows in dense bushes with vicious black thorns and is traditionally used for hedges to keep livestock in the fields.
In Ireland the wood is made into shillelaghs, or walking sticks. The wood also makes excellent firewood, and the thorns can be used as fishing bait or as awls by leather workers, they say, but best of all are the fruits: sloes.
Sloes are small black fruits, looking rather like tiny plums. They taste pretty awful straight from the bush but they can be used to make sloe gin. They are sweeter if harvested after the first frosts. Sloe gin is simplicity itself to make though a little tedious. In fact sloe gin requires patience in the making, and more patience while waiting for it to mature.
And this is what you do, roughly.
Half a bottle of gin, cheap stuff is fine. What you do with the other half is up to you.
Enough sloes to fill the bottle about two thirds full, roughly 450g/1lb sloes
About 225g/8oz sugar.
Take the sloes and prick them all over with a needle, or more traditionally with one of the thorns from the bush.
Put the sloes into the gin which is easier to do if you've decanted it into a wide-necked container.
Add the sugar.
Put the top on the jar/bottle and give it a good shake. Shake it every other day for a week or so, then every week for two months. The longer you leave it, the better.
Eventually the gin will take on the flavour of the sloes and make a lovely liqueur. It can also be added to gravies or sauces, or add to fruits puddings such as plum or apple and blackberry crumble.
I haven't made sloe gin for years but seeing the blossom this spring has given me a push in that direction. It looks as though there will be plenty of fruit around.
And finally, the sloes can be used as chicken food for Elsie the Inebriate Hen:
It was good in school today.
Miss Kay wrote "It is Autumn" on the board.
"Guess what I'm thinking of," she said.
"It begins with L; It's brown,
And in autumn, it falls down."
Then Sammy Smith jumped up and said
"Elsie, my pet hen!"
Miss Kay went red.
"See, she pecks the fallen sloes
When the frost has turned 'em rotten," Sammy said.
That makes her tipsy, Miss.
She goes round backwards,
And she sings a funny song.
Then she tumbles down.
I seen her, Miss!
My Uncle Bob, he laughed. He said
"Look at that beggar there!
Her eyes are crossed,
Her beak is crossed,
Her legs are crossed, an' all!
Look at that beggar fall!"
"So is it Elsie, Miss?"
But Miss had put her head inside her desk.
She stayed like that for ages,
Then she said "Go out and play."
It was great in school today!
This was written by Sandra Horn, of Tattybogle fame, who once had the dubious pleasure of teaching me psychology. She had a great sense of humour, and needed it.