The blackthorn, the sloe, does not look appealing at first sight, from a comestible point of view. Its froth of flowers on the bleak hedgerows indicates only that you are behind with the pre spring gardening and had better get on with clearing the flower beds, but after that it tends to fade from sight in the battle against weeds and the harvesting and preserving of gluts. It only achieved prominence for me in the autumn when some unwary child had to be inveigled into shoving a ladder into the thorny bushes to climb up to pick the fruit for making sloe gin. Difficult these days to inveigle the same child twice...they seem to have a horror of pricking themselves, tearing their clothes or getting dirty. No wonder the world is going to the dogs. Where is the child of yesteryear, returning from a day out in the country with a jar of newts and looking like an unkempt midden?
However, in rural France, the blackthorn has a great deal of importance. Its' shoots provide the essential ingredient of the ubiquitous aperitif, 'l'epine'...the thorn....which will ease your way into the French language in any house to which you are invited for aperitifs.
I had tasted it in my neighbours' houses, but it was not until I went out on the commune's May 1st walk that I discovered how it was made. French organised walks are a law to themselves....if it is a rambling group, everything goes at a cracking pace, the object seeming to be to get to the house providing the aperitifs at the end of the walk as quickly as possible. If it is the July 14th ramble through the vines then the group keeps pretty close order, anxious not to miss out on the wine distributed by the commune's van at regular waypoints on the route. The May Day walk is something else...the wine and picnic will be delivered to one designated spot and the cask will not be broached until at least the majority of people have arrived, so there is a good deal of dawdling and flower picking...flowers which will be thrown aside before the pickers reach home. There seems to be something dead in the French soul...flowers are free, so you pick them and then jettison them rather than enjoying them where they stand.
On this particular day, I noticed a group congregating around one hedgerow, picking furiously, but I saw no flowers. Monsieur Martin, retired vigneron, enlightened me. They were picking the new pink shoots to make epine. He gave me the recipe...after all, it included wine, I would have to buy some, so it was all good for trade! None of this closely guarded family secret stuff here.
I had some blackthorn in my hedge.....whoever it was who had lived there long ago had had their priorities right....plums for eau de vie and sloes for epine....so, with my own supply of illicit eau de vie I was equipped to start. The basic recipe is as follows....
to one kilo of sugar, you put four litres of red wine, one litre of eau de vie and a handful of blackthorn shoots, let it all sit for about a month, stirring the sugar to make sure it dissolves, then strain and bottle. It will keep for years....if you don't invite the ramblers. You can make it with other shoots too...the plum shoots are good, and Didier makes it with wild cherry shoots, just don't mix them. You can also make it with white wine if you happen to have a supply of something so thin that cat's pee would be a compliment to its quality.
I had a supply of wine, a Merlot, which a local upmarket vigneron had sold me, telling me that I could lay it down for at least five years. I suppose he hoped that I would have returned to the U.K. by that time, leaving this treasure behind without tasting it. I had fallen victim to the prevalent idea in French commerce that no foreigner could last the course in France, so it was not worth giving good value to keep his or her custom as they would not be there to become a valued client. The French are a logical nation. I wasn't going to drink the stuff, fearing for the enamel on my teeth, but it was ideal for making epine. I made it on the grand scale....not one bottle of Merlot survived....and was delighted with the results. I could now entertain my neighbours in proper style.
I did so. They were kind enough to approve of my efforts and to encourage me...since I already had the eau de vie.....to try the other staple of the home made aperitif cupboard, the pineau...but for that I would have to wait until the autumn, for the vendange.
Life has its rythms in the country and there is no rushing the aperitif.